Robert Frank and American Photography

The current Robert Frank Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York is not only important because of the extraordinary work of the photographer. It is a beautiful example of ethnography and photography intermingling without the need to intellectualize or in Roland Barthes's terms, without the need to declare the message in an open and direct fashion. Drawing upon a set of experiences that saw Frank criss-cross America in the 1950's by car sometimes alone and sometimes with his family, the images bring the rich diversity of American life into a wonderful inventory of the banal, the unusual and the fantastic. The images were published as a book and much has been written about them and about the book itself. Frank set the book up as a sequence of images and if you take the time, a story begins to unfold. The core of the narrative to me is displacement. To varying degrees, Frank witnessed post-war America beginning to redefine itself. Many of the images link landscapes to faces and most of the faces seem to be searching for some sense of definition. A coffee shop becomes exotic not only because of its unusual signage but because the people in it gaze outwards searching to define their experiences. In fact, many of the images have people glancing backwards at the photographer as if to say, there is not much here, why are you interested? The desolation is best represented by an empty gas station where all you see is gas pumps set against a dry landscape.

The only book comparable to Robert Frank's was "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," published in 1941. Both books share a fascination with the human gaze, with that look that comes from not being able to see what the photographer is doing. The subject of the photographs can never take control and in knowing this they give a gift to the photographer of their most private feelings. Both Walker Evans and Robert Frank understood the irony of communicating something of the essence of a person or situation *because* of the power they held. In so doing they left a heritage of American life that is openly steeped in artifice but never the less profound for doing so.

Photographic Fictions (2)

The average digital camera owner has over 5,000 photos in various libraries, which in the digital age is a rather quaint name for data that cannot be cataloged using conventional means. Even a Flickr library is about editing time, that is organizing sequences, blocking out events and arranging photographs so that some sort of story can be told. But, this is a different activity from creating a photo album and is closer to a scrapbook.


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All this material is grist and fodder for even more complex social networks that can be accessed through mobile means and at home. Links become a crucial part of all this, but where does aesthetics end up? That perhaps is the key question because networks are only partially visible to those who use them and data is only that, information. The raw nature of information means that "editing" is now an activity of time management — the time needed to organize material and content — the development of typologies and catalogs to organize content, not only when photos were taken but superimposed Google maps to show location even though geography may not be that significant to the photograph and its look.

Photos are defined more by connections than by their individual nature, more by their virtual location on Facebook than by their links to events in real time. Photos move along a continuum from events to their classification and from there to screen-based albums, folders and projects. They are rarely printed.

Tenement in the 1940's or How Photography Makes History

The Library of Congress' photos on Flickr

 

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The act of taking a photograph is a way of preserving memories, but is also the way in which history (both personal and public) is produced.

“One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon's youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realised then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: “I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.” (Roland Barthes)

The eyes of the emperor’s brother once looked straight into a camera, in this case ‘manned’ by a photographer whose duty it was to take pictures of the rich and powerful. Jerome’s eyes had been privileged enough to look into Napoleon’s eyes. The photograph as described by Roland Barthes allowed him to establish a relay between Jerome (in the 1850’s) and the modern readers of CAMERA LUCIDA This juxtaposition of time and space is at the root of Barthes’s meditation on photography in CAMERA LUCIDA. Barthes provides us with the social and cultural matrix at the heart of his activi­ties as a viewer and as a cultural analyst. CAMERA LUCIDA is part analysis, part theory, a personal examination of the role of photography in Barthes’s life and an hommage to Jean-Paul Sartre’s book, THE PSYCHOLOGICAL IMAGINATION. An extraordinary number of essays and articles have been written about CAMERA LUCIDA and Barthes’s work. My purpose here is to interrogate the photographic image in historical and cultural terms. Barthes is a focus, but this short piece is designed to raise a primary distinction between photographs and images. My premise is that this distinction will allow us to more clearly understand the role played by the viewer in the experience and interpretation of images.

One of the aims of the project of CAMERA LUCIDA is to discover whether there is an interpretive space betweeen image and photograph which will allow for if not encourages new ways of thinking and seeing. Barthes tests many strategies of interpretation with regard to photographic meaning, but much of the book is governed by an emphasis on death, the death of his mother, the death of photography as a form of cultural expression, the death of the interpreter. “If photography is to be discussed on a serious level, it must be described in relation to death. It’s true that a photograph is a witness, but a witness of something that is no more. Even if the person in the picture is still alive, it is a moment of this subject’s existence that was photographed, and this moment is gone. This is an enormous trauma for humanity, a trauma endlessly renewed. Each reading of a photo and there are billions worldwide in a day, each perception and reading of a photo is implicitly, in a repressed manner, a contract with what has ceased to exist, a contract with death.”

This theme has been researched and commented on by a number of writers but my sense is that Barthes is exploring the meaning of death at the symbolic and imaginary level. Death in this instance speaks to the frailty of memory, but most importantly, Barthes follows the writings of Bataille in recognizing the silence of the photograph in the face of all that is done to it. “Death is a disappearance. It’s a suppresion so perfect that at the pinnacle utter silence it its truth. Words can’t describe it. Here obviously I’m summoning a silence I can only approach from the outside or from a long way away.”

The distinction then between image and photograph is about the cacophony of voices which engulf the silent photograph. My position is somewhat different from Barthes. He is worried about loss and absence. My concern is with the rich discourse which arises from the human encounter with images and the creative use which is made of photographs as they are placed into different contexts.

 

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