Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Peru and Paris by Robert Frank

Forging ahead with the Robert Frank project, Steidl has released two new books of Robert’s work -- Peru and Paris.

Both of these books feature work that precedes The Americans and much of what we are privy to in them has not been seen before.

The first book, Peru, is work that Frank made on an extended trip to that country in 1948. Frank has said of the trip, "I was very free with the camera. I didn't think of what would be the correct thing to do; I did what I felt good doing. I was like an action painter."

What is interesting here is that Frank made a couple copies of a spiral bound book of this work in 1949 (similar to his now famous Black and White and Things) and mailed a copy to his mother in Switzerland and kept the other for himself. The book was made from prints attached back to back to make up the full pages. He printed the images small on the paper leaving white spaces around them much like what we see in this new book. The two copies now reside in the Museum of Modern Art in NY and in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. This edition presents the entire series in much the same manner as the original maquettes from 1949.

Some of this work appeared in Incas to Indios, the book published by Delpire that included Pierre Verger and Warner Bischof. To me there was always something unsatisfying about that book even though I enjoy the photographs and layout. To see this work together and sequenced on its own serves as an interesting guide to Frank’s ideas of how to link images together.

Peru, like the re-issue of The Americans, has beautiful printing with what seems like a satin varnish that makes the tonalities rich but not oppressively so. A friend who has seen many of these original prints commented recently that the reproductions mimic the tonalities and character of the originals.

There is no text to Peru, just 39 photographs configured on the pages with an energy that none of his other books but Black and White and Things explored. It is for these qualities that this has become one of my new favorite books of the year.

Paris is the second book released this season and it sits in stark contrast to Peru.
In the late 1940s after he emigrated to New York and established working contacts here, Frank returned to Europe on several occasions between 1949 and 1952. Within that time Frank spent a large amount of time photographing in Paris and this book collects 70 of the images together for the first time.

In an editorial note in the back of this book it is mentioned that Frank’s experiences in America “sharpened his eye for theOld World.’” This notion of the Old World comes across as steeped in sentimentality in today’s terms. Most everything about this book, from the flower sellers to the clothing, holds a longing for the past but luckily I don’t think Frank can ever be thought of as saccharine. The photos still have an edge of melancholy and the struggle of life. It is interesting to mention that many of the same photographs of flower sellers appear in his book Flower is... to a much different effect than the over all tone of this one.

Several of these photos have been seen elsewhere (such as my favorite of a child seeming to hold a monstrosity of a horse at bay while his companions flee) but I think what brings this book down is the edit. There are a few images that probably should have been left out even though I go out of my way to see every “new” image by Frank that I can. One other curiosity is that a fine vertical image of a couple in a streetcar appears to be cropped oddly when an uncropped version appeared in the Steidl catalog announcing the book.

I like the size of this book (almost the same trim size as Pierre Verger’s Indians of Peru and with similar dark red endpapers) and the printing is as fine as the others but the design is problematic to my eyes. One trait is to go over the gutter with certain images and although I am lightening up on my attitude to such things -- here they push only about 1/5th of the photo over to the other page. I don’t understand the necessity as they are not gaining much “real estate” for the photo while adding a huge divider to it. Other spreads work much better where the images -- bled to the page edge on the longest ends -- meet in the gutter and form a diptych across the spread. Most of those make for wonderful pairings of images.

Robert Frank is my other favorite photographer so I am probably much more forgiving than I would be had someone else’s name been on the cover. Several friends of mine seem to think that a book like this waters down a great man’s oeuvre coming so late in life but I say keep them coming. They may not always work as books but then maybe he just raised the bar so high that our image of him needs to be brought back down to human terms. Perhaps in the end, that is what that odd evening at the Walter Reade Theater was all about.

Buy Peru at Steidlville

Buy Paris at Steidlville


Anonymous said...

I agree with you, such books show the complexity of Frank's oeuvre. Also, your friends should remember how young Frank was when he shot those photos. It takes much confidence to built one's very own language and that what the 25 year-old Robert does in front of us through these books.
The sad aspect of those publications is that they come so late in that man's life (and in mine - as a young photographer, I would have loved to have access to them).

Double E said...

the original peru book has been accessible for years to those who make an appt at MOMA photography collection.

Stuart Alexander said...

I had always thought that 'From Incas to Indios' (US edition, Universe Books, of Delpire, 'Indiens pas morts') was supposed to be only Werner Bischof photographs of Peru, and that his fatal car crash kept him from making enough pictures for the book so it was augmented by the photos of Frank and Verger, but looking at the picture count makes me think that perhaps it was supposed to be Verger's book (50 photos) and Delpire thought it needed Bischof (13 photos) and Frank (14 photos) to fill out the selection. I guess we need to ask Delpire point blank.

It is too bad that they did not simply reprint 'Mary's Book' in facsimile instead of creating this new Paris book. A facsimile spread can be seen in the 1994 National Gallery of Art catalogue, 'Moving Out.'

Jan V said...

I always tought that Robert Frank made the Peru photos when asked by Robert Delpire to replace Werner Bischof. Bishof died in a car crash in Peru while working on Incas to Indios (or 'Indiens pas morts' as my French copy is called). Or am I mixing things up?.

Stuart Alexander said...

Jan V,
Frank had already made his Peru pictures in 1948 before he met Delpire in 1952 and before Bischof went to photograph in Peru in 1954. Delpire published 28 of Frank's Peru photos in a special issue of his review called 'Neuf' in late 1952, shortly after first meeting Frank. What is not clear to me is what was Delpire's plan for the 1956 book.

Jan Vandemoortele said...

Thanks for the clearification, Stuart.

I've seen a copy of Neuf somewhere - probably on Ebay - but I didn't notice the date

Now I was certain I've read that story of Frank replacing Bischof somewhere. I didn't have to look very far. One folder down in 'My Favorites' a well known American photobookseller says "Werner Bischof was killed in Peru while making the photos for this book. In order to complete the work, Robert Frank was hired".

But - like Jeff - I always found 'Indiens pas Morts' a bit unsatisfactory. I also believe the French and English/American editions use different authors for the introduction. I've sometimes wondered why.

Stuart Alexander said...

Jan, Now you know that the 'well known photobookseller' does not always get it right and neither do the well known photobook references.

Double E said...

i see Incas to Indios more as an 'editors' book rather than a photographers book - Delpire, Arthaud, Hartmann etc produced numerous ( and some Very nice) books in the postwar (Europe) years that use work of 2, 3, 4 or more photographers work - subject driven books - countries, cultures etc. a few have Verger and Bischof paired up. rumor has it that a new edition on Incas to Indios is in the works with Martin Chambi added.

Anonymous said...

+god bless robert frank+

Robert Stevens said...

Re. the Paris book, too bad famous publishers still don't seem to know how to make a book. Why would Stiedl bind this book so the the letter "L" in Fleurs is missing and the same for one of the letters on the gypsy wagon - "mur de mort" -- I am stunned that publishers still don't understand it after years and years of putting photos in book form. I have a very low opinion of their talent!

Anonymous said...

I purchased this book based on your review and recommendation. I received the book in the mail yesterday and went through it several times and must say that I really like it. I have a large collection of photography books, many large retrospective types, but books of this size and scale are my favorites. They're size fits nicely into your hands/lap and feels like a small treasure. The smaller size of the photos enables one to look at the whole photograph at once with alot of scanning which I think helps in the appreciation of the composition of the photo.

Thanks very much for the review of this wonderful book, without such I probably would never have seen or bought it.


PS - I truly appreciate your wonderful blog - please keep up the great work!