Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans @Met

JTF (just the facts): A total of 221 black and white images, along with 8 glass enclosed cases containing 17 books, 23 contact sheets, letters, writings, and other ephemera, and 1 4-minute movie, displayed on the exterior hallway walls and in 5 interconnected gallery spaces.

The exterior walls hold all 34 prints from Frank’s book Black, White and Things, published in 1952, prior to The Americans. The images are framed in white and matted, and were taken between 1948 and 1952. The entry area also holds a glass case with three early versions of The Americans and 1 contact sheet enlargement. (Installation shot at right. No photography was allowed inside the exhibit itself, so unfortunately, this is the only shot available.)

The first room is divided into three sections. The first is entitled Early Work 1941-1953 and includes images from Frank’s book 40 Fotos, as well as images from Peru and other locations. A glass case of other influential books of the period includes Evans, Brodovitch, Kertesz, Tuggener, Schuh, and Brandt. A second case displays Mary’s Book, a hand crafted view of Paris made for Frank’s wife. The second section is entitled Guggenheim Fellowship 1955-1957 and includes a detailed map of Frank’s travels across the country, a pair of images, and two cases of letters to/from Walker Evans and Jack Kerouac, as well as maquettes and early text drafts for The Americans. Along one wall are two enormous gatherings of work prints (a total of 81 in all). The final section of the room begins the complete display in sequence of The Americans, with 6 images in this room; the works are framed in ribbed black, with white mats.

The second room continues the sequence of The Americans with 25 additional images. Two glass cases house 12 and 10 contact sheets respectively, marked with grease pencil annotations.

The third room contains the next 24 images from The Americans, and the fourth contains the final 28 images, for a grand total of 83 prints. Given the physical layout of these rooms, the sequence is forced to wind around and jump over itself a few times, which is a little distracting, given the crowds. The fifth and final room in entitled Destroying The Americans 1960-2008 and includes a glass case containing a composite piece incorporating a stack of prints with drilled holes, a 4-minute movie, a single print from the 1970s, and a final glass case with 5 international versions of the book.

An exhaustive catalogue edited by Sarah Greenough of the National Gallery, with a wide variety of scholarly essays, contact sheets etc. is available in a hardcover “Expanded” version ($75) and a somewhat thinner softcover version ($45). It is published by Steidl (here).

Comments/Context: From my vantage point, the media frenzy around the 50th anniversary exhibit of Robert Frank’s The Americans has reached a fever pitch unlike any I have seen for a photography show since we began collecting a decade ago; I feel like I am watching the Robert Frank cable channel: all Frank, all the time. There have been a never ending stream of supplementary exhibits, film screenings, lectures, and even a rare appearance by Frank himself, bracketed by a flood of feature articles, bios, and exhibit reviews by every major local and national publication (many linked below). Most of these have traversed the obvious and well worn paths: Frank as the Swiss outsider, the Guggenheim fellowship and the Kerouac anecdotes, the universal hatred of the book when it was released, Frank as the voice of the America that didn’t yet understand itself, Frank’s radical approach and its downstream impact on generations of documentary photographers, The Americans as an undeniable classic. Trying to add something of value to this mountain of celebration certainly seems daunting, but luckily, there are plenty of treasures buried in this sprawling exhibit that seem to have been overlooked by the scholarly gang of critics and summarizers.

Prior to seeing this exhibit, my experience of The Americans was limited to looking through the book (a copy of which nearly every collector likely owns) and seeing an odd print here or there in an auction or exhibit, most of which were later prints. I can hardly tell you what a revelation it was to see the large vintage prints of these familiar works, all sequenced together (not all of the prints in the exhibit are vintage, but those that are stand out a mile away). This was especially true for the vertical images, which were reduced the most to fit into the 8×10 format of the book; these works in their large grainy glory are truly astounding. Images that I had nonchalantly flipped over in the book suddenly jumped off the walls; it’s as if I really saw them for the first time here, and finally understood what they were all about.

Here’s my list of images that offer a completely different experience when seen in this show than when viewed in the book:

View from Hotel Window – Butte, Montana
US 30 Between Ogallala and North Platte, Nebraska
Car Accident – US 66 between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona
Barber Shop Through Screen Door – McClellanville, South Carolina
Los Angeles
Movie Premiere – Hollywood
Drug Store – Detroit
Courthouse Square – Elizabethville, North Carolina
US 90, En Route to Del Rio, Texas

The difference between the larger, grainier, and warmer vintage prints and the smaller, crisper, and blacker later prints is extremely noticeable; in my view, there is really no comparison – the vintage prints are far and away better. (As an aside, nearly every time I would look down to see who owned the very finest of the vintage prints in this exhibition, the answer was almost always gallerist Peter MacGill and his wife.)

The glass cases of contact sheets are the second fascinating and potentially overlooked portion of this exhibit. I spent a considerable amount of time crouched down looking at the contacts up close (they are a bit hard to see as they are presented). I must admit that I am generally a sucker for contact sheets, but these were especially compelling; seeing the variants across time, as he reframed or waited for the scene to change, provides plenty of insights into Frank’s working process. There is a great series of the famous Parade – Hoboken, New Jersey image where the flag flutters in various positions before finally unfurling to partially cover the second window; the process of selecting the winners among the variants is equally interesting.

The final attention grabbing idea in this show (at least in my mind) is found in the last gallery, whose design feels a bit like an afterthought. But regardless of the haphazard collection of items, the key insight in this room is the idea that in his later career, Frank felt trapped by The Americans, that given its popularity, he could never get away from this body of work. Of course, now that I think about it, this is perfectly obvious; I’m sure it was terrifically hard to find ways to explore new artistic ideas when the world continually brings you back to your most famous project. The composite piece that includes a stack of prints riddled with drill holes shows how emotionally stressful it actually was.

While The Americans is undeniably one of the most famous photography books of all time, I can say that I truly saw this book for the first time during my visit to this show, or perhaps I finally discovered what Frank was really trying to get across. I found myself walking back and forth, covering each room several times, in order and backwards, letting the whole complex melancholy mood wash over me. The iconic images are still iconic; it’s many of those secondary images that suddenly have much more meaning, especially in the context of our current imperfect world – what I had once previously overlooked, I now see as astounding photographs.

This is clearly one of the can’t miss shows of the year, regardless of the over hype; carve out some time to see it, and make sure you allot enough to fight through the crowds and savor all the details that you might normally skip by.

Collector’s POV: Robert Frank’s work is routinely available at auction, especially later prints from The Americans from the 1970s, and other bodies of Frank’s work. For the more obscure images, prices can be as low as $5000 or so, but these are generally the outliers. Even later prints from The Americans can reach six figures, and vintage prints of the most iconic images have topped $600000 in recent years; even middle of the road later prints from this series can easily set you back $50000. Given the structure of our personal collection, in the past, I have not thought that Frank’s work was a particularly terrific fit for us; having seen some of the images in this show in a new light, perhaps that opinion needs to change.

Rating: *** (three stars) EXCELLENT (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:

  • Exhibit reviews/features: New Yorker (here), NY Times (here and here), WSJ (here), Village Voice (here), Newsweek (here)
  • Interview: WNYC (here)
  • Review of catalogue @5B4 (here)

Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans
Through January 3rd

Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10028

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Read more about: Robert Frank, Metropolitan Museum of Art

One comment

  1. dlkcollection /

    I've received a clarification from a knowledgeable reader regarding the large prints that I enjoyed so much and the label “vintage” as applied to them. My memory is that there are no dates on the wall labels for these larger prints, so I assumed they were vintage. I must admit that this piece of news puts a new spin on how I saw the show, but so be it; I still found the large prints enthralling. Here are the details:

    “The large prints in the exhibition are not exactly 'vintage' prints but rather prints made in 1968. The prints that I would call 'vintage' such as the print of the 'Assembly Line – Detroit' (actually printed by May 1957! and perhaps the earliest print in the whole show, aside from the work prints) are smaller.”

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