America’s Mid-Century Adolescence

09/30/2009 4:00 AM |

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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