Portrait of a nation

Cantor Arts Center presents Robert Frank's iconic photographs of 1950s America

In the summer of 1955, a young man set out from New York City with a compact Leica camera to document America: its cities, its landscapes and its people. Four years later, he published "The Americans," a collection of stark, stirring photographs that together paint a portrait of a nation at a pivotal moment in its history.

Next Wednesday, Sept. 10, the Cantor Arts Center unveils many of these iconic images alongside some of Robert Frank's never-before-seen works. The result of a collaboration between Cantor Arts Center Director Connie Wolf and guest curator Peter Galassi, "Robert Frank in America" is composed of 130 photographs in total, more than half of which come from the Cantor's permanent collection. It marks the first major exhibition of Frank's American work from the 1950s.

Former chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, Galassi sorted through the Cantor's significant collection of Frank photographs, many of which were donated by Stanford alumnus Bowen H. McCoy and his colleague Raymond B. Gary in the 1980s. Other works came from major collections, and a few came from the artist himself. Galassi tracked down information for previously unidentified works and ultimately selected images that, in Wolf's words, "shed new light on Frank's entire body of work ... and put (his) legendary book into a broader and more complete context."

Born in 1924, Robert Frank immigrated to the United States from Switzerland in 1947. He had been trained in photography in his native country, but upon arriving in New York City found employment in the fashion industry. It wasn't until 1955 that Frank applied for and was granted a Guggenheim Fellowship. In his application, he professed a desire to travel around the country in order to document the effects of post-war industrialization. The grant permitted him to travel the length and breadth of the United States: from New York to Florida, then across the South before heading north and and west to Montana and California. A large-scale map of Frank's route is included in the exhibition, providing detailed information about his travels. Over a period of two years, Frank took thousands of pictures using his Leica: a small camera that allowed for quick and spontaneous shots. Frank himself chose the 83 photographs that were included in "The Americans," which was published in 1959 and included a rambling, free-form introduction by Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac.

Reaction to the book was swift -- and negative. "Aperture Magazine" declared it "a degradation of the nation," while "Popular Photography" criticized the quality of the prints as "a meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness." The first edition sold only 600 copies. Following its publication, Frank all but gave up still photography and pursued a career as a filmmaker.

"The Americans" would eventually be hailed as a work of genius: a clear, incisive and detached portrayal of a diverse people emerging from the deprivations of World War II, only to be caught up in the emptiness of commercialism and an even more terrifying Cold War.

Perhaps the negative reaction to Frank's book can be explained in part by that quality of detachment. Frank's perspective is neither patriotic nor critical; his images seem to exist outside of any political agenda.

"'The Americans' is a passionate work of art, but it isn't propaganda for any cause," Galassi explained.

Indeed, the images Galassi has chosen -- and sequenced in much the same way as they appear in Frank's book -- range freely across the American experience, and fall into a loose grouping of themes: mobility, entertainment, the importance of symbols, the vastness of the landscape and the recurring trope of the individual caught in a crowd.

Over the course of his midcentury photographic study, Frank captured the American fascination with the then-new technology of television. In "Florida, 1958," a wooden box on spindly legs stands proudly outside a store, as if waiting to be purchased by a lucky family.

Frank took a number of pictures in and around Hollywood, but his close-cropped photograph of the back of the iconic hilltop sign ("Hollywood, 1958") best captures the true nature of the place -- a razzle-dazzle first impression that's ultimately revealed as little more than a flimsy facade.

Other prints suggest Frank's amazement at the wide-open prairies so unlike the mountains of his home. With its endless trajectory into a flat horizon, "Lusk, Wyoming, 1956" suggests both admiration of and alienation.

The vastness of America -- and the national preoccupation with traversing that vastness -- is a recurring theme in "The Americans." In "Beaufort, South Carolina, 1955," a black man and woman sit on the hood of a Chevrolet, smiling broadly at the lens. Frank did not always meet with such friendliness; in fact, many of his subjects regard him with outright distrust, and Frank learned to snap photos quickly when necessary. As writer Charlie LeDuff noted, "The truth of the matter is the book was a drive-by job."

In an April 2008 interview with "Vanity Fair," Frank himself admitted to rarely interacting with his subjects. "No time, no time," he is quoted as having said. "I had to move."

Even as he remained in constant motion, Frank captured images of the segregated South that inflamed a public teetering on the brink of the Civil Rights Movement. His candid portraits of the Jim Crow era forced viewers to confront a disturbing reality that would soon topple.

Galassi cites "Savannah, Georgia, 1955" among the most telling of these shots. "It gave me a hint about Frank's pictorial instincts," he said. "It is a line-up of distinctly drawn characters that includes an African-American man. It is a sharp indictment of the Jim Crow South, but it is much more than that, too."

Aesthetically, Frank's photography flew in the face of all that had been traditionally viewed as artful. There were angles instead of centered subjects, graininess rather than clear outlines and obscure lighting. They were, in a word, messy -- a far cry from the careful compositions of his predecessor Ansel Adams. Frank's shot-from-the-hip technique would become the standard for future "street photographers" including Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus.

Previous retrospective exhibitions of Frank's work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery have celebrated the enduring appeal of the 83 photographs in "The Americans," but "Robert Frank in America" takes a deeper look at the photographer's achievements, and offers a rare glimpse into a fascinating and formative period of our nation's history.

Freelance writer Sheryl Nonnenberg can be emailed at nonnenberg@aol.com.

What: Robert Frank in America

Where: Cantor Arts Center, 328 Lomita Drive, Stanford

When: Sept. 10-Jan. 5. Wed.-Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Thurs. 11 a.m.-8 p.m.

Cost: Free.

Info: Go to museum.stanford.edu or call 650-723-4177.

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