JTF (just the facts): A total 61 black and white and color works, mounted in white frames and floated on white mattes, and hung against light and dark grey walls in the two main rooms in the gallery as well as on both sides of a central partition. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, with the following exceptions: 2 c-prints, 7 color Polaroid prints (one of them a composite of 3 prints; another a composite of 2 prints). No prints are dated. Image sizes vary from roughly 4×3 to 10×7 (or reverse). The photographs are drawn from two books recently published by Steidl: Park/Sleep, 72 pages (published in 2013, here) and Partida, 56 pages (published in 2014, here). Each is soft-cover, slip-cased, $30. (Installation and photobook spread shots below; installation shots courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery.)
Comments/Context: The more books the issue from the mind of the elderly Robert Frank—and may the 90 year-old artist continue to make and publish them with Steidl for at least another decade—the more The Americans stands out as an anomaly within his oeuvre. It is hard to tell anymore if his work took a radical turn 55 years ago and has been going in circles ever since, or whether we have misread his intentions all along.
Did he cease to be a documentary-style photographer, as Walker Evans defined the term, shortly after 1960 when, having grown to loathe the idolization of The Americans by a new generation, he converted his energy to filmmaking? Or was Frank never that kind of disinterested photographer to begin with?
Was Black and White and Things—the collection of enigmatic images he took on travels through Spain, Italy, France, England, Peru, and the U.S. during the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, and which he had privately printed in an edition of three in 1952—a truer indication of his present-day ghostly self than the 83 photographs he carefully selected to portray his adopted country in 1958? Or do the two books form a continuum?
His latest books, Park/Sleep (2013) and Partida (2014), suggest that he has always been at heart an autobiographical elegist. The camera in his hands is less an objective tool for making social observations than it is a ballpoint pen with which this permanent alien, a Swiss émigré who feels nowhere at home, can jot down his restless thoughts in an ongoing diary.
These modest photographs with minimal texts further explore the themes of memory and loss, self-exile and desolation, love and friendship, art and literature found in The Lines of My Hand (1972). His innate melancholia, relieved by flickering moments of joy, has only intensified in the last 20 years, with Flamingo (1996), Storylines (2004), Pangnirtung (2011), and Ferne Nähe: Hommage für Robert Walser (2012).
All of the images in these books are in a basic sense “documentary,” and yet as a group they seem to map a dimly lighted, dream-haunted interior space rather than the three dimensions of an exterior reality.
Park/Sleep, for example, opens with a diptych of two doors, ajar above a set of steps in what appears to be New York City. These are followed by an even less prepossessing photograph of a banal painting on the wall. It depicts a sandy shoreline. The scene then shifts to another wall, this one filled corner-to-corner by portraits of Swiss government officials from the 1940s and ‘50s. The wall on the next page is a personal photo of an old, tarnished mirror hanging in Mabou, his rural Canadian home on the island of Nova Scotia. The sequence ends with two blurry images: one of a smeared blackboard, with the word “DAYS” still legible; the other of a yellowing front page from a New York newspaper, dated Nov. 24, 1963, announcing President Kennedy’s assassination.
The middle section, introduced by pictures of empty chairs and tables and a bench, is mainly devoted to portraits of friends, most of them living, such as the French fashion photographer Paolo Roversi, and others no longer alive, such as the late Swiss publisher Walter Keller, whose company Scalo reissued Black and White and Things in 1994.
Repeated portraits of Frank’s wife, the artist June Leaf, in these ensembles serve as the thread that ties them together. An image of her hands, resting on a table in an Arizona diner and almost touching his, concludes the book. “Not soup/Not a travelogue,” reads his type-written text on the facing page. “June: Are you going to tell the truth/Robert: Almost but first I’m going to put/you in the cage/and I’ll get out/of mine.”
Partida is just as loosely bound, held together by emotional associations rather than syllogistic logic. The Spanish title has multiple meanings—it can be translated as departure, game, document, or group—and the images seem to embody all of these definitions. There are more portraits, including one of Eugene Richards, whose name Frank misspells, but none of them have the offhand soulfulness of his 1950s work. Motifs from Park/Sleep reappear—the mirror from the house in Mabou, an overstuffed bookshelf in the living room and a wheel and caster attached to a wooden block. (The symbolism of this last item defeats me.)
As with his hero Jean-Luc Godard, who also grew up in Switzerland, Frank has made it difficult during the last 50 years for some of his early enthusiasts to stay on the same page with him. Some devotees of Breathless regard every film after that as charting a steady decline in coherence, just as some photographers who worship Frank for The Americans cannot understand the messy pictures he has been taking of the sea outside his windows in Mabou; or, even if they can, prefer the bitter social criticism of his photographs in the ‘50s to his more inscrutable personal noodlings.
As the epigraph for Flamingo, he wrote: “I’m always looking outside, trying to look inside. Trying to say something that’s true. But maybe nothing is really true. Except what’s out there. And what’s out there is always changing.”
As he has aged and stopped going on the road (except to pick up awards or, as in Park/Sleep, to journey back briefly to Switzerland), the compass of his vision has narrowed. For many years many of his photographs have centered on his loft in New York and around his seaside home in Mabou. If his recent books lack the pictorial attack and latitude of his early ones and hang together by wisps of memory and sentiment, that’s life, or at least that’s how this great 90 year-old artist experiences it—and perhaps how he always has interpreted time and place. The Americans may be more dreamlike and inward-looking—a self-portrait in displacement—than many of us realized or want to accept.
Collector’s POV: None of the prints on view are in an edition and only four were for sale. At this writing, three are sold out and only one (Living Room Mabou) is still for sale ($11000.) Negotiations are under way for a museum to buy everything left. Frank’s work is routinely available in the secondary markets, where recent prices have ranged between $5000 and $665000.