Robert Frank’s Curious Perspective

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

Robert Frank photograph
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

It's a safe bet that Robert Frank had never seen a denim-clad black couple on a Harley-Davidson before he came to the United States. Such a sight, like many others the 32-year-old Swiss émigré photographed in the mid-1950s for his quietly earthshaking book The Americans, would have been a novelty to a European, and indeed to many Americans at the time.

No doubt what caught Frank's eye was the chance to frame in a single composition three elements—blue jeans, people of color and a Harley—that still symbolize this country for much of the fascinated world.

Motorcycles and racial divisions are among the motifs that help to unify The Americans, along with jukeboxes, crosses, televisions, luncheonettes, cowboy hats, fedoras, cigars, highways, the old and the young, lonely offices, huge automobiles, run-down parks, blowhard politicians and American flags.

Frank observed all of these things during years of cross-country wanderings, funded partly by the Guggenheim Foundation. He had stated on his 1955 grant application that the project would be driven by "what one naturalized American finds to see in the United States that signifies the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere."

Frank, who celebrates his 84th birthday this year and who long ago moved on to making films, videos and images that combine photographs with text, arrived on these shores in 1947 in search of artistic freedom. Trained as a photographer in Switzerland, he once said he knew after World War II that his future lay elsewhere: Switzerland "was too closed, too small for me."

Europeans who venture to America often focus their cameras on the gulf between our ideals and a grimmer reality, between rich and poor, black and white. Although such differences were all too visible in '50s America, Frank did not take cheap shots at his adopted land. He never acted the shocked foreigner or wide-eyed innocent.

Instead, his complicated feelings about the country were expressed so obliquely that the book remains as open to interpretation today as when it first appeared 50 years ago. Published in Paris in 1958 and New York the following year, it was denounced by many critics at the time as a sneak attack on Americans' general view of themselves as happy and harmonious. But as the book's downbeat style has been absorbed and widely imitated over the years, Frank's detractors have retreated.

Indianapolis, 1956 exemplifies the photographer's craftiness. The place and date are of little help in unraveling the picture's meaning. The photograph presents an unsmiling pair of motorcyclists at night in a Middle American city. They are staring intently at something between them and the photographer. A crowd of spectators gazes more randomly around the scene.

A more conventional photographer might have waited for the couple to look up at the camera. (Magazine editors like direct engagements between subject and reader.) Frank doesn't give us that satisfaction. He lets the bikers and the crowd float on parallel planes in a murky light. There is neither confrontation nor resolution. What the couple is staring at we are not permitted to know.

This photograph is nonetheless loaded with provocative symbolism. In the 1950s, motorcycling meant defiance of authority. In The Wild One (1953), among the first in a string of violent biker movies, a girl in a bar asks the leader of a fearful motorcycle gang, played by a leather-clad Marlon Brando, "What are you rebelling against?"

"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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