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Tag Archives: Robert Frank

For years I’ve been flying over the continental US, looking down on crop circles and major rivers from 30,000 feet, wondering what was going on down there.   A few times I drove across the country by car, moving, but always on interstates, always in a hurry.

Apalachicola, Florida    January 15, 2020

When my wife and I decided to take our beater van east for Christmas, we agreed that we wanted to travel slower, using smaller highways, and to travel only in daylight, (a real constraint on travel time in December).  We were aided by our cell phone navigators, set to “avoid highways”, which often put us on the old highways and back roads not much traveled these days.  In the end, we managed to cover 8200 miles, crossing parts of 25 states in a total of 29 days on the road.

 

Iowa, December 14, 2019

Fort Madison, Iowa December 14, 2019

My plan had been to write a blog post every few days while on the road—a plan that worked fairly well during the trip east, when we were twice stopped by snow and had a few extra hours off the road to rest.  I used the time to download picture from the camera chips, and gather my thoughts enough to write a brief blog post.  But the trip south and west did not involve any snow days—we did stop in to see a few family and friends along the way—but not enough time to gather my thoughts.

 

Nebraska, December 12, 2019

 

We’ve been home for about 5 days now, and I’ve just managed to go through the 27,000 photos I took—about 21,275 of them through the windows of the van.  I exported them to a chip, and am watching them in random order on a small digital picture frame.

Of course, life does not occur in random order, and looking at 21,375 photographs twenty years ago would have required a mountain of paper.  But photographs have always been about seizing moments out of the stream of time, then viewing them later in a different context.

 

Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, December 18, 2019

 

Of course, I could have set up a dashboard camera to record every foot of highway we traveled down—as at least some people are doing, to provide evidence in case of accidents.  But using a hand held still camera allows some choice of viewing angle (straight ahead through the windshield vs looking out a side window, plus the ability to aim to the side of the road) and the selection of the instant of exposure.

 

Maryland, January 9, 2020

Of course, there is the issue of safety.  Shooting pictures through the windshield from the passenger seat is not a problem, but since my wife and I split the driving evenly, and I was not willing to forgo photographs of half the trip, I needed to devise a way to make photographs that didn’t interfere with my ability to keep the van on the road.  My method was to keep the camera on my knee, and to raise and trip the shutter with the camera off to the side, without attempting to view the image in the camera.  Needless to say, the camera frequently was not level, but it was usually close enough.  I have auto focus lenses, but these frequently spend time “hunting” for the focus point, and often settle on the dirt on the windshield, not on the more distant subject I want to focus on—so I used an old manual lens.  The problem there was that on the repeated trips to and from my lap, I would sometimes inadvertently move the focus on the lens—a problem solved with duct tape.  And I discovered that of the two camera bodies I carried on the trip, one could adjust the exposure much more quickly than the other—so that became my default camera.  And I put the camera down during times that driving required my full focus—in snowstorms and heavy traffic.  In addition, my wife was very adept at alerting me to hazards she thought I wasn’t reacting to fast enough—a service I sometimes return.  But I do think about the worst vehicle accident I was ever involved in—incited by a temperamental tape deck that diverted the attention of the driver (not me) who allowed his front wheel to fall off the edge of the road, followed by rolling the car down an embankment…

I did do some writing on the road, and will share some of those thoughts in the near future.

“In order to make pictures that no one had made before, they [photographers] have to be attentive and imaginative, qualities partly assigned and partly chosen, but in any case ones that leave them vulnerable.  When Robert Frank put down his camera after photographing The Americans he could not so readily escape the sadness of the world as he recorded as could we when we closed the book.”

Robert Adams,  in Why People Photograph, Page 17.

 

“I’ve been wondering about Dostoyevsky. How can a man write so badly, so unbelievably badly, and make you feel so deeply?”

― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

 

While living in Philadelphia in the early 1980s, I made an appointment to go look at photographs in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  I learned that they had a complete set of prints from “The Americans”, and asked to see them.  When the boxes were brought out, I discovered a set of neutral toned  black and white prints that looked for all the world almost exactly like the images printed in the book—a little bigger—but there didn’t seem to be anything in the prints that I couldn’t learn from looking at the book.   I later learned that Frank had many orders for those prints, which he never seemed to get around to making.  Eventually he hired another printer to make sets to meet these orders.  I have no way of confirming this—but I’m sure the prints I saw at the Philadelphia Museum were made by someone else.

In 1994, I went to see the Robert Frank exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in DC with a friend.  I recall the walls were painted something very dark, maybe black.  The whole gallery felt like a funeral.  But the prints were unlike the ones I saw at the Philadelphia—these were cream colored, printed dark—moody.  I felt like these must have been printed by Frank himself—they were far from perfect prints, but they were raw and full of emotion.   After going through the whole show in silence, I realized that I wanted to discuss one of the images with my friend—we went back to look it again.  I realized that we were speaking in whispers, and that everyone else in the gallery was equally hushed.

 

Robert Frank, Hoover Dam, 1955

The image I wanted to discuss was titled “Hoover Dam, 1995”, which showed a post card rack at a souvenir stand, with  three cards:  the Grand Canyon on top, the Hoover Dam in the middle, and a mushroom cloud on the bottom.  What was evident in the photograph—but not in any of the reproductions I had seen before—was that someone—probably Frank himself—had arranged the postcards in the rack for maximum effect.  The top two were the only post cards in their slots, and the mushroom cloud was two identical cards in front of something else, as could be seen from the edges that didn’t match in the cards behind.  Diane Arbus noted that some photographers try to arrange what’s in front of the camera, while she tried to arrange herself to get the picture.  Which is not to say that one way of making pictures is better than the other.  Robert Frank obviously knew what he wanted, and he got the picture.

I’ve admired the work of Robert Frank, but, as implied by the quote from Robert Adams, sadness followed him–the death of his daughter Andrea in 1974, and the mental illness of and subsequent death of his son Pablo in 1994.  For much of his later life, Robert Frank lived as a recluse. And who could blame him.  But I’m grateful for the pictures he left us.  Especially the Hoover Dam picture.  What a summary of the history of the Western Landscape–pure genius.

A friend sent me a link to a story on a newly discovered photographer, Vivian Maier, who lived and worked in Chicago as a nanny for the last half of the 20th century.  What is curious about this story is the way in which her work is being made public–a young man purchased some of her negatives at a storage locker sale in the hopes of finding images of a local area, and started scanning them, only to discover a group of powerful street portraits.  For anyone who has spent time digging through the bins at antique stores and flea markets looking for old photographs, the work of Vivian Maier is eye-popping–her work is close, focused, composed, and powerful.  I found myself when scanning her web site recalling the hints of other photographers like naming tastes in a fine wine–Walker Evans, Harry Callahan, and Diane Arbus are there, with a hint of Paul Strand.  It’s like Robert Frank without the bitterness, and Gary Winogrand without lechery (but what would Winogrand be if not a dirty old man…)

Vivian Maier 1967

Vivian Maier 1967

Of course, I’m writing this less than an hour after first watching the video link above–hardly a considered critical opinion–and I find myself with some questions about the excitement surrounding her discovery–she apparently shot 100,000 negatives in her lifetime (8,000 rolls of 6×6 film), or an average of 200 rolls a year over 50 years, or several rolls a week.  There is no question that Vivian Maier was committed to making pictures.

But the documentary I watched did not contain any mention of prints–even drugstore prints–done in her lifetime–only carefully stored negatives and exposed but undeveloped film.   As Szarkowski noted in his discussion about the unprocessed film of Winogrand at his death, the act of tripping the shutter of the camera is not quite the same as making a photograph–an artist needs to develop, print, and examine his work in order to move forward.  And there is no mention of her ever showing her work to her acquaintances in her lifetime–if art exists as a conversation between a creator and an audience, in her lifetime she never attempted to have her work viewed in this light.  And why were these negatives abandoned in a storage locker, even while she was alive?

Is Vivian Maier a great photographer, a member of the pantheon listed above, discovered after her death?  Or just another lonely soul adrift in the 20th century with a camera, shooting with enough persistence to get an occasional lucky shot, with enough awareness of the work of others to occasionally mimic their great pictures?  Given the effort required to scan film, only a fool would start at the beginning of the box and scan to the end–anybody with half a brain would put the negatives on the light table and cherry pick the images most likely to succeed as prints–so maybe we’ve already seen the handful of images that the gods of luck in photography gave her.   Susan Sontag noted that all photographs become more interesting as they age, and part of my pleasure in these images is the memories of the world of my childhood.   But I’m not sure if Maier’s work contains the seeds of greatness–a vision of the world uniquely hers,  an ability to show something no other artist has given us.

I’m pleased to read that a book of her work is being prepared–I’m sure I’ll buy it when it’s published, and put it on my self to age along with the many other photographers–and maybe in ten or twenty or thirty years it will still be there.   I hope so.  I so enjoy fine books.

When I began making photographs in 1977 in an art photography class at the small college I was attending, the art majors all talked about the importance of defining a “style”, a unique look to their pictures.  As an alien in this world (I was a physics major), it made little sense to me why one should go about defining a style (physic majors didn’t really bother about such things—just keeping up with the work load and not flunking out was hard enough) let alone how.   Besides, most of my effort was spent learning the rudiments of the craft, at the start how to avoid the worst mistakes, then later how to control the process, and trying to imitate photographs in magazines.    I must admit that I did not know why some photographs published in books were thought to be better than mine—I was especially appalled at the scratches and cracked emulsions of Atget—hell, I could do better than that.  Of course, most of my photographs from that period have, over the years, found their proper place in the world, in the trash can.

8-5732 Canwell Glacial River, August 2010

I’m not sure when I first became aware of how powerful the viewpoint of a single photographer could be—maybe it was first from books,  Robert Frank’s Americans, or Walker Evans Message from the Interior.  I do know that seeing the Robert Adams “New West” show at the Philadelphia Museum in 1982 was transformative.  Those pictures were so simple, so obvious, so clean—a style so transparent it seems not to be a style at all (I think that was how Szarkowski described Walker Evans, but it seems even more true of Robert Adams).    So I began imitating Adams, photographing the landscape as I thought he would have, had he lived in Pennsylvania rather than in Colorado.    But I soon discovered that imitation is not as easy as it looks—pictures fail in many ways—but sometimes the failures are instructive.   East coast light is different than Colorado light—I think that was when I started paying attention to Atget’s use of morning light—and trying to use it, pointing my lens into the sun, using the glow.  But mostly I just kept making photographs.

Now I’ve been making photographs for 33 years, and I haven’t thought about developing a style for a long time.  But a few weeks ago I had a discussion with another photographer about how Lee Friedlander’s work is so distinctive—you can pick out one of his pictures out of a book—you just know it’s a Friedlander.  Then we pulled a box of my photographs off the shelf, and started looking through them, pictures from this summer, Alaskan Landscapes.   And halfway through the box, like some kind of epiphany, hey, these are my pictures.  These are pictures I made, and in making them, I made many decisions—what camera to use, where to go to look for photographs, where to stop the car, where to set up the tripod, how to frame the picture, when to trip the shutter—and in printing, how big to make the print, what settings to use on the printer, what paper.  And in looking at them I suddenly realized that I make different decisions than any other photographer I know—in subject, in framing, in presentation…

8-5740 Tundra, Petersville Road, September 2010

I own these pictures. So is this my “style”?  Damned if I know.  I’m still just trying to do my work…