Framing Americans: Juxtaposing Photographic Histories
If Robert Frank could respond to Kerouac’s introductory claim “You [Robert] got eyes,” his retort may consist of something along the lines of “No, I got heart.” As Sarah Greenough articulates in “Resisting Intelligence,” Frank found poetic lyricism in his departure from the European formalism that characterized his structured Swiss upbringing. Unlike the carefully composed frames of Cartier-Bresson, Frank sought liberation in the act of taking the photograph, the intuition that occurred in the moment, and the valuing of one’s heart as a conduit of personal expression as opposed to one’s eyes or brain as sources of culturally imposed values. The Americans, in subject matter and in form, was a testament to this freedom of method and composition. The search for a pictorial national identity of a nation founded on liberty licensed Frank to adopt a more liberal approach to depicting his reality on film. In many ways, the book became Frank’s navigation of his own identity in the borderlands between inclusion and exclusion as his own national identity was constantly in flux.
Robert Frank matured in a country that was, and always has been, in between. Switzerland epitomized the borderlands: between three politically active countries, as a neutral nation between opponents in war, and between languages. Like Switzerland, America is defined by a search for national unity in the face of explicit diversity. This search for commonality across seemingly disparate entities, whether they be geographies or races of people, is a quality Frank aimed for. Consequently, the emphasis on the importance of empathy is visible in his photographs.
Other artists have historically taken American identity to be the source of inspiration for their photographic journey through the country, most notably Frank’s mentor Walker Evans, and his contemporary Richard Avedon. However, the photographs from American Photographs and In the American West, both establish a distance between the spectator and the subject of the photographs. For example, Evans’ photographs as commissioned by the Farm Security Administration as a byproduct of Roosevelt’s Dust Bowl, exotifies the working poor and the signage that is indicative of their environment. There is an inherent voyeurism that exists in a photograph like “Sharecropper’s Family” as the viewer of the photograph is posited at the place of the photographer who has clearly composed this family portrait for the sake of the photograph. At the other extreme, Avedon’s portraits of Americans he encountered aims to destabilize the romanticized notion of manifest destiny. By suspending the unreality of the representation and forcing the viewer to call into question the idea of the prosperous West, Avedon makes a political statement about America’s ignorance of its poor underclass. The glamour shots of the working American succeeds in defamiliarizing the spectator from this notion of the average American. While Evans’ photographs reestablished the difference between subject and spectator, the portrayal of Avedon’s figures on a flat picture plane collapses the space between the spectator and the viewer in so far as the subject of the photograph is brought into direct conversation with the spectator. Nevertheless, the spectator maintains a position of power despite the returned gaze of the subject (as in Sandra Bennett) as Avedon’s figures are portrayed as if specimens on a microscopic slide removed from any contextualizing environmental cues.
On the other hand, Robert Frank situates the subjects of his photographs in the borderlands between these two extremes. The viewer, in Frank’s photographs, neither gaze voyeuristically from afar, nor engage in direct conversation, but rather she is in the shoes of the subject. The framing of the photograph is such that the picture is rarely taken straight on, but rather, from a diagonal that creates a sense of dynamism in the skewed linear perspective. This sense of depth allows the viewer to empathize with the subjects on a personal and emotional level rather than on the level of visual scrutiny as is the case with both Evans’ and Avedon’s photographs. In conjunction with the cropped “over the shoulder” perspective, Frank immerses the viewer in the midst of his subjects. This participatory approach to photography narrates Frank’s own journey through a country of which he was both a member and a stranger.