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.