Page 4 of 4
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)