A recent visit to the Cape Breton University art gallery reminded me of the power of photography to provoke and challenge. For there, as part of the gallery’s permanent collection, are nine images by Robert Frank.
A Swiss Jew who immigrated to New York City in 1947, Frank is best known for “The Americans” – a collection of provocative black and white images first released in 1958. Six of the CBU gallery’s images are from this seminal publication; the other three are from a trip Frank made to Spain, France, and Wales a few years before.
In 1955, Frank – accompanied by his wife and children – criss-crossed the United States in search of “the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere.” Supported financially by a Guggenheim Fellowship, he took over 20,000 images during his trek. Only 83 would find their way in to “The Americans.”
As the images at CBU illustrate, it was everyday life Frank was after: a car accident on Route 66 near Flagstaff, Arizona; the mood of a Hollywood premiere; a view from a hotel window in Butte, Montana.
The images are not pretty, nor are they composed in a typical fashion.
Some are blurry, others grainy, most are cropped in unconventional ways. It’s the small details that seem to matter most to Frank: the menu at a lunch counter; a pregnant belly; a burning cigar; a black woman with a white baby; a furtive glance. American flags turn up in many of the collection’s images – crisp and clean in some, threadbare and dirty in others.
The overall effect of the collection is less like a document and more like a poem: there is abundance and freedom in America, Frank seems to be saying, but there is profound loneliness and alienation too.
“The Americans” was first published in France in 1958 to little fanfare. In that edition, the images were placed alongside excerpts from writers like John Steinbeck, who did with words what Frank accomplished with images: he pierced the paradoxes of American life too.
A year later “The Americans” appeared in the United States in a stripped down form. The only text – save for the photo captions – was written by Jack Kerouac, author of the beat classic “On the Road.” The photographer and the writer had met in New York City. “The faces don’t editorialize or criticize or say anything,” Kerouac observed in the introduction, “but ‘This is how we are in real life’.”
Critics were far less generous. The technique was shoddy, they said, and the collection’s message was grossly unfair and possibly subversive. It was a “sad poem for sick people.”
The 1950s were an era of postwar prosperity, patriotism, and Cold War anxieties. The tensions that would later give rise to the Civil Rights movement and youth countercultures had yet to be released fully. Like jazz, Frank’s collection cut against the conformity of the era – both artistically and politically. Few understood at the time.
But that critical perception would change in the decades that followed. And in time “The Americans” would be hailed as revolutionary. Frank would continue to evolve and change as an artist, notably as a filmmaker. He started living in the Mabou area beginning in the early 1970s. His position in the canon of twentieth century visual art is now uncontested.
That some of these images are at CBU is testament to the vision of Father D.F. Campbell, the institution’s first president, who viewed the liberal arts as fundamental to the then college’s educational mission. While details of the picture’s acquisition are hard to come by, there is no ambiguity over their artistic value: they are amazing. And they are here on the island for us to see.
This blog originally appeared in the Cape Breton Post’s, Community Post.