Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Robert Frank: 81 Contact Sheets



A couple years ago I had heard rumored that the eccentric Japanese publisher Kazuhiko Motomura was working on a special "book" on Robert Frank's contact sheets from The Americans. That rumor had quieted a bit after Sarah Greenough's masterwork Looking In seemed to beat it to the punch by reproducing every sheet that had an image that appeared in Frank's final published edit, but Motomura proceeded anyway and Robert Frank: 81 Contact Sheets from The Americans is out. I have seen it and I have to say it is pretty amazing.

Now before you get too excited; A) it is very expensive at $1500.00 B) Mr Motomura only sells books to people who have bought in the past or will buy a set of ALL of his previous publications which totals around $7500.00 (including this new Frank). So that leaves me out and I guess a few of you too.

If you're one of his past patrons or wealthy, here's what you get. After getting past the shipping carton which I heard was a solid wooden crate, you discover a large very sturdy black box approximately 20 X 24 inches in size. On the front edge, a label with the edition number lets you know which copy of the 300 you own. Lifting the lid reveals a second box made of light wood - burned into the surface is an enlarged version of Frank's signature. Lifting that lid reveals the interior which is foam lined and cradles a silver folded portfolio upon which is embossed Frank's initials. This is lifted out and when opened, reveals a handmade japanese paper enclosure with a dark silver star at the right edge. Opening that you get to the meat of this endeavor - 81 individual enlarged contacts sheets held in place by a large belly-band.

The enlarged sheets are duotone printed with grey boarders and although I didn't measure them I estimate they are between 16X20 and 20X24 in size. Each individual frame is enlarged to approximately 2x3 inches - double the size of a normal 35mm frame. The reproduction is very well done. the images look sharp and certainly you will be able to discover more in each picture than in the Greenough book.

At the bottom of each sheet there is a number which corresponds to Frank's sequencing as they appear in the original book. Like in the Greenough's extensive study, these sheets have edit markings and show some edge wear of the original source material. They are unbound so leafing through them can be a bit cumbersome. My friend Ed, who has the copy seen above, said it took him a few days to get through all of it after an extra day or so getting the energy necessary to tackle it in the first place.

It's a damn impressive presentation but for me it is a bit over the top considering Frank's bohemian personality. If looked at through that perspective, this is so far removed that until you get to the sheets themselves, it doesn't feel like Frank's sensibility at all. I'd imagine Frank being more comfortable with each just showing up in a scruffy, edge-worn photo paper box. His photos are precious but the prints rarely seem as such.

Accompanying the sheets is a silver softcover booklet approximately 11 x 17 which has an index of each photo with commentary by Frank both in Japanese and English. To my knowledge, most of this commentary hasn't appeared elsewhere and although some of it has become the lore of The Americans there are many anecdotes that will certainly be of interest to Frankophiles.

Since the taste of sour grapes is strong, I am just going to buy a $15.00 loupe, unwrap my copy of Looking In from an oversized cigar box insulated with cheese cloth and have at the same material. That's the way I imagine Frank would have wanted it.

16 comments:

Matt Weber said...

This must be the same guy who published "Flower is", right? I like his books, but I'll have to use my loupe on the "Looking in" book too...At least you get to look at Ed's copy from time to time...

Anonymous said...

What do people hope to find by looking at the contacts? It's a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. We need to consign this guy to history.

Double E said...

anonymous: if you dont know why it is interesting to look at these contact sheets (or of any other great photographer), you probably should not be reading this blog.

Anonymous said...

Great? The guy won the lottery!

Jeff Ladd said...

I don't know what that means. Winning the lottery?

One thing I find interesting about Frank's sheets is that he mostly only took a couple variants of each picture if he even took a second exposure. Incidents like with the transvestites he worked over almost an entire sheet but that doesn't seem to be his usual method. Of course, there are 700 some other sheets which didn't have one of the 83 final pictures which we haven't seen.

Gilles Peress once said that contact sheets "recreate the walk." To individual photos, that isn't an important aspect but to see decisions by the photographer I think is important. Especially when the sheets have the photographer's markings. Why one image over another is up for fascinating analysis.

Anonymous said...

He got lucky. Ie he's no greater than the next person. Working out how he did it is missing this entirely.

Jeff Ladd said...

Anon,

That's a little too reductionist for me although I agree that seeing these things has little to do with the book and what it speaks to, BUT, in the end, looking at contact sheets is looking at photographs. There are dozens if not hundreds on those sheets which are pretty amazing if taken by their own strength.

Mr. Whiskets said...

Matt W,

Yes he is the same publisher as the original Lines of My Hand and Flower is as well as other Japanese photographers books. Everything he has done in my opinion is quite good.

shutterstutter said...

Anonymous, It's fashionable to shout down the earlier generation of artists, whatever the medium. It's what moves the art onward. But hold off just for while, and leaf thoughtfully through The Americans (although I appreciate that might be difficult for you). After more than fifty years Frank's acute observations lose not an ounce of power and immediacy. Rarely do photographers come along with the same visual and political wit. If you really think he got lucky, why don't you try your luck - go on and turn that negative energy into something marvellous?

harbourmaster said...

Frank is to photography what Beckett is to literature. They are onto the same essence of humanity.

return-of-the-native said...

Jeff,

How wonderfully detailed is your description of Motomura's consignment, almost as if you had unpacked one yourself...

;-)

sebastian said...

if i remember this right there's a great story about motumara printed in the aperture 6070's japanese photobooks ..

Mr. Whiskets said...

ROTN,

No, I am not one of Mr Motomura's patrons to be "lucky" enough to buy one. But I am open to a gift from someone who is.

What I described is what you have to do everytime you want to peek in. Seems a little extreme.

Anonymous said...

Thanks shutterbug!

return_of_the_native said...

Could it be that Mr Frank himself has tapped a bluff into this log? Guess we will never know for sure.

Anonymous said...

Where can I find more information about Kazuhiko Motomura and his books. An internet search didn't turn up anything. Anyone know? Thanks, Leo