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