Photos & Analysis
Robert Frank’s photography encountered early failure in the United States. Frank knew he had an attractive perspective, just the wrong method of capturing it. His first photographs were simple and obvious, without provoking any emotion. As he began to nurture under the wings of successful artists in New York’s artistic community, Frank started to change the way he took pictures. Taking on the Guggenheim fellowship, Frank “sought instead to capture his experience of the emotional tenor of people’s lives.”(9)
Furthermore, Frank’s experienced friends taught him how to formulate a photo book with themes and a purpose. Frank’s education influenced him to start each of his sections in The Americans with an American flag. Frank, as a Jew growing up during Nazism in Europe, came to America with an outsiders eye. The pictures of flags that he used to start his sections gave America a distorted image, drawn from his discovery of America’s true culture. Afterwards, Frank would begin The Americans with spectators and then increase the movement as the book went on. An example of Frank’s progression in movement are the second and third photographs in The Americans.
“City fathers – Hoboken, New Jersey,”shown above on the right, depicts leaders in the community spectating. Robert Frank focuses on the stasis of the moment and captures the ideal faces of leadership in the 1950s with the men’s overcoats and top hats. When the page is turned to “Political rally – Chicago,” Frank is no longer interested in the spectators but the subjects as well. Coming from a conservative country and background, the intensity and chaos seen at a political rally in America was shockingly attractive to Frank. Robert Frank was able to juxtapose the two pictures to illuminate the political picture in America. On one hand, there are the quite, old spectating men and on the other hand, there is a man exploding with emotion, exposing himself to his audience for votes.
The thought provoking experience one has when looking through The Americans was exactly the purpose Frank had intended it to have. After overcoming his early, banal photography, Frank captured the epitomes of America in a way that allowed his audience to interact and feel for his subjects. For example, when Frank decided to focus on the racism in the south, instead of photographing white and colored water fountains, he captured an African American maid carrying a white baby in Charleston, South Carolina. Robert Frank chose to take the picture that would be imbued in his viewers’ minds and to make them think about the moment he chose to capture. The way I understood Frank’s photographical philosophy was to photograph a topic subliminally and letting the audience discover it through thought and provocation.
One of the topics I wanted to focus on was class differentiation in Ann Arbor. “State Street” is the picture I took of a homeless man crossing the street with a stern emotion engraved in his face. The man in the photograph does not immediately strike one as homeless, but after closely looking at the aspects of this man, one is drawn into his life. The wrinkles on the man’s face, the long and thick, graying beard, his downward stare, and his possessions strapped to his back, all allude to the struggle and endeavors he has had to deal with. Moreover, capturing the man crossing the street shows his movement from place to place and home to home. I was empowered to depict a beaten down man in emotional thought, living in his own nomadic and isolated world, ignored by his surroundings because that is what has become the social norm. With Frank’s mentality in mind, I began to take time to become aware of everything around me and was enabled to portray class differentiation through a thought provoking photograph.
Robert Frank, in his photo book The Americans, was excellent in capturing people engrossed in their surroundings. In my photo, “In the zone,” I attempted to embody Frank’s purpose and method he used to take the photo, “Backyard – West Venice, California.” Aside from the fact that in both pictures the subjects were captured without knowing, I believe that both subjects were one with their environment. In my photo, the student has his hand on his head, deeply concentrated in his studies. My purpose in taking the picture through the shelves of books was not only to take the picture from a stalker’s perspective, but also to literally and figuratively show the student is surrounded by academics. His mind is in the world of his literature, while his body is buried behind many shelves of books. In Frank’s photograph, the man looks as if he has been sitting in the same place for years, growing old with his environment. The overgrown backyard along with the man’s plopped over hand accentuates the subject’s fixed position. The man’s environment is so overwhelmingly distracting that the man seems to blend in and is combined with it.
While capturing the essence of Ann Arbor, I began to notice the different directions people were facing in my photographs. I looked back into The Americans to see if Robert Frank found a similar phenomenon of perpendicular and parallel glances. Interestingly enough, The Americans had a few photographs that fell into this category. One that drew my eye was “Yale Commencement – New Haven, Connecticut,” which is shown below. In this photograph, the man is directly facing the opposite direction of the line of graduates, while their gazes are parallel. I decided to juxtapose this photograph to “Salvation Army” because in my picture, the two subjects are facing each other with parallel glances, while the pedestrian in the background is facing directly perpendicular away from them. With these two photographs side-by-side, the viewer is able to see the imaginary lines drawn from each person’s eyes and it’s interesting effect it has on the images as a whole.
The photo book, The Americans, was meticulously put together in an order that gave it meaning. I too attempted to give my slideshow’s structure a purpose. Like Frank, I started my photo collection with an American flag. Although Frank decided to focus on distorting the people in “Parade – Hoboken, New Jersey,” I decided to distort the flag itself. Frank wanted to show that the reputation of the American people and its culture was not what it seemed. He did this by taking a picture of women from Hoboken, New Jersey covered by a flag and shadow. In my photograph, “Main Street,” the glass windows misshaped the flag and it struck me that Ann Arbor’s culture was not what people thought. Many people, when thinking of Ann Arbor, instantly think of it as a great college town and pictures of the University of Michigan, its sports teams and academic buildings come to mind. When I began to walk around the city with Frank’s perspective in my mind, I began to look at the famous college town differently. I began to see students struggling to stay awake to cram for a test, people blatantly ignoring the helpless homeless people on the street, and diverse relationships as opposed to the picture-perfect college campus. After the flag photograph, I put two pictures of different people in need. The first was a man sitting on the ground, waiting to be helped by the next friendly stranger that would spare some change. The next one was of a man determined to work for his money, using his talents to his advantage. The two pictures are connected by the class and status of the subjects, but their paths to obtaining the same thing are very different. Robert Frank in The Americans placed the “Funeral – St. Helena, SC” and “Rodeo – Detroit” next to each other in his photo book. The connection between the two people are their hand gestures, but the meaning of the two photos together is important. Frank wanted to show that although in the 1950s there was major race segregation, whites and blacks can act and feel the same way. Like Frank, I attempted to show that in Ann Arbor, not everyone is a go-getter, but there are some that wait instead of pursuing.
The first photograph in each slide show corresponds to each other but afterwards, the slideshows can be viewed separately. The “Ann Arbor Natives” slideshow is meant to expose the culture in Ann Arbor, similar to the way Frank portrayed American culture in his photo book, “The Americans.” The slide show I made of his photos is a very abridged version of his actual photo book.
Below are additional images combined with those in the slide show that I took around Ann Arbor.