Sunday, November 2, 2008

North Platte to Ogallala (part 5)

A half-dozen years after Kerouac rode west through Nebraska on Highway 30 and first felt the shock of the grasslands spreading out around him, Robert Frank pulled his car to the side of the same highway early one afternoon, got out and crossed the two lanes of blacktop to point his Leica camera into the same, almost-empty Nebraska landscape and take the photograph U.S. 30 between Ogallala and North Platte, Nebraska.

Together with eighty-two other photographs, U.S. 30 was first published in France in 1958, as Les Americains, and in the U.S. the following year – without the acid commentary on the photographs provided by the French publishers – as The Americans, but with, as it turned out, an introduction by Kerouac.

I met Jack Kerouac on a hot summer night – a party in New York City. We sat down on the side walk, I showed Jack the photographs for “The Americans”. He said: “Sure I can write something about these pictures…” That was how Frank told it in 1972, in Lines of My Hand.

In The Americans, almost all of Frank’s images include people, but it would be hard to call any of Frank’s pictures portraits, at least in the sense that the subject acknowledges the photographer, and apparently accepts the camera’s presence. In only eight photographs is there some transaction between subject and camera: in New York, three Puerto Rican transvestites – one peering between the fingers of the left hand he has raised like a mask to his face – primp for the photographer; In New Orleans, a woman, eyebrow arched, stares back, while a boy gazes impassively, both from the windows of a trolley; In Los Angeles, a Jehovah’s Witness looks blankly into the camera; in Newburgh, New York, a motorcyclist – we wouldn’t call him a biker for almost a decade yet – glares over his shoulder at the photographer; in Indianapolis, from across the railway station coffee shop, a waitress watches the camera. Of all the photographs, only two come close to portraiture. At City Hall in Reno, Nevada, a young couple pose, he conscious of both the camera and his bride, and she demurring. On U.S. 90, en route to Del Rio, Texas, a woman and two restless children sit in the passenger seat of a roadside car. Through the windshield, almost incidentally, she looks at the camera. The woman’s name is Mary, the children are Andrea and Pablo. They are Frank’s family. We do not know that from the photograph.

Robert Frank’s photographs of Americans – in bar rooms and diners and juke joints, in the street, in crowds, in parks, attending funerals or wakes or weddings, alone in offices and riding with others in elevators or cars, often obscured by signs, or flags, or hats, or other people, sometimes with faces off-camera or turned away, sometimes present in their absence – would be journalistic, or editorial, if the events they recorded were newsworthy or obviously of public significance. They are not. They are of a devising all his own.

It is difficult now to remember how shocking Robert Frank’s book was ten years ago. The pictures took us by ambush then. We knew it as one knows the background hum in a record player, not as a fact to recognize and confront. Nor had we understood that this stratum of our experience was a proper concern of artists.

The fact that Frank’s America was not in conventional terms edifying was not the point. The shocking thing was that it was not in conventional terms tragic, but merely untidy and trivial. Yet Frank recorded with such clarity and purity his own sense of what was basic to us that the trivial was transfigured, and became symbol. Robert Frank established a new iconography for contemporary America, comprised of bits of bus depots, lunch counters, strip developments, empty spaces, cars, and unknowable faces. This iconography has become a common coin, used now perhaps too easily as a substitute for observation. But here in the original the acuity of Frank’s own sensibility is alive and relevant.

John Szarkowski
book slip commentary, 1969 edition,
The Americans

John Szarkowski currated photography at the Museum of Modern Art for twenty-nine years. In that time, he introduced Gary Winogrand and Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander and William Eggleston to an audience, resurrected several pre-war careers in photography, and convinced us to re-consider several more. Szarkowski tells us here that Frank taught us to see something we had not seen before, in a manner we had not properly considered before, and that we took the lesson of the vision, and the manner, to heart.

U.S. 30 Between Ogallala and North Platte, Nebraska is one of the few photographs in The Americans that has no one in it. Like two-thirds of the pictures here, the photograph – taken from the roadside across an empty field – is framed in landscape format, with a telephone pole dividing the image precisely, vertically, in half. Between Ogallala and North Platte, the railway line that takes the Platte River valley for its corridor runs along the south side of Highway 30, and between Ogallala and North Platte, the River is never more than a half-mile south of the highway, and often much closer. Frank’s picture does not show a rail line, it does not show the irrigated fields or the cottonwoods that line the riverbank and fill the islands of the stream. Frank’s picture shows arid land rising away from the road, with the crest of the valley higher than the horizon of the image; it looks north. The western sun is high in the sky, about twenty degrees past solar noon; it is early afternoon. If he was driving east from Ogallala to North Platte – we could conclude that from the order of the town names in the title, otherwise west to east seems not quite right, not in America, which is always working its way east to west, and never the other way – Frank stopped the car on the south side of the road and crossed over to take the photograph.

There is no short-grass prairie here; that delicate ecology had long failed, the last of the grass plowed under, much of its fine soil blown away decades before. The field is perhaps fallow, perhaps weeds, or the harvest is in, or it is still early in the season. At the left of the frame, without ceremony or embellishment, a double track – two wide ruts with whatever is in the field growing between the ruts – rises gently from the highway to the crest of the slope, and in the distance, along the brow of the hill, there are three sheds, some farm machinery – perhaps a combine harvester – a cylindrical tank, a house, and two leafless trees. The sheds and the house are spaced evenly across the centre of the photograph, two to the left of the telephone pole, two to the right, the house distinguished from the sheds by a porch on the left hand side of the building, facing into the farmyard, and by a small, one-storey wing on the right. There are no lines for telephone or power from the road to the house. There are no fences to show the bounds of the property or the fields. The doorways and windows of all the buildings are black rectangles in the worn board walls. The buildings are small in the distance, and exposed. The two trees offer no shelter. In the foreground, along the northern verge of Highway 30, between the creosoted telephone pole and the bottom of the frame, the ground is bare, marked by caterpillar tracks. And in the foreground, framed slightly to the right of the telephone pole, there is a single rural mailbox mounted on a post. In strong sun the lettering stamped on the box-front is illegible. Rotated through ninety degrees, the slot in the mailbox door is an echo of the blank doorways and windows in the sheds and house. The frame of the photograph does not include Highway 30. It is the mailbox – together with the weedy track and the telephone pole – that establishes the photographer’s place, at roadside.

In the nature of Frank’s photographs – seventeen of the eighty-three pictures have no one in them – the subjects are, even in their absence, present.

In several photographs the absent Americans are images in the pictures: in a Detroit Bar portraits of Washington and Lincoln pose either side of a back-lighted plastic flag; in a luncheonette in Butte Montana, election posters make a frieze over a bumper pool table; In an empty restaurant on U.S. 1, in Columbia, South Carolina, the televised image of evangelist Oral Roberts preaches to the empty tables and chairs; in an illuminated store window in Washington D.C. a photograph of Dwight Eisenhower hangs next to a headless tailor’s dummy in starched shirt and tail coat. Three of these images make a montage of the 1956 election: Washington and Lincoln, together the embodiment of presidency; the frieze of posters – for railroad commissioner, state treasurer, attorney general, county attorney, state legislator – over a pool table, evidence of the American electoral process, and perhaps a comment on its indirection; and Eisenhower’s own image, coupled with the tail coat – in Washington, a reminder to rent soon for the coming inauguration.

The Eisenhower photograph, a pun of sorts, with the disembodied head of the president floating next to the headless tailor’s dummy, is preceded by another punning political photograph – a campaign musician with a Adlai Stevenson badge holds a sousaphone so the bell of the instrument covers his face and seems to blow a bunting flag. Politics in that campaign year are never far from the scene, although it is difficult to see where Frank stands. Perhaps simply to one side of the contest, stunned with amazement.

In other photographs Frank returns to particular objects, personifying them over a series of images. He plays with the cross as a figure, and with the grave. The photograph of a covered automobile in Long Beach California is followed by the covered corpse of a traffic accident victim lying beside U.S. 66, between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona. In McClellanville, South Carolina, a barbershop chair waits to consummate the relationship between barber and customer in a dream world of window frames and bottles and window screen and glassy reflections. A sequence of photographs of people riding in cars ends with the composed detail of a black Chevrolet, a license plate (Illinois the Land of Lincoln), and badges and window stickers telling us that Christ came to save us and that he died for our sins. Reflected in the gleaming paintwork and in the windows, hemmed in by the buildings around, we see the sky above.

In the first volume of The Photobook: A History, Martin Parr and Gerry Badger describe how The Americans divides into chapters, each introduced with an image that includes a flag. The first chapter plays on doubling and re-doubling people, and on trios, where one figure is played off against a pair. It begins with an image of two women standing in adjacent windows, both obscured, either by a window blind or an unfurled flag, but otherwise, except once – a photograph through the doorway of an Army-Navy recruiting office, where we see the recruiter’s feet up on the desk, and incidentally, once more, a flag – people in these first photographs are seen clearly.

Even if the pairs and trios are present again, the second chapter is harder to break down, built of contrasts, one image to the next – black and white, congestion and solitude, poverty and excess. Occasionally, a photograph isolates a single distinct figure – by costume or demeanor, by age, by a function of the light – in an otherwise anonymous group. Occasionally there is a single figure alone, glimpsed or obscured or truncated in the framing of the photograph. In this chapter there are five photographs where no one appears – a landscape format townscape of roofs in Butte, Montana taken at dusk or dawn, framed through a hotel window with a plume of white steam rising from a mine pithead in the distance is immediately followed by a portrait format photograph of the exuberant facade of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building in New York City, the foreground filled with newsstand magazine covers; three pages later, there is the Nebraska roadside photograph; and after three more photographs, the chapter closes with the shrouded car followed by the shrouded traffic accident victim, and with a portrait-format photograph of U.S. 285, New Mexico, the empty highway running out to an otherwise featureless horizon, at dusk.

Introduced with the Diptych of Washington and Lincoln in the Detroit Bar, the third chapter has the fewest images of people. In this chapter, the play of duos and trios and one among many is muted. In this chapter, The Americans are often only present on a television screen or an election poster, as a statue or a cross or an empty barber’s chair or as a fallen funeral wreath, and in this chapter, their story is one of work and weariness and the earthiness of the political process, and of faith, and of death, and death once again brings the chapter to a close.

The early images of the final chapter – The chapter that opens with the Stevenson-meets-sousaphone-meets-bunting image – include individuals, anonymous or obscured or seen at a distance. Later the figures are more distinct – people dining alone or in groups, and families or couples or occasionally individuals, including the Reno newlyweds – most often seen in public parks and squares. There are only three photographs without people: the Eisenhower-tailcoat diptych, a photograph of a department store table of Styrofoam crosses with a sign – “Hested’s REMEMBER YOUR LOVED ONES 69¢” – and the Chevrolet detail with messages preaching Christ’s purpose in our lives. Again, Frank invokes politics, faith, and death. The chapter – and the book – closes on his weary family framed in the windshield of his car parked at the side of the road in Texas. In this last chapter, besides politics, faith, and death, there is also a casual public life of sorts, and desultory recreations, and family, and love.

Throughout 1955 and 1956, supported by a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, Frank traveled alone, and with his wife Mary, throughout the United States. In that time, he exposed 500 rolls of thirty-five millimeter film, perhaps 18,000 individual frames, about fifty frames a day for a year. The eighty-three photographs included in The Americans are the equivalent of less than two days work. In The Lines of My Hand, first published in Japan in 1972, he includes twenty-seven photographs from the American trip, all remarkable, twenty of them never published in The Americans. These include four from the same contact sheet, taken in front of a high school in Port Gibson, Mississippi, presented as a series, like film stills, and captioned with a rare scrap of dialogue.

KIDS: What are you doing here? Are you from New York? – ME: I’m just taking pictures. – KIDS: Why? – ME: For myself – just to see… – KIDS: He must be a communist. He looks like one. Why don’t you go to the other side of town and watch the niggers play?

I’m just taking pictures. For myself – just to see…

Frank had more than enough material to edit from, and his choice of good images.

I’m just taking pictures. For myself – just to see…

Several years ago, in the first weeks of my own project on America’s landscape, I spent the afternoon in a rural village in Pennsylvania – a strange, unincorporated settlement where the only apparent employment of any sort was in a field of abandoned cars, where the town hall was a shed, and the police station a two-car garage. The streets were dirt, the houses were probably wartime houses, and – like the cars – in every state of repair. I photographed for perhaps an hour before a middle-aged woman, standing in her doorway, challenged me. Several young men stood behind her.

SHE: What’re you taking pictures of my house for?

ME: Because it’s beautiful.

Satisfied, she went back into the house, and I went on, untroubled.

I’m just taking pictures. For myself – just to see…

Because it’s beautiful.

Frank approaches Americans obliquely, as if looking at them directly might erase the truth of the matter; the role they play in the photograph is often a weak one. On the other hand, Frank’s motifs – flags, crosses, television screens and movie screens and juke boxes, chairs, the truncated body, the automobile window, portraits and signs, reflections and doubles – occur often enough to make them an integral part of the project. Frank cannot take his eyes off of them, more truly the subjects of the photographs than the subjects themselves. In 1973, writing the commentary for his catalogue Looking at Photographs, Szarkowski had more to say on the motifs of Frank’s American photographs.

In 1956, he was still a relative newcomer to the United States, and his basic reaction might well have been one of dumb amazement as he investigated the gaudy insanities and strangely touching contradictions of American culture…

The subject matter of Frank’s pictures was not in itself shocking. Everyone knew about chromium and plastic luncheonettes, and tailfins and jukeboxes and motels and motorcycles and the rest of it. But no one had accepted without condescension these facts as the basis for a coherent iconography of our time.

Frank postulated that one might with profit take seriously what the people took seriously.

This is Szarkowski’s new iconography. But, in 1959, it was not entirely this iconography – these motifs – that set Frank’s photo-essay apart. In The Americans the nature of the photographs was consistent enough from picture to picture – and enough of a departure from the photography of its time – to constitute something of a new photographic order. Within a decade, according to Szarkowski, this new photographic order would transcend a particularly individual style and become another form of photography. In Frank’s photographs there is a third subject; that subject is the syntax of the photographs itself.

The syntax of a photograph – a never entirely unself-conscious manifestation of the focus, the depth of field, the exposure time, the format, the position of the camera and the type of equipment, the nature of the film stock, the composition of the image, the size and character of the print – tells us about the photographer and his preparation, the moment of the photograph, what the photographer expects of it, and what he expects its audience to bring to it. The syntax is, in short, the imprint of the photographer’s stance upon his subject. Understanding the nature of the stance, the audience has a sense of the attitude of the photographic project as a whole. For most of us, the photographic project is a social one, where our equipment, and our preparation, and the photographic media, and the choice of subject, and our vision are shared with many other people, and the effectiveness of the photograph is judged almost entirely according to its adherence to a particular form. This is as true for a family taking holiday snapshots (which are, unfortunately, almost never snapshots) as it is for a professional photographing a sports event for a news magazine or a plate of food for a cookbook or a bride for a wedding album. Most of the photographs we see daily – in newsmagazines, in fashion or shelter magazines, in advertisements, as editorial illustrations, as the fodder for the entire industry of discontent – subscribe to one particular tradition or another. It is as hard to imagine a camera tilt in an architectural journal as it is to believe that the Playboy centerfold won’t be airbrushed; it is impossible to believe that a presidential portrait would be blurred or that the bride in a wedding photograph would not be flattered. Again, Szarkowski, in Looking at Photographs: Occasionally it is decided that tradition should also define the work’s end result. At this point the tradition dies.

At this point the tradition dies.

Most of the hundreds of photographic images we see daily come out of dead traditions. That is, for most of us, most of the time, why we find such photographs comforting. For we too subscribe to those traditions. We find it hard to see outside of those traditions. Confronted with a fresh position, we say, "My kid could have done that." What we mean is that we could not stand doing that ourselves, it would offend our traditions.

Consider another body of photographs, eight pictures taken on the coast of France, eleven years before Robert Frank toured America. The photographer was Robert Capa, Hungarian-American adventurer, charmer, photojournalist, and war-lover. It was the morning of June 6, 1944, and the place was on the Normandy coast, near Colleville-sur-Mer – according to Capa, “a drab, cheap resort for vacationing French schoolteachers” – on a stretch of beach the strategists named Easy Red, part of what we now call Omaha Beach, code name for that part of the Normandy coast during the D-Day landings. Capa left the landing craft in water up to his chest, under German fire, carrying two Contax cameras, and for over a hundred yards, photographed – often without looking or focusing – as he waded by stages to the beach. After shooting three rolls of film, he was too wet, and his hands shook too much, to re-load the camera. He returned to the landing craft to dispatch his film to England, and at the last moment, went with it. In England, an excited darkroom assistant turned up the heat in the film dryer and melted the emulsion on ninety-eight frames of film. Eight survived, the first record of the D-Day invasion. In Slightly Out of Focus, his memoir of the war years, Capa concludes the story: The captions under the heat-blurred pictures read that Capa’s hands were badly shaking. We needed the explanation, a simple one we could understand, before we can consider the photographs.
Capa’s unfocused, blurred, dynamically framed photographs have become our vision of combat. When we see the first twenty minutes – the D-Day landing – in Steven Spielburg’s Saving Private Ryan, and we watch shaky camerawork, awkwardly cropped and out of focus, we are watching a film of Capa’s syntax.

It is something like this syntax, cooled off, less under fire, that makes Frank’s photographs unique.

By 1978, writing the notes for the Museum of Modern Art catalogue, Mirrors and Windows, subtitled American Photography Since 1960, while acknowledging Frank’s significance (along with the role played by Aperture, Minor White’s journal of photography) and discussing critical reception to The Americans at the end of the 1950’s, Szarkowski would make the distinction between motif and syntax, which he nicely, and accurately, speaks of as rhetoric.

It is significant that the angriest responses to The Americans came from photographers and photography specialists, many of them people of considerable sophistication in the field. It was they who recognized how profound a challenge Frank’s work was to the standards of photographic style – photographic rhetoric – that were in large part shared even by photographers of very different philosophical postures. These standards called for a precise and unambiguous description of surface, volume, and space, and for a clearly resolved graphic structure; it was in these qualities that the seductiveness, the physical beauty, of photography lay. Frank’s clear disregard for these qualities made his work seem pharisaical, lacking in sensitivity to, or affection for, the medium. In addition, American standards of photographic excellence required that the picture state clearly and simply what the subject was. The subject of Frank’s later pictures seemed tentative, ambivalent, relative, centrifugal; the photographer’s viewpoint and the disposition of the frame seemed consistently precarious and careless – lacking in care.

It was in other words not the nominal subject matter of Frank’s work that shocked the photography audience but the pictures themselves, the true content of which cannot be described in terms of iconography, since it also concerns a new method of photographic description, designed to respond to experience that is kaleidoscopic, fragmentary, intuitive, and elliptical.

Not the nominal subject matter.

Most of the published photographs have about them an air of furtiveness, and of haste.

North Platte to Ogalla (part 4)

Throughout the front pages, the editors refer to the roads of Iowa and Nebraska, to their muddy and impassable state after a rain. Finally, there is a free-floating memorandum inserted between the sections on Provisions and Lost Packages:

REMEMBER: In Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska, where dirt roads exist, that after heavy rains, if the tourist will remain over in the community in which he is stopping for five or ten hours, it will enable him to proceed in comfort, as the roads are well graded and dry very rapidly. Such a delay will, in the end, save time and save your car, your tires and your temper, and make your trip more enjoyable.

It is perhaps not surprising that the first effective models for the national highway network were the state highway systems of Nebraska and Iowa, where the fine-grained soil made for a poor roadbed. Whatever the genesis, since 1919, based on those Nebraska and Iowa roads, Americans have built the greatest highway network in the world – the most extensive work, public or private, ever undertaken anywhere, by any one. But by some irony, a good portion of the Lincoln Highway, the route of the 1919 Convoy, is unchanged. While stretches of it have been absorbed by the four-lane interstate, much of the highway is two-lane blacktop, and some is still brick cobble. West of Cheyenne, wherever the interstate took a different route, it is often a gravel road, and for hundreds of intermittent miles in Wyoming and Utah, it is a dirt track, not particularly different today than it was in 1919.

North Platte to Ogallala (part 3)

Engineers have paved the sand road of west Nebraska. It is a two-lane blacktop now – highway 30. Except for local traffic, even paved, 30 isn’t much traveled now. In the 1970’s Transcontinental traffic moved to I-80, the four-lane highway that – in this part of America – parallels 30 through the Platte River Valley, along with the rail lines that cross Nebraska, and the routes of the Butterfield Stage, and the Pony Express, and the Mormon Trail, and the Oregon Trail, and the Sante Fe Trail.

I-80 is one room, three thousand miles long, with a few doors out of it in each state, and a d├ęcor that shifts subtly every two or three hundred miles, as topography and climate and the patterns of agriculture change around it. In Nebraska there are rest stops every sixty miles or so. The architects of the rest stops have designed these oases to orient travelers to the countryside, with small signs and arrows pointing out distant landmarks. West of Ogallala, Nebraska there are no quicksand pitfalls now, but the perimeter of each rest stop is marked with signs warning travelers of rattlesnakes.

The log entry – North Platte to Ogallala – was written in the memoranda pages of the Complete Official Road Guide of the Lincoln Highway, third edition. When the memoranda pages ran out, at page 285, the author continued to add pages, written in flawless, close-spaced schoolboy script, to page 312. The log is preserved now at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library in Abeline, Kansas. In my files, Samantha Scroggie, who found the log for me, also left a record of the author’s name: Lt. E.R. Jackson, Ordnance Dept., U.S.A. Ordnance Observer.

My copy of the third edition is date-stamped May 11, 1918. The front pages of the Road Guide give the 1918 traveler an idea of what to expect that year, and how to prepare for a trip by motor across America. Among the Don’ts for Tourists are several warnings that map a rude geography of hardship.

Don’t allow your water can (west of Cheyenne, Wyo.) to be other than full of fresh water, and fill it whenever you get a chance. You might spring a leak in your radiator, or burst a water hose.

Don’t fail to have warm clothing in the outfit. The high altitudes are cold, and the dry air is penetrating.

Don’t carry loaded firearms in the car. Nothing of this kind is necessary except for sport, anyhow.

Don’t forget the yellow goggles. In driving west you face the sun all afternoon, and the glare of the western desert is hard on the eyes.

Don’t forget the camphor ice. The dry air of the west will crack your lips and fingers without it.

Don’t drink alkali water. Serious cramps result.

Don’t wear new shoes.

This all remains good advice.

Monday, October 20, 2008