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The making of Robert Frank's 'The Americans'

June 13, 2009 |  9:00 am

Frankcontact Just when there seemed to be nothing more to say about “The Americans” — Robert Frank’s groundbreaking work has, after all, been celebrated, analyzed and imitated for half a century — a show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is offering something fresh: an in-depth look at the creation of what may be the most influential photography book published since World War II.

Running through Aug. 23, “Looking In: Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ ” originated at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Curator Sarah Greenough mounted the exhibition to mark the volume’s 50th anniversary and to remind us that Frank’s exploration of racism, political leaders and crass consumerism remains all too timely. “He was one of the few at the time to look at things beneath the surface of American life,” Greenough says. “Things we still deal with.”

The young Swiss immigrant drove around the U.S. in the mid-1950s, photographing ordinary people and places in a bleak yet poetic style that revealed the alienation and social unrest lurking below the nation’s rosy self-image. Instead of the classic compositions favored by Life magazine, Frank produced rough-looking pictures, oddly lighted and framed — imperfections that made them feel spontaneous and true.

Frank2 “The Americans” was derided when it appeared, first in France in 1958 and a year later in the U.S. By the ’60s, however, Frank was being hailed as a prescient social critic and photographic master/maverick. Despite the adulation, questions and misconceptions surround the book, in part because Frank, now 84, is a decidedly independent thinker who is sometimes reclusive and often cryptic.

Greenough — who worked with Frank on this show and an earlier one — has tried to fill in many blanks.  The exhibition opens with Frank’s photographic influences and early works, including a Life magazine contest entry. “You can see why he didn’t win,” Greenough says. “The photographs are very harsh statements about the anonymity and isolation of urban life.”

The show also describes Frank’s struggles to put “The Americans” together. After securing Guggenheim foundation money (with help from his mentor Walker Evans), he set off in a used Ford in 1955 and visited factories, lunch counters, cemeteries and street corners from Hoboken, N.J., to Burbank.

Contrary to the popular view, Greenough notes, Frank’s travels were hardly Beat “on the road” adventures (even though Jack Kerouac wrote the book’s introduction). Frank worked hard, shooting 767 rolls of film, and was frequently harassed.

After he returned home to New York, Frank spent a year distilling more than 27,000 images into the 83 that were published. The exhibition puts some of his work prints and contact sheets on view: In one sheet from New Orleans, Frank catches an assortment of pedestrians — a microcosm of the city — frozen mid-step. Then he spins around and makes two exposures before shooting his famous picture of riders on a segregated trolley in what Greenough calls “one brilliant frame,” before taking a second shot in which the trolley has passed.

Frank3The heart of the exhibition, of course, is composed of the vintage prints of the book’s 83 black-and-white photographs. Greenough is especially interested in showing the care with which Frank used “sequencing” — making dramatic and thematic points by placing images in a certain order, mindful of visual cues and ironic juxtapositions.

The show ends with a look at the effect of “The Americans” on Frank’s later work: In short, the book overshadows all else, including his career as an avant-garde filmmaker and his forays into mixed and manipulated media.

-- Karen Wada

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 3rd St., San Francisco. $15. (415) 357-4000.

Photos, from top: A contact sheet from New Orleans, November 1955, includes the trolley shot; National Gallery of Art, Washington, Robert Frank Collection, gift of Robert Frank; © Robert Frank. "Del Rio, Texas, 1955"; private collection, courtesy Hamiltons Gallery, London; © Robert Frank. "Trolley-New Orleans, 1955"; lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Purchase, Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Gift, 2005; © Robert Frank.