Robert Frank’s America @Danziger

JTF (just the facts): A total of 38 black and white photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1949 and 1962, or more generally in the 1950s. The prints are either vintage or printed no later than 1978. Physical sizes are either 11×14 or 16×20 inches (or reverse) and the works are uneditioned. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The process of editing down the entire output of a photography project and turning it into a tightly constructed whole is one of the trickiest, and least understood, challenges faced by a photographer. While certain images often seem to shout out their central importance to the desired visual narrative, others are inevitably more subtle and only reveal their power when they are seen in the midst of a well-selected group. Picking the strongest image among a bunch of variants might seem easy, but then the larger context of the project comes into play, rebalancing the relative need for one picture over another. And when the agonizing edit has taken place, the task of image-to-image sequencing arrives to reshuffle the deck once again.

But all of this intense selection and refinement typically takes place offstage, where we as viewers can’t see or understand it. Projects are presented as discrete finished units, and the photographs that didn’t make the final cut are generally consigned to the archives. We don’t typically get to examine the outtakes, variants, and additional images that were edited out, unless we are being shown the grease-penciled contact sheets (of the old days) to provide a broader atmospheric view into the artist’s process.

When Robert Frank took his two-year road trip around America in the mid-1950s, he shot over 28000 photographs, and when The Americans was ultimately published, it included a total of 83 images. (For those that like math, the chosen few amount to just under 0.3% of the overall pile.) And while we can’t know the exact details of the editing process that took place, we do know that Frank made finished prints of a number of the images he liked that didn’t make it into The Americans. This exhibit shows us a small selection of those works, in the context of twelve images that were included in the now classic photobook, allowing us to consider more closely what got in and what didn’t.

If we assume a healthy level of trust in Frank’s editing process, then we shouldn’t expect to find unexpected or heretofore unseen pictures that rival the presence and power of the flag draped over the brick windows in Hoboken, the outstretched arms of the man at the political rally in Chicago, the top hatted men on the bunting covered dias (also in Hoboken), or the man in the cowboy hat at the rodeo in Detroit (all of which are in the original book and on view in this show), and largely we don’t. What we see instead are alternate versions of common themes. The show is filled with well-made pictures that continue to explore the ideas that were percolating around in Frank’s head at the time, but that emerge as different (and somewhat lesser) visual outcomes.

America’s issues with race come through with subtlety and nuance. Don Newcombe’s face is among the prominent players in an array of souvenir baseball pins. African-Americans relax on the porch or on top of their cars, their quiet wariness seen in crossed arms and stoic faces. Another dapper black man strides between two cars, evoking a surprising degree of loneliness and isolation on his solitary road. And a mixed race church group sings a hymn in a Detroit park, the unlikeliness of such a scene in 1955 amplified by the trash strewn in the background and the black child interrupting the picture in front.

Frank was also keenly aware of the symbolic power of the American flag and other iconic American objects. Pictures here capture a painted mural flag on a ferryboat to Washington, DC, another flag image fading on a wall under stormy clouds in Arizona, and the tenderness of a casual family beach day playing with a billowing flag (the tabloid headline MARILYN DEAD on the paper lets us know this image was made somewhat later, in 1962). A parking lot image brightly spotlights the sharp tail fins of a Cadillac with similar attention.

The dark mood that permeates The Americans is also found in many of the pictures that were left out of the final edit. The desolate headlights on the Wyoming highway, the mushroom cloud postcard in the rack of Hoover Dam views, the rows of empty mailboxes in Nebraska, the blank marquee at Ciro’s nightclub in Los Angeles, and the isolation of the drive-in movie parking lot all deflate any sense of American swagger. Even the passing view of the New York city skyline feels melancholy and aloof, the hope embodied by the bright lights passing by in shadow.

While there are plenty of well-crafted images to be found here, the idea that there is a sequel’s worth of material that was left out, or that The Americans Part II is somehow waiting in the archives, seems overly optimistic. While the images here follow many of the same pathways as photographs in the photobook (in some cases exploring the exact same subject matter), those that were left on the cutting room floor do feel less emblematic and enduringly rich than the ones that Frank ultimately chose. The themes and ideas are undeniably part of a similar line of thinking, but the intensity and crispness of vision is slightly less immediate. While personal preferences or interests may make us hypothesize why specific images were chosen over others, it seems Frank’s edit was largely on target. Seeing the supporting material certainly deepens our understanding of Frank’s ideas, but it doesn’t fundamentally change the primary narrative that made The Americans the influential classic that it is.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show range in price from $25000 to $180000, with many already sold or on hold. Frank’s work is routinely available in the secondary markets, where recent prices have ranged between $5000 and $665000. Key images from The Americans consistently fetch five, and in some case six, figure prices.

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