Shot After Shot

John Haber
in New York City

Robert Frank's Contact Sheets

Mark Steinmetz and Hans Breder

How does a photographer capture the decisive moment? In the case of Robert Frank, by taking enough pictures.

In the case of Mark Steinmetz, it took sticking to the American South for nearly a quarter of a century, waiting for lightning to strike. Not so for Hans Breder, who finds another source entirely for himself and Frank alike, in an unorthodox side of early Modernism. Breder places a woman's body in front of and behind a mirror—or does he? It takes a cool eye to get to know the anxious object. Robert Frank's Trolley: New Orleans, from The Americans (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1955)

The decisive contact sheet

That politician boasting of his presence and his art of manipulating a crowd, even as a face beneath him breaks down in tears? It took shot after shot for the man to raise his arms to their full extent and for the stone carving of a woman's head to emerge into the light. Those people in a trolley car? It took shot after shot for the trolley to reach that unsettling angle smack against the picture plane—and for the people to come out of the shadows to engage not each other, but rather the nation and the viewer.

When the Met exhibited The Americans in 2010, it showed Robert Frank's vision of diversity and discontent as his book developed over three trips across country and eighty-three photos. Yet it also included several outtakes, and it stressed that he ran through well over a hundred rolls of film and thousands of frames. Now a gallery exhibits thirty-three contact sheets, out of eighty-one in a box set. It insists, too, on their completeness and the photographer's complicity. It describes how the set grew from a Japanese man's dedication. He and Frank got along just great, you see, and reached full understanding, although neither knew a word of the other's language.

It sounds like a parody or a scam, in the interest of multiples for sale, but never mind. It hardly mentions the photographs themselves or Frank's working methods, but you can gain a fresh sense of them all the same. Maybe you imagined him waiting patiently for that decisive moment or even staging the scene. Instead, you can see him choosing a subject and snapping away. You can feel his satisfaction in circling the frame that he wants in red—or showing his indecision with a question mark. Only rarely does he have to draw the circle closer, with the intent to crop the print to make it more decisive.

Published in 1957 in Paris, The Americans stands for a decisive moment in history as well. The very ideal of the decisive moment goes back to Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris, to preserve its perfection once and for all. Frank came later, but also before the discontent with the past of the 1960s. He comes, too, between the documentary assurance of Walker Evans and the anxiety of Diane Arbus on the dark side of New York City or Garry Winogrand on the dark side of a nation. As I wrote much better back in 2010, the Swiss photographer was after his own engagement with America. Even more than for Danny Lyon, photography here is both personal and political.

Frank seems determined to avoid the headlines, even while making people and politics inescapable. For all the turmoil, he is out for human contact and a record of human agency. On Flag Day, he goes for the flag on the walls of a building, but he finds that one shot in which people appear disturbingly cut off in the windows. At a Fourth of July picnic, he finds that shot in which people neither hang out aimlessly on the one hand nor march in lockstep on the other, but rather stride. At a campaign rally for Adlai Stevenson, he finds that shot with not a trace of a banner—to capture instead a lone person with a sign and a message. To subordinate his subjects to someone else's order just will not do, not even Stevenson's on the left.

Did he even know where he was going apart from them? I can imagine him either circling the print he always wanted or coming upon it with as much surprise as yours or mine today. He spots that one shot at a drive-in with a clear image of the screen and a competing point of artificial light, with people implicit in the darkness. He spots, too, a dark car at the vanishing point of a highway flooded with reflected light. Early critics saw people going nowhere, and they saw the slack faces and seemingly casual compositions as an affront to America or to art. Yet even the appearance of disorder required a decisive moment.

The mirror and the lightning

More than sixty years ago, M. H. Abrams compared two metaphors for literature and art. Where classicists spoke of holding a mirror up to nature, he wrote, the Romantics saw an active mind illuminating nature as under a lamp. With Mark Steinmetz, make that a bolt of lightning. In 1994 he photographed just that, descending from the clouds to strike a four-lane highway. It seems to draw the converging parallels together, set one side askew, and throw the trees to either side to the wind. Its reflection in wet Tarmac extends all the way to the foreground, cutting across the stripes between lanes and casting an eerie shadow a few feet away.

Mark Steinmetz's Lightning Strike, Mississippi (Yancey Richardson, 1994)Steinmetz captured a decisive moment, perhaps the ultimate decisive moment—but that ideal has long meant the pursuit of perfection, and his turf is anything but perfect. It is the South over more than twenty years, although he has also worked in Los Angeles along with Winogrand, and it means enough to him that he titles every photograph with a place name. It is a world of trailer parks and gas stations at night. It is where a young woman lies on her back on a mattress on the floor or on the hood of a car, fast food by her side. That lightning strike took place in Mississippi, and it just barely missed a truck, which barrels ahead oblivious to danger. The bright headlamps and distant silhouette are the sole objects on the road apart from the water and the light.

He will have anyone looking for the smallest sign of life, like that truck—and it is not easy, not even when the life is right before one's eyes. Someone lies half hidden in a pile of leaves, like Cindy Sherman in one of her ghoulish self-portraits. The subject's legs are set in one direction and his torso, when it finally emerges, in another as if it belonged to another body entirely. A boy in the passenger seat almost obliterates the man behind the wheel. None of them look all that confident or composed, not even a man holding a boy to his chest. Women, with raised hands and restless eyes, look more imposing but only slightly more at ease.

Steinmetz brings them all close and lets them have their say, but at a distance that the camera can never fully overcome. He travels from state to state like Frank before him or Lee Friedlander by car, but he does not set his subjects within the bustle of life. These are portraits and American landscapes, but neither idealized nor staged. Often, the gallery explains, he asks a stranger to repeat a gesture from a moment before. It is his way of treating them as neither models as for Irving Penn, nor types as for August Sander, nor freaks as for Arbus, but themselves. And still, the distance remains.

Much of the barrier lies in the light, which never just illuminates like a lamp. With the girls on their back, it lends their skin the pallor of a mask. It makes the ripples in a creek as hard as glass—and the struggles of a man wading even harder. It bathes each gas pump in a spherical glow. A black balloon at dusk rises above the neon advertising mobile homes. An airplane appears to fly right into a streetlight that has distended way beyond its proper size, but no doubt the bulb just happens to coincide with the moon.

Steinmetz relishes the contrast between his foreground clarity and the background, always in black and white, but one can never say for sure where one ends and the other begins. It takes a moment to realize that the ribbon on a dark panel belongs to the inside of a door—and the blur of a diner to the other side of the glass. Maybe he never has to look for beginnings and endings, because things just go on as they were. The photos belong for the most part to the mid-1990s, but nothing much seems to have changed since then. A girl still carries a cheap Kodak, as if to declare her independence of the photographer, and a weed appears trapped in a crack in the roadbed that may never get repaired. For all the felt isolation, these lightning strikes add up to a way of life.

From Surrealism to body art

Art can take you anywhere. Like Frank in The Americans, it can take you to a political convention or a casino, a street-corner prophet or the open road. Like Ana Mendieta in video and performance, it can take you to a woman's body covered in blood, sweat, and tears. But can a photographer take you to all of these? Frank avowed the influence of Bill Brandt and André Kertész. Mendieta, to my knowledge, never mentioned them. They have a connection, though, in Hans Breder.

Brandt and Kertész brought their deep shadows and violent camera angles to European cities, starting in the 1930s. Frank in 1958 documents the everyday madness of American communities. Yet Brandt also has his "Perspective of Nudes" and Kertész his "Distortion," reducing naked bodies to abstraction or a dream. They parallel Hans Bellmer and, later, Morton Bartlett, who treated dolls and human bodies with equal abandon. One could just as well add Penn and his dance company. Now a gallery points to Brandt, Kertész, and Bellmer as background to Breder's "Body/Sculptures."

Breder's subjects are as provocative as porn and as fluid as a dance, like a woman's body for Barbara Probst or Penn. He multiplies legs, breasts, and rear ends, much as Bellmer brings bodies together while hiding their heads. He does so, though, with a smaller cast—and a mirror. If people appear to have more legs than they should, often they do. A single woman lies on her back with one breast upward and another floating above, her head behind the mirror. Another dances while unmoving, in partner with a chair.

Does he approach Mendieta as well? They were a couple for ten years. He even shares her association between the female body and nature. His photos of women on a beach capture the texture of sand and surf, like an extension of body hair. A different kind of feminist could dismiss it all as the objectification of the female body, under the male gaze. One could say the same about Mendieta, and both artists must have liked it that way.

Breder had other interests as well. The nudes may have carried him from Surrealism to the 1970s, but they took him only four years, beginning in 1969. Born in Germany in 1935, he came to New York in 1964 as an assistant to George Rickey. The latter's kinetic sculpture has a touch of Alexander Calder, Calder mobiles, and Modernism, but also Mark di Suvero and Minimalism. It can evoke wind chimes, stopping just short of sound art. And Breder later directed the Intermedia and Video Art Program at the University of Iowa.

Breder's connection to Minimalism may sound surprising, but then Mendieta eventually married Carl Andre. While an earlier show had explored her collaboration with Breder, another exhibition gives her ten monitors for herself alone, turning flesh into blood and tears into a shower of feathers. Is she asserting a woman's independence or reveling in forces out of her control? A strict division between photography's documentary and darker impulses may not hold up anyway—not when Frank also photographed a doll wrapped in plastic. Still, it is a long way from Surrealism to body art. Credit Breder with bridging the gap.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

Robert Frank ran at Danziger through April 8, 2017, Mark Steinmetz at Yancey Richardson through May 13. Hans Breder ran at Danziger through April 2, 2016, and Ana Mendieta at Galerie Lelong through March 19. Related reviews look again at Frank's "The Americans" and Ana Mendieta.

 

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