Back to Reviews


Robert Frank
by Simon Niedenthal

FRANK IN CANADA

One might be tempted to peg Robert Frank as a photographer who peaked early on with the americans and then dabbled in film and collage (a visitor to the opening was heard to remark that after achieving early success, Frank could afford to "fuck around"). "Moving Out," however, mounts his work in an even-handed way that emphasizes the overall contours of his career rather than concentrating on the acknowledged masterpiece--to the dismay of the LA Times art critic, who regretted the incomplete presentation of the americans in the show. The work that gains the most from this treatment is Frank's later constructed still work, shot after his move to Mabou, Nova Scotia in 1971, and strongly informed by several personal tragedies, including the death of his daughter, Andrea, in a 1974 plane crash. Haunting images that have been generally discussed in terms of their relationship to Frank's films now appear to be the fullest statement of some of his most enduring visual themes, and a fitting cap to his career.

There are several obvious reasons for the critical status quo, for favoring the americans at the expense of Frank's later work. The move from straight photography to construction involves an aesthetic shift that alienated some early fans. Criticism, moreover, that weights original technique will inevitably overvalue the americans because, in spite of their looseness and improvisatory nature, the later works simply were not as radical at the time of their production as the images from the americans were in the mid-50s. the americans prompted outbursts from the editors of Popular Photography, who railed at the "meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness" of the photographs. Frank's later work achieved no such notoriety. By the time of his first constructed images, Rauschenberg's silk-screen paintings were already a decade old. Frank's later work is on the edge, but not the leading edge. If we are to seek a fuller appreciation of the place of the constructed images in Frank's career, it is best to look beyond the obvious differences in technique.

Much of the critical assessment of the later work has tended to focus on the relationship to Frank's films. The outlines of Frank's career are easy to sketch--roughly 15 years of 35mm still work from the mid-40s to late-50s, followed by a period of involvement in film and video lasting to the present, accompanied by a resurgent interest in still images from the mid-70s on. Several critics have noted the influence of Frank's concurrent film work upon his later images. The constructed images, the argument goes, exhibit an impatience with the limitations of straight photography and the desire to integrate dialogue and narrative. And, indeed, some of the later still images--such as sick of goodbys or home improvements--are based upon material originally incorporated in films andvideos. But if Frank felt the still medium to be merely constraining, why return to the static image at all? In a perceptive essay in the "Moving Out" catalog, W.S. di Piero notes Frank's growing reservations about the video medium: "It really picks up everything that is there." Frank's later constructed images are not just a response to the limitations of straight photography, they are also a corrective to the indiscriminate character of video.

Although Frank's films were also screened as part of the exhibition, the value of "Moving Out" lies in the continuity and patterns of growth established between early and later photographic work. Loneliness and isolation are themes which pervade Frank's images. As critic Max Kozloff has aptly pointed out, Frank worked in a mode of "abused pastoral." The chief difference between early and late work is that the subject of Frank's later work is no longer cultural, but personal. Though family members appear in Frank's work as early as the americans and pull my daisy (1959), Frank began turning his camera on his children in earnest with conversations in vermont (1969). In Frank's later years, his family was gradually stripped away: his daughter Andrea lost in 1974, his son Pablo lost to himself in bouts of mental illness. Frank's later work thus documents progressive refining, a Job-like loss of the elements with which he had sought to give meaning to his life. The arc of Frank's career can be seen then as the questioning of all the ways in which people seek validation. Those seeking significance through jingoism and national identity (or perhaps in the well-made B&W print) will have their illusions disabused by the americans; those who look to family or art for meaning can learn a lesson about fragility from Frank himself in the later work.

The shift in technique from straight photography to assembled and altered images makes a certain expressive sense. The significance of scratching the emulsion, of removing the sensitized surface of the negative, can be seen when taken to its logical extreme, as a statement of profound doubt about the permanence of art. Polaroids and video images further degrade the photographic image, continuing the urge to rough up the medium present in his earliest work. The inclusion of multiple photographic frames in one image allows Frank a new means of exploring isolation in the visual plane. Kozloff's observation that Frank's "subjects may have been attached to each other but are dissociated in space" is as true for an American image such as parade--hoboken, new jersey, 1955, as it is for home improvements, in which family members are separated by New York and Mabou still video images.

Even if one accepts that the later images called for a different technique, one must ultimately come to terms with their raw emotionality. Here critics seem to have had a bit of trouble. W.S. di Piero prefers to comment upon Frank's "decorum." "For an artist of public sensibility, the howl of loss needs a ceremonious consistency so that private sorrow may have a public shape..." And yet, it is not Frank's restraint that is remarkable in the last images. Rather, it is the immediacy of his sorrow, the depth and persistence of his grief. In contrast to his early work, the surfaces of many later images are ragged, scratched, resurfaced. We are left with scrawled notes that have the poignancy and simplicity of an epitaph. "...I think of Andrea every day."

In the end, the eye reposes in the stark, almost featureless Mabou landscape. It is the perfect visual complement to the grief that weights the work, and it is to the equilibrium of the minimal landscape--all ocean and horizon line and shifting atmospherics--that Frank finally appeals. Any truth, he concludes in the video home improvements, is to be found "out there." In the midst of this landscape, he constructs still images that function as elegiac, funerary art, gaining monumentality and silence when dialogue is no longer possible. Images to accompany the review: sick of goodbys, 1978, home improvements, 1985, mabou, 1977 (for andrea who died), parade--hoboken, new jersey, 1955.

Photograph/Documentation denied: the Lannan Foundation, the artist, and PaceWildenstein MacGill.

Simon Niedenthal

Los Angeles, California
1996

Back to Reviews