Robert Frank: This American Life

Apr 2, 2013 9:51PM

"Above all, I know that life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference. Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love. It is important to see what is invisible to others. Perhaps the look of hope or the look of sadness. Also, it is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph." - Robert Frank

As one of the leading visionaries of American photography, Robert Frank has created a body of work rich in insight and poignant in foresight. His path to success was rooted in an irrevocable determination to explore and a courageous commitment to expose the socio-cultural pockets in American society that had been often left unspoken, unheard and unseen.

After leaving his native Switzerland in 1947, Frank embarked on tour across multiple continents, driven by his insatiable curiosity. At the end of his travels, Frank chose to settle in New York in a concentrated effort to establish himself as a photographer. His wish was to reveal "the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere," as he expressed in his application to the Guggenheim Fellowship, which he was granted in 1955.

Over a period of 9 months, 30 states, 767 rolls of film and 10,000 miles, Frank carefully scoured the United States, capturing with his lens the parade of characters, hierarchies and imbalances that he believed conveyed a far more accurate if polemical view of the great American social landscape. Throughout his travels, Frank enjoyed a dual advantage: a foreigner with detached observation as well as an insider with genuine love for his newfound home. The ambiguity precluded his works from becoming self-righteous critiques or sentimental odes. The result was Frank’s most iconic photographic compilation, The Americans.

At the time Frank began his endeavor, America was steeped in McCarthyism, a practice that promoted the pointing of baseless accusations against civilians suspected of subversion or treason. Frank, himself a New York-based Jewish immigrant of simple means, became victim of the practice, when, on November 7, 1955, he was arrested, questioned, threatened, humiliated, jailed and branded "criminal" in McGehee, Arkansas. Despite the misfortune, it was an experience that ultimately intensified and shaped his understanding of the underlying social bias. Indeed, of the incident Frank has noted that it served to heighten his "compassion for the people on the street," one that he unassumingly but lucidly translated into his compilation The Americans, and particularly, Trolley, New Orleans, taken a mere few days thereafter.

Upon his arrival in New Orleans, Frank, fascinated by the vivacious hustle-and-bustle of the city, observed an ongoing parade. Compelled by nothing but a gut feeling, Frank suddenly turned his back on the staged spectacle only to behold and capture the image of a trolley passing through the French Quarter and inadvertently presenting a cross-sectional slice of the racial demographic hierarchy. The grid proffered by the trolley’s structure neatly if eerily delineated the segregation enforcement of the era, with five windows showcasing the breakdown in race, gender and age.

Trolley, New Orleans, far more than a portrait of New Orleans or even the Deep South for that matter, but one of an era typified by paranoia and calamitous inequality. The poignancy of the image is intensified by its chronological juncture with the Montgomery Bus Boycott less than a month later and the subsequent sparking of the Civil Rights Movement. For Frank to have captured the racial breakdown so succinctly, moments before the structure that held it together collapsed, attests to the balance of foresight and insight that Frank employed throughout his oeuvre.

, 1955, presents an alternate view to the ongoing racial struggle at the time. An African American couple is seen dressed in tight denim and riding a Harley Davidson motorcycle, instantly offering a revised notion of that which constituted the All-American. The couple appear poised, spirited and debonair, their confidence boosted by their riding the quintessential vehicle of cool, with the absence of doors or windows providing full visibility and intrepidity. They occupy the front and the back, acting as driver and passenger, controlling their own direction and subsequently foregoing reliance on, or subservience to any governmentally-owned mode of transportation. It is an image of the strength and equality that Frank had envisioned for the future of the United States.

Trolley, New Orleans, 1955-1956, will be offered in our Photographs sale, 2 April 2013, in New York.

Indianapolis, 1955 was previously sold in our Photographs sale, 4 October 2011, in New York.