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.

12 comments:

Double E said...

those are radio vacume TUBES, not transistors which were invented in the 1950's.

Anonymous said...

Double E, your correction is pivotal to any appreciation of this book. Indeed it warrants a reappraisal of Frank's life, work and artistic probity. Tube, not transistor, eh, damn it, that old rascal...And I thought he was just a regular guy.

Anonymous said...

Save us from this.

Chapa said...

Good blog!

Anonymous said...

this blog is for nerds. nowadays everything seems to be, but in the end is not.
are you experienced? no, just seem to be, but in the end i've just read and watched books about it.

Anonymous said...

No...this blog is for Geeks not Nerds you fuckin' Dork.

Anonymous said...

In the room the women come and go
talking of Michelangelo.

Anonymous said...

we are faced with an open phone book... ...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...

It's funny how people try to find things that aren't there in an attempt to look smart and insightful.

It is also an image of weight as the book seems to be surrendering under its own heaviness.

A picture of a phone book? Yeah, heavy stuff man.

Laying it on pretty thick.

I think this book is a great buy at the $13 it costs on amazon and a wonderful look into the beginnings of this great photographer. But damn, let's not get carried away...

jeff ladd said...

"It's funny how people try to find things that aren't there in an attempt to look smart and insightful."

If it isn't there then how did I come up with the interpretation? I guess I just pulled it out of thin air huh. In your words with my only regard to be smart and insightful? That phonebook example is a stretch for your intellect?

Anonymous said...


If it isn't there then how did I come up with the interpretation?
Pulled it out of thin air or your imagination perhaps?

Is it beyond your intellect to realize people often read into things that which is not there? While I'm sure Frank was very smart and considered about his selections, I highly doubt a young artists commercial portfolio was as deeply intellectual as you suggest. But if you want to let your imagination run wild, then great, enjoy yourself.

J. Karanka said...

Hiya

Are the photographs that you attach representative? One of the things that attracts me to The Americans (yes, this is always going to be the obvious comparison) is how grounded and lively they are. There is in most of these shots a sort of lack of 'jazz' and search for an objectivism that might not be there. Many of them do look like 'better' prints, though, but that doesn't matter really. One of the things I like of Frank usually is the ease with which he shows normal things within a society, even if they are complicated. With all the eye for composition added.

Cheers,
Joni

Sean said...

"It's funny how people try to find things that aren't there in an attempt to look smart and insightful."

Isn't it funny how people like to make such remarks but will only do so behind the wall of anonymity? Anonymous, too scared to identify yourself for any reason?

Looking forward to the books new Errata Ed. books.