Monday, December 14, 2009

Portfolio: 40 Photos 1941/1946 by Robert Frank

Before arriving to New York, Robert Frank prepared a portfolio of 40 photographs in order to introduce his work to magazine editors. Upon close inspection, Frank's work from the time treads a fine line between the older school pictorialists with Aldolf Herz at its center and the New Vision advocates which included Frank's teacher Gotthard Schuh. The New Vision shows through with his experimenting with angles and pairing images sans text or caption while the pictorialist in him finds an attraction to beautiful vistas and architecture as well as the rural farm life outside of Zurich.

Opening to the first page of Frank's Portfolio just published by Steidl, we are faced with an open phone book, brightly lit and lying on a field of black. I can't help but to think this is Frank's sly nod to the difficulty he may face upon breaking into the field of commercial photography. An open phone book, full of names, it is as if Frank is saying 'find me, pick me' among thousands of competitors.

It is also an image of weight as the book seems to be surrendering under its own heaviness. This is followed by two images which are weightless - the first of a snow scene and the facing page, a ray of sunlight described from a vantage point where we feel as if we are hovering over a small mountain village.

The 'weightless' and the 'grounded' are two opposing themes that Frank repeatedly uses to move us through this sequence. Three radio transistors in a product shot float into the sky while a music conductor, his band and a church steeple succumb to gravity on the facing page. Even in this image Frank shifts focus to the sky and beyond - the weightless. When he photographs rural life, the farmers heft whole pigs into the air and another carries a huge bale of freshly cut grain which seems featherlight but for the woman trailing behind with hands ready to assist.

Considering this work was made while fascism was on the move through Europe, external politics is felt through metaphor. A painted portrait of men in uniform among a display of pots and pans for sale faces a brightly polished cog from a machine - its teeth sharp and precise. In another pairing, demonstrators waving flags in the streets of Zurich face a street sign covered with snow and frost, a Swiss flag blows in the background. in yet another of a crowd of spectators face the illuminated march of a piece of machinery - its illusory shadow filling in the ranks. These pairings feel under the influence of Jakob Tuggener, whose work Frank certainly knew. Like Tuggener, Frank tackles the task of seemingly incongruous subject matter and finds a harmony through edit and assembly.

Again and again throughout this portfolio, Frank is not just trying to show his prowess in making images but in pairing them. They define conflicts in life. One boy struggles to climb a rope while a ski jumper is frozen in flight. Fisherman bask in sunlight while two pedestrians are caught in blinding snowfall.

Like the telephone book of self-reference at the beginning, Frank finishes his sequence with a climber reaching the summit of a mountain. He is connected by safety-line to the person making the photograph. The climber looks a little like a young Robert Frank, and if one suspends disbelief for a moment, the bright line of rope caught in the sunlight, leads straight down to a dangling camera lens - tying the young Robert to the medium for which he seemed chosen.