Robert Frank’s Curious Perspective

In his book The Americans, Robert Frank changed photography. Fifty years on, it still unsettles

Frank sought to compile "a spontaneous record of a man seeing this country for the first time." Indianapolis, 1956 is typically short on particulars but laden with symbols. (Robert Frank)
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"Whaddya got?" he replies.

In the '50s, a photograph of black people on a Harley-Davidson even had political implications; it hinted at the failed promises that the civil rights movement would try to redress. It captures the nation's contradictions: the couple has yet to experience the freedom the motorcycle represents. You want rebellion? Here are some people with good reasons to defy authority.

John Szarkowski, the late director of the Museum of Modern Art's photography collection, wrote in 1989 that "the more distressing new quality in Frank's pictures was their equivocating indirection, their reluctance to state clearly and simply either their subject or their moral."

The ambiguity of Indianapolis, 1956 is underscored by its place as the next-to-last photograph in the book. As the penultimate image, we feel it must be important—a summarizing statement that gathers together the themes from the previous pages. But like so many of Frank's images, it is just another sharp-edged piece to a vast puzzle we may never quite put together.

Richard B. Woodward, a New York arts critic, often writes about photography.


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