A Site for Photographers by Photographers

Community > Forums > Leica and Rangefinders > My Review of Robert Frank

Featured Equipment Deals

Guide to Nikon TTL Flashes Read More

Guide to Nikon TTL Flashes

Read about Nikon's current offering of flashes and accessories on Photo.net. Shun Cheung compares the SB-900, SB-800, SB-600, and SB-400, and offers detailed specs on the flashes.

Latest Equipment Articles

Lensbaby Spark Review Read More

Lensbaby Spark Review

This inexpensive gadget does indeed spark your creativity. Read on to see how.

Latest Learning Articles

26 Creative Photos of Water Drops Read More

26 Creative Photos of Water Drops

These absolutely amazing macro photographs feature a tiny elemental thing that can hold a lot of mystery. Take a moment to enjoy these photographs of water drops.


My Review of Robert Frank

CD Thacker , Apr 19, 2003; 04:16 a.m.

About two weeks ago I took a notion to write an article reviewing some photo-related books that I felt were, for one reason or another, of particular interest. Actually, the notion occured to me some time ago and I finally acted on it. I found the whole process of writing it to be even more enjoyable than I'd expected; and I can already tell that it's helped my photography.

Following is an excerpt from that article. The excerpt deals with Robert Frank's book Black White and Things. I've read much of the critical literature on Frank's work . . . and found it mostly wanting. To my knowledge no one has discussed this book in quite such detail, nor approached Frank's work as a whole in quite the way I feel it warrants. So this is my attempt to rectify that - a beginning, anyway. I post it here because, of course, Frank was (is) a Leica photographer. And because I am eager to get the discussion going.

The article this is excerpted from is called Berek's Dog, Seeing Rightly, and a Bottle of Scotch. The other books discussed in the article are: Darkroom (published by Ralph Gibson's Lustrum Press); Open City: Street Photography Since 1950 (National Gallery of Art / Scalo); and A History of The Photographic Lens by Rudolf Kingslake.

I suppose I could shop it around to various journals; but I prefer to see it put up here on Photo.net. Since the article is too long, really, to be appropriate in a forum, I sent it a few days back to Brian Mottorshead for consideration. Brian, however, is as you might imagine a super busy guy, what with keeping this site up and all that; so I expect he could use some encouragement. If you'd like to read the balance of this article, elsewhere on this site, drop Brian a note.

Meanwhile, here is the excerpt. I look forward to your comments.

---------------------------------------------------------------------

Every once in awhile I dive into the deep, deep black pool of Robert Frank.  And, whenever I do, I always emerge it seems with more – and less – than I had on entry.

His Aperture monograph, Robert Frank, is a good place to get wet; but, the monograph being something of a hodgepodge – lacking cohesiveness and direction – Black White and Things is a far better place.  Better because of its larger format and superior printing; better also because the images together form a single work.

Black White and Things began, the publisher tells us, in 1952 as a spiral-bound volume put together by Frank himself, in three copies - each containing identical original prints.  Frank gave one copy to Edward Steichen, one to his parents, and kept the third for himself (until 1990, when he donated it to the National Gallery of Art in Washington).

For me perhaps the most interesting thing about this work is how utterly independent it seems of the era in which it was made.  The photographs, fifty years after the fact, have lost none of their freshness and knife’s edge vitality.  Today, when, as Henri Cartier- Bresson recently said, “every Tom, Dick, and Harry is a photographer,” Frank shows in this book not how it is done, exactly, but that it can be.

In his work – this book in particular – Frank does what I’ve always had in mind for myself: make a group of images that are so definitive, there is no pressing need to make more; then, move on to something else (filmmaking in his case).

Many of these images, with their impressionistic, mysterious mists and pointillist-like grain, evoke for me nothing so much as the work of Clarenc e H. White; as well as, to a lesser degree, that of Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen – Photo-Secessionists all; with the difference being in part that Frank’s work is wholly honest and, in its own way, straightforward: stripped of all the Victorian romanticism and pretensions to retrograde art that characterized much of the earlier pictorialism (especially the Photo-Secession; White was likely least guilty of this).  Not for nothing then that Frank gave a copy to Steichen.  (Some of Frank’s images bring to mind famous paintings, as well – in particular, the flâneur view of Gustave Caillebotte’sParis Street; Rainy Day”, and the high stylization of Seurat’sA Sunday on La Grande Jatte – 1984” – but without the bourgeois stuffing!) (I use the term “bourgeois”, as Vladimir Nabokov once said, in the Flaubertian sense, not the Marxian one.)

            The absence of romanticism and pretense here isn’t the only thing that separates this work from the Pictorial photography of old.  The photos of Black White and Things, like all of Frank’s work, were shot on the fly and are often characterized by odd angles and unusual perspectives; yet in none of them is this gratuitous – or, if gratuitous, not without impact.  This is impulse shooting, but impulse shooting controlled – keyed-in, with exquisite sensitivity, to forms, movement, gesture, shadow, light; and to how all of these together make a palette of manifold possibilities for character, in the landscape of the perceiving, performing eye.  The character conveyed is throughout the book changing – sometimes haunting and heavy (a woman, somewhat wild-eyed, looking up from shrouds of shadow, the faint trace of a smile on her face); sometimes light but still haunting (the silhouette of a man, in bowler and topcoat, walking alone among mists and trees in mild shades of grey) – and the resulting feeling is one of movement and dynamism.  This varying, continuous tempo is key to the work as a whole and prefigures Frank’s move into cinema.

            Of interest then, as mentioned earlier, is picture selection – necessarily the final key in photography, for it gives a body of work, whether one shot or many, its shape, texture, and posture in relation to the planet.  Black White and Things was put together just before the period of The Americans and covers much (perhaps all) of the geography Frank had shot in: there are images from throughout Europe, South America, and the U.S. (some of which were later to appear in the latter book).  In this context it is made clear, if it wasn’t before, that the pictures comprising The Americans were not intended as a criticism of the U.S. in particular; and that in fact picking out a single country for concerted criticism was quite beyond Frank, or quite beneath him.  Rather, in his work Frank was (inadvertently perhaps) doing the New World the favor of integrating it into the old one; of merging them together into a world of multiple facets and attributes; but with only one name, his own.  (Which is the most any of us can ever do.)

            This is not the nihilism (“Nothing is true, everything is permitted”) Frank has often been accused of (wrongly, in my view).  Rather, what is implied in his work is simply this:  If you are true, the world is likewise.  That is what’s permitted.

            With this in mind I ask myself, what is the essential thing that makes the work of Black White and Things so compelling?  Even to ask the question requires looking, looking, and looking again.  And I find the answer here, in an epigram to the book: a quote from Saint-Exupery.  It reads,

 

                        It is only with the heart that one can see rightly

                        What is essential is invisible to the eye

 

            By refusing to serve social issues or observe national boundaries – and by managing to see with the heart (in this he remains arguably the most internationalist of photographers) – Frank, rather than leveling the world, elevates the psyche to the level of (greater) self-awareness and recognition of itself in others everywhere.  And that, after all, is the job of art.

Responses

Alex S. , Apr 19, 2003; 07:15 a.m.

Doug,

This is quite good. I'd be happy if Photo Net published this.

Alex

Patrick Garner , Apr 19, 2003; 08:03 a.m.

Doug,

I think your conclusion about the 'job of art' is indicative of romanticism on yr part, & is rank opinion in an attempt to end the article on an upbeat note.

Art serves many functions, & is as varied as human beings. There is, & never has been, one artisitc function or universal definition.

Art may be uplifting, may be exploratory, may be destructive. Let's not try to fit Frank into a box. His work has been interpreted many ways. A great artist's work speaks differently to different people.

Art Waldschmidt , Apr 19, 2003; 08:52 p.m.

An interestingly written review, Doug.

Nice juxtaposition of thoughts and observations. Possibly the most useful thing that remains for the reader from any review is the freshening of one's own perspective, or some fascination with material that may be inspired (vicariously) by the author's own fascination or inquiry. My own (relative) unfamiliarity with Frank's work disqualifies me from contrary opinions or wholesale agreement. In any event, I don't approach critiques or reviews with the hope of confronting absolutes, but often as opportunities to test my own variety of understanding. If anything truly enduring or axiomatic has been left as the residuum of 30+ years of investigating artworld rhetoric - it is (undoubtedly) this: *the thinner the work, the thicker the academic fog that enshrouds it*.

Art Waldschmidt , Apr 19, 2003; 09:25 p.m.

I would also recommend that Photo. Net publish the entire article.

CD Thacker , Apr 19, 2003; 09:58 p.m.

Just got in from work, expecting to find here . . . something - who knows what? A lively discussion, maybe. But maybe we don't have those anymore here, unless it's about a topic that has been recently covered on Fox News. Or maybe I just need to participate closely on this one.

Alex, Thanks for the vote of confidence. It means a lot from you, whose opinion I have come to have reason to respect. (By the way, I finally picked up a copy of Asahi Camera a few weeks ago. About $7.00 I think and much thicker with pages than our popular western mags. I liked some of the pictures, and only wondered if they look as pedestrian to the Japanese eye as the pictures in western mags usually look to us. there was also quite a bit of info, it appeared, about various Leica Ms - but of course i couldn't read it.)

Patrick, Thanks for your contribution to the discussion. Let me try to take your points one at a time.

I think your conclusion about the 'job of art' is indicative of romanticism on yr part, & is rank opinion

Why? Is it romantic because of its positive outlook; because it asserts an essential nature for art; or both? Without specifics the tag "romantic" doesn't mean much. In fact it isn't even an objection. "Rank opinion" is precisely a name - such as "romantic" - that hasn't been provided support of any kind.

If art is an essential human activity - and historically, like language, like science, it has been - then there must be something essential about this activity that we can devine. To obscure this essence (whatever it might be) with the various uses art has been put to is in the end to deny that art has any true, meaningful value; a philistine objection to art, in other words. True, art has the value we lend to it; but as an eternal pursuit of humanity, it also has a value we are only vaguely conscious of, one independent of our consciousness. Nothing romantic about that. It's called psychology. It's also called spiritual life - not spiritual in the popular sense of organised religion; but spiritual in the sense of psychic health (vitality) and the growth of awareness.

in an attempt to end the article on an upbeat note.

Actually, this wasn't the article's end, merely the end of an excerpt. And there is nothing upbeat, necessarily, about awareness - as many of Frank's images will bear out, awareness can be a double-edged sword. Not for nothing that most of us float in a sea of only partial awareness; to face yourself - and the world about you - is not always a wholly pleasant thing.

Art serves many functions, & is as varied as human beings. There is, & never has been, one artisitc function or universal definition.

See above.

Art may be uplifting, may be exploratory, may be destructive.

Indeed. It may be all of those things and more - all of them a necessary outcome, at some point, of its essence - just like the human beings who produce it.

Let's not try to fit Frank into a box. His work has been interpreted many ways. A great artist's work speaks differently to different people.

Everything speaks differently to different people. If critical exegesis has any value at all; or, for that, if looking and trying to explain has value at all; it can only be on agreement that there is an essence to be pierced and obtained. This has nothing to do with fitting something into a box - there is no box large enough for this work, in any case -; it has everything to do with trying to arrive at understanding shared experience; at explainig, in other words, just what it is that makes Frank the artist great, as you say. The relativist idea that one interpretation carries as much weight as the next doesn't bear up under very much scrutiny: some interpretations (of anything you care to name) are plainly wrong; others, less wrong. Some might even approximate reliably what they examine.

CD Thacker , Apr 19, 2003; 10:14 p.m.

Thanks Art. You must have written yours while I was writing mine.

Possibly the most useful thing that remains for the reader from any review is the freshening of one's own perspective, or some fascination with material that may be inspired (vicariously) by the author's own fascination or inquiry. [. . .] I don't approach critiques or reviews with the hope of confronting absolutes, but often as opportunities to test my own variety of understanding.

I agree. That, to me, is the job of inquiry (criticism, philosophy); and almost the best possible outcome, really. That was why I wrote this piece; and that was the purpose I hoped it would serve.

If anything truly enduring or axiomatic has been left as the residuum of 30+ years of investigating artworld rhetoric - it is (undoubtedly) this: *the thinner the work, the thicker the academic fog that enshrouds it*.

Isn't that the truth. What's surprised me, though, especially in view of this sad fact, is how minimal, in volume but also especially in insight, the critical treatment of photography is on the whole. At least, in comparison with the more traditional arts. Which tells me that photography is still an open field, both for execution and discussion.

Helmut Newton said recently, "This fine art crap is going to kill photography. It's already starting to happen." But I don't think it has to be that way. And in any case it hasn't killed painting quite yet.

Alex S. , Apr 19, 2003; 11:43 p.m.

And Thank you Doug for the good word.

There is an awful amount of CRUD (Careless Redundant Unbearable Dreck) in Asahi Camera and Nippon Camera, along with good work as well. The "my home town" stuff is usually the pits. Not up to Robert Frank, who has been published in both magazines. A Leica photographer in the US, acting on my suggestion, sent some great Cuba photos to Asahi and got back a snitty reply about how the editor "has 250 photographers to deal with" and so forget it. My friend was soon published in Leica Fotogrfie. Forget Asahi for your Robert Frank article, even if translated into Japanese.

Again, I have to say your article is very good and I do hope Brian Moore does publish you. You could try the English version of Leica Fotographie. See what their rules for submission are or send a query. They will probably limit you to around 3000 word or less (a quick n' dirty guess).

Keep us posted.

Best,

Alex

CD Thacker , Apr 20, 2003; 06:22 p.m.

Thanks for the suggestion, Alex. I think I will expand on the article a bit, then shop it around. Leica Fotographie might be a good first choice.

My hopes of contributing to the vitality of photo.net are finally drawing to a close. My emails to Brian (Mottorshead, not Moore) are seldom answered (and when they are, not without my persistent pestering), and not too many participants on the site seem interested in discussing photography in depth. Recently someone on this site (I forget just who) complained that photo.net had become Popular Photography. I disagreed at the time, more out of hope than conviction. But I'm beginning to see their point.

In any event, there's certainly nothing wrong, per se, with Popular Photography (I read it myself, often). But in appealing to so many, it has to exclude a great deal. That very great deal which I'm most interested in.

It would be unfair to that magazine, and to its intent, to expect of it anything substantive, or responsivness to real critical inquiry. Only a fool would insist on having such expectations. Maybe the same goes here.

Art Waldschmidt , Apr 20, 2003; 08:32 p.m.

Doug, approaching Leica Fotografie, as Alex suggested, might be something to pursue - at the same time why not consider some other publications? - maybe Art in America (for example) - the quality of your writing seems more than commensurate with any standards they might consider in the selection process. (Heck, if either publication would print it, I'd certainly be tempted to re-subscribe!)

I've read portions of the excerpt repeatedly - your writing certainly deserves (and rewards) a thoughtful and careful consideration.

Back to top

Notify me of Responses