When Robert Frank's first book of photographs, The Americans (1958), was originally published, it jangled a few American nerves. The landscapes and cityscapes that had inspired previous generations of American documentary photographers were nowhere to be found in his oeuvre. From the position of an interested outsider, Frank gazed with a stranger's eye, and what he saw was dramatically at odds with America's vision of itself. Instead of the overpowering landscapes of Utah or Montana with their monumental rocks and endless skies, he saw a dark, empty, endless, hypnotic highway, pulling in all who gazed into its black vanishing point. Instead of a luscious white beach in Laguna, he saw the dingy sand of Coney Island littered with a homeless man and a couple of drunks, hugging one another for warmth on a barren, windswept, beach. Or he glimpsed a trolley car in New Orleans with its passengers (whites at the front, blacks at the back) staring wearily out of its dirt-streaked windows onto a vista of hopelessness and frustration. Frank's was an outsider's gaze, relentless, on the move, dispassionate.
Labelled as a Communist by some, Frank was eyed suspiciously by the public and the art cognoscenti alike. Even Walker Evans, who had supported the photographer's application for a Guggenheim fellowship for the project, felt the images were inspired by anger and resentment. Yet it wasn't only Americans who were disturbed by Frank's vision of America. The response of a friend in Switzerland was a mixture of shock and sadness: 'I do not know America, but your photographs scare me... How little one finds of what we knew and of what we loved in your earlier work'. The implication seems to be that Frank's America was one with which Europeans were unfamiliar and that, in some mysterious way, his journey through this America had changed the man.
This reaction to the photographs raises some fascinating issues that have bothered social critics and aesthetic commentators throughout the century. What distinguishes American photography from its European counterparts? Why does the American vista look so different when viewed from the different perspectives of Europe and the USA?
Frank's stunning retrospective certainly emphasises some of the clear distinctions between American and European documentary photography. Having studied photography in Zurich and Geneva, he was well acquainted with the European traditional cultures both of the visual arts and literature. His characteristic use of the formalistic device of estrangement is quintessentially European. Some of his best images bring one through a series of perceptual jolts to a recognition of some kind of reality often ignored by documentary realist photographers. The white street line in the centre of New York's 5th Avenue is the subject of an early photograph from 1951. Throngs of people and the city's skyscraper stores are reduced to a seething, purgatorial mass on the peripheries as the white line pulls us out of the nightmare towards some hazy, unknown light beyond. Frank's fragmented landscapes arrest an ambiguous reality. If the landscapes of Ansel Adams or Walker Evans embrace the viewer, then Frank's unemotional intrusions compel a critical reading of distance. There is a synchronous poetry entailed in the act of looking. We are forced to make connections, to speculate about the vantage point he has chosen to select.
Frank's work was also impacted by European Existentialism, and by the time he started to live and work in America, a similar brand of Existential questioning was being posited by such writers as Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, who would later cross paths with Frank in the mid-50s. This younger generation of writers were surely picking up on the disenchantment felt by many Americans who had lived through the depression of the 30s and the embattled traumas of the 40s.
Frank's early images of a scarred and lonely landscape with its solitary, wounded individuals are mingled with glimpses of hope and redemption, birth and death, desperation and endurance, resilience and persistence. They echo the sentiments of the Beat generation because they seem to resonate powerfully with the emotional spaces that the artist discovered within himself: his own wilfulness of mind and wandering soul.
For a period of about 15 years, Frank suspended his work in photography and concentrated on making a number of experimental films. But in the early 70s he moved to Nova Scotia with his second wife, the artist June Leaf, and returned to photography. There is a perceptible change in the focus of the work - a more personal sense of intimacy with the world around him emerges, as well as a growing, weary acknowledgement of the impossibility of the photograph to capture truth, because the world itself is always changing. End of Dream (1992), depicts the coastline of Mabou, Nova Scotia, where snow-capped rocks hug the water line. Smaller inset photographs collaged onto the scene present close-ups of natural phenomena and images of a shadow man interacting with the rocks like ancient petroglyphs come to life. Writing about the work in his diary, Frank recognises where his journey has led him: 'It's just another title, End of Dream - every year the ice melts, the wind and tides take the broken-up pieces out to sea. It is also the portrait of a man waiting for another spring another vision... another dream...'.
Ultimately, the retrospective represents a documented questioning of life's meaning, of man's relationship to his environment and to the world. In short, it is a wrestling with images that can resonate and sustain meaning beyond the vagaries of time and place. That many of the photos were, and still remain, disturbing pictures of the spirit and culture of America in the 50s is almost beside the point when pitted against the larger issues of searching for meaning through the passion of one's work.