Artwork Spotlight: Robert Frank’s Iconic and Unsentimental ‘Parade - Hoboken, New Jersey’ (1955)
Former MoMA curator of Photography John Szarkowski, in his now seminal catalogue for one of the first fine art photography exhibitions, “Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960”, described two different functions of the photograph – the photograph as a ‘Window’, a tool by which the outside world is explored or as a ‘Mirror’, as a method of self-reflection and self-expression. Those like Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank, a realist according to Szarkowski, looked through their images to explore their surroundings.
After arriving in the U.S. in the early ’50s, Frank earned a Guggenheim Fellowship and traveled across the country to document the mundane aspects of American culture in that decade, what he described as “things that are there anywhere and everywhere—easily found, but not easily selected and interpreted.” This cross-country tour became Frank’s The Americans (1958), a series of candid images of mundane daily life in America, depicting an alienation felt by those on the margins of society—factory workers, transvestites, and street performers—as well as those securely in the middle of it—as in this photograph from the series, depicting spectators at a Fourth of July parade.
This iconic image could have been a very different photograph. When we imagine a photograph of a parade we might expect a snapshot of excited spectators or an image of the parade itself. Perhaps the most significant detail of Frank’s image, then, are the women’s concealed faces—one is hidden in shadow and the other is bluntly obscured by the flag. Their frame implies that they are watching together, but their facelessness and the expanse of brick wall that separates them denies this.
Frank’s head-on vantage point creates foreshortening, such that everything in the photo’s view appears to be equally distanced from the camera. This vantage point and the tightness of the frame could be construed as almost confrontational in its directness, but it also creates a certain parity between the photographer and his subjects.
Yet Frank’s subjects seem present in the image not as parade goers, but as reluctant participants in the artist’s photograph, just as they seem to be reluctant residents in the shadowed interior of their homes. Their participation in the parade, something we might consider a ritual of American civic life, seems to be established only by the taking of this photograph.
Frank’s formal choices suggest his subjects have nowhere else to go, but would rather be somewhere else. This is Frank’s unsentimental snapshot of American life in 1955.