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final day for Frank

This scan is from the dust jacket of the most recent edition of the famous book first published in 1958 in France. The first US edition was published by Grove Press in 1959, and it's never really been out of print since.

Under the "better late than never" theory, some mention should be made of last week end's trip to Washington to see the exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the publication of this landmark book. Being only 6 at the time of publication, and not interested in photography books until 2001, I have to accept the opinions of the experts that The Americans truly was something radical for its day. The exhibit doesn't dwell on that aspect of the book, merely mentioning here and there the reception. What is examined in great detail is the process that Robert Frank went through to produce the book: his earlier photography in Peru, Wales, London; his grant application for a Guggenheim Fellowship (which took advantage of his friendship with Walker Evans who edited his application, reviewed it as one of the grant committee, and recommended his acceptance as same); letters to Evans while on the road; recreation of many work prints to give the impression of his editing chores; a display of all the contact sheets from the travels; and two large galleries devoted to the prints selected for the book.

Having exhibition size prints to evaluate the photographs is obviously a big help. None of the prints in the Steidl edition of the book are larger than 7.75 x 5.125 in - not large enough to get more than an impression. The show presents them in a manner which really honors the photographs. The book is more about sequence and context and groupings. The exhibit allows one to appreciate the individual images, while also making some of the sequencing more obvious when prints are directly beside one another on the wall, rather than on following pages of a book. (The most obvious for me was "Belle Isle - Detroit" with an open black car driving left to right followed by "Detroit" of a closed white car driving right to left. They're certainly heading for a collision, which came twelve years later.)

For those who don't have a copy of the book and are interested in all of the material in the exhibit, the catalogue contains much of it, including all the contact sheets, and all the images in the original book. BTW, the sequence is the same, but images are printed in facing pages, whereas Frank's design of the book has each image on its own page facing a blank page with caption.

Today is the final day to see the exhibit in Washington. Sorry this isn't much warning. Alas, the show travels to San Francisco and New York later in 2009. Go see it. The images are still powerful fifty years later.

Thanks to Roger Wiley for making the trip and meeting me in Washington.

Charleston - South Carolina by Robert Frank

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