Two epic photo books–one meticulously edited and compact, the other sprawling and lavish–are the reason we have two of the best photography exhibitions in recent memory in New York right now. At the Metropolitan Museum
, the lovingly assembled Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans
(through January 3) features all the works from that seminal book on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its publication (first in 1958 in Paris and in the U.S. the following year) together in New York for the first time. At Tony Shafrazi Gallery
in Chelsea, the publication of Dennis Hopper Photographs 1961-1967
, a huge limited edition volume with a $700 price tag and over 500 images (about half of which have never been published before), provides the occasion to exhibit roughly 400 of those works in Signs of the Times
(through October 24).
Frank’s street photographs, taken on a cross-country, Guggenheim fellowship-funded road trip in 1955-56, capture with an outsider’s keen discerning eye the ugly underbelly of supposedly stable Eisenhower America, a place rife with race-, class- and gender-based segregation. In his grant application, he explained his intention to reveal “the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere.” For the Swiss photographer, shooting the 27,000 photographs (eventually pared down to 83) as he drove across the country–sometimes alone, sometimes with his wife and kids–was both an introduction to his new home and a rite of passage, experiencing the country in all its grandeur and heterogeneity in order to integrate it. The selection of Jack Kerouac
to write the introduction to the 1959 States-side edition of The Americans
seems especially fitting. To say that Frank and Kerouac’s seminal works are reciprocals in their respective fields of photography and literature would be an exaggeration–On the Road
was published while Frank was editing The Americans
, still under its original title "America, America". However, both revealed the roots of mid-century American society’s unsettling, which came to full bloom in Hopper’s images of the country’s counter-culture the following decade.
The Met exhibition sets The Americans
in context with a selection of earlier series published by Frank both in Europe and America, works by significant influences on the young photographer’s development, as well as original contact sheets that shed light on the editing process that birthed the book. Incredibly, this painstaking cutting and cropping took longer than Frank’s nine month, 10,000-mile, 30-something state road trip, involving over a year of editing to tease out the strongest tensions and themes in the images. Like his earlier series–most notably Black White and Things
(1952), whose 34 images open the exhibition–Frank perfected a poetic sense of rhyme, contrast and rhythm to the creation of photo books. Whether bustling or eerily calm, crowded or desolate, his works are wonderfully composed and textured, imparting a keen sense of place and authenticity with striking clarity.
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Throughout The Americans
, images’ individual strengths are amplified by Frank’s keen sense of editing. Photos are linked thematically, by graphic or compositional similarities, and for maximum contrast, as in the image of a young black family in a car moving through the image from left to right, followed by a photo of an elderly white couple
hunched in their car moving from right to left– Hopper captured the two groups’ eventual collision in Alabama in 1965
in one of his rawest series. Elsewhere Frank made his point more forcefully, as in a glimpse of a bustling Detroit assembly line followed by an image of five white politicians
at a Chicago convention. Throughout, he moves between America’s powerful and powerless, producers and consumers, haves and have-nots, which helps to explain why, as curator Jeff L. Rosenheim explained, the book “was reviled as un-American by critics and photographers alike.” Frank began to isolate the country’s most debilitating fractures years before most citizens (especially those consuming photography books) were willing to acknowledge them.
The startling disjunctures that came to define American culture in the 1960s are foreshadowed throughout The Americans
, as in the iconic image of a segregated New Orleans trolley car in 1955 (top), or the surreal shot of a mysterious (proto-David Lynchian
, perhaps) cowboy lighting a cigarette on a gritty Manhattan street in 1954 (above). The most prominent cowboy in Dennis Hopper’s exhibition at Tony Shafrazi, meanwhile, is John Wayne, a shift that reflects a deeper move from a society of text to a culture of images. Hopper’s subjects of choice are billboards, while one of The Americans
’s most formally subtle and elegant images highlights the similar forms of a Manhattan newspaper stand’s magazine rack and the stepped architecture of the skyscraper behind it.
In contrast, the most prominent artists in Hopper’s photographs were pioneers of the Pop art movement–Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol (both pictured above), Roy Lichtenstein
, etc.–image-makers who were hyper-literate in the visual products of the booming consumer culture whose rise Frank documented uneasily a decade earlier. Not incidentally, Hopper’s earliest motifs were billboards, which he shot in disorienting close-up, often fragmented and repeating in unintelligible, monstrous patterns. Among the photographs in Signs of the Times
are a half-dozen or so mural-sized oil paintings by Hopper based very closely on his photographs. Occasionally they feature additional swaths of color, though they generally follow their models with a rigor reminiscent of Chuck Closes
’s most hyper-realist paintings. These canvases elevate certain images to iconic status, but the vast amounts of wall space they occupy would have been better used to exhibit more of Hopper’s work (in an interview with Vulture
he explained that the 400 photos in the show were picked from an initial pool of 800). Hopper’s work is sprawling, less focused around a singular theme than Frank’s and therefore can extend out infinitely while adding layers of intrigue.
Therein lies the crux of the two photographers’ differing methods: Frank could convey the maddening and endearing contradictions of America and Americans often in just one image; Hopper’s vision of the nation in the 60s is susceptible to endless fine tuning, shading and amending. Signs of the Times focuses especially on portraits and street scenes, with the former featuring celebrities and avant-garde artists of the time and the latter catching evocative glimpses of cities, streets and the open road. In the former category, the visibly tired and old John Wayne of Hopper’s cowboy photograph appears half-obstructed on the set of a Western, a symbol of times both literally and figuratively past, an icon for a previous age. A nearby image of two young bikers (above) sitting in a diner–aside from calling another American artist Hopper to mind–conveys as succinctly as any other the characteristics of this new America. It’s a place full of beautiful young dreamers, thrill-seekers and trailblazers whose attitude to the past is ironic at best and more often antagonistic.
His portraits of famous artists before they were the canonized Modernists they’ve become today offer the voyeuristic pleasure of seeing what might be construed as America’s last moment at the cutting edge of the international art world. Bruce Conner
, Allan Kaprow
, Allen Ginsberg
, Robert Irwin
, Claes Oldenburg
, Robert Rauschenberg
, Ed Ruscha
, Warhol and others, photographed mostly in Los Angeles and New York, respond playfully and casually to Hopper’s camera. As professional creators of images and manufacturers of moments, they’re always prepared to pose for a fellow artist–as with Warhol hiding behind a flower, Oldenberg posing among his cake slices installation, Conner laughing through handfuls of puzzle pieces or Kaprow assembling a hut of ice bricks
in the desert. Meanwhile, celebrity subjects like Jane Fonda
, Martin Luther King, Ike and Tina Turner, The Grateful Dead and others hint at a cultural climate in which pop and politics became indistinguishable. Frank’s photo of a Hollywood actress
, on the other hand, demonstrates his clever use of selective focus, blurring the starlet in the foreground to hone in on the average Americans in the background.
More than Hopper’s images of icons, though, his street photography portrays a culture in upheaval, on the run from its past and hurtling towards a hazily defined future. With their plays of reflections, doorways, windows, advertising and commercial signage, they evoke both his contemporary Lee Friedlander
and, much earlier, Eugene Atget
’s photos of Parisian streetscapes. Among the images in Signs of the Times
that capture the counter-cultural disregard for the past and naïve hope for the future, few do so more forcefully and ironically than 1961’s “Double Standard” (above, painting at left, photo at right). The view out a convertible’s windshield presents a fork in the road, with a gas station (another Hopper motif) whose signage “Standard” is repeated along both streets and a car in the rear view mirror that appears eerily empty. Hopper seems to be cautioning his audience and peers: The road ahead is unclear, worse yet the options it presents may be more similar than different, worse still they may be as vapid and unfulfilling as the lives we left behind. Where his portraits are often brimming with fervent energy, humor and even, at times, optimism, his snapshots from the streets–on the open road, in Los Angeles and New York, in Mexico and Alabama–suggest a more tentative attitude towards the various counter-cultural movements in 1960s America.
Both artists maintain a fluctuating distance from their subject throughout their books and the exhibitions they’ve spawned. Speaking of Frank–though the comment applies to Hopper too–Rosenheim observed: “Frank was afraid to not be close enough.” He and Hopper maintained fluid relations with American culture in their photography, often immersing themselves in their subject and photographing their surroundings to the point that subject and lifestyle become indistinguishable. The film work they’ve done since extenuates this tenuous differentiation of roles between observer and participant. Both exhibitions are accompanied by moving image series: at Tony Shafrazi, a side gallery features over a dozen screens playing excerpts from some of Hopper’s most memorable and obscure roles, from early appearances on The Twilight Zone
through Easy Rider
, Blue Velvet
and Apocalypse Now
; the Met’s presentation of The Americans
ends with a new silent video by Frank and an accompanying screening series
features much of his work since the seminal book.
In their still images, though, both artists offer stunningly lucid images of tumultuous times, whether in the fissures of Eisenhower America shot by Frank or the flourishing 60s counter-culture Hopper captured. As we enter a similarly turbulent period after the better part of a decade spent indulging (however unwillingly) a comfortable return to traditional values, renewed consumerism and conservative thinking, both series offer important lessons. Like the critics who initially deemed Frank’s work un-American, we seem to have missed the signs that foreshadowed our current turmoil. And like Hopper’s counter-cultural icons and the landscapes they traversed, we’re at a fork in the road from which we can’t afford to take the wrong route.
(images credit: Tony Shafrazi Gallery, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)