Robert Frank and Photography: Art in the Age of Image Overload

Polaroid image of Robert Frank from his “Painkiller” series at the Blue Sky Gallery

Photographic overload.

I pondered the implications of such a possibility while spending time with the 48 Polaroid images in

Taken by Frank from the 1970s to the present day, Polaroids sleepy with the kind of mundane vibe that prevails in so many photos today, in the age of app-riddled smartphones and pocket-sized digital cameras.

In short, Polaroids don’t seem like a big deal: quick shots of friends, intimate moments, self-portraits, interiors, a view through a window. Many are grainy, some even seem blurry, random.

But take a closer look: Frank’s images are striking due to their biased camera perspectives on everyday subjects. These photos argue that, in the right hands, the monotonous events of our daily lives can be the poetry of great art.

Take the unpolished image of a tree in a parking lot of what looks like a mall. It’s a subject that an amateur like me might have noticed while crossing the parking lot after dropping shirts off at the dry cleaners. But that doesn’t mean I could have taken such a fascinating picture of it as Frank’s.

And that’s his genius. Frank is a suitably laid-back, below-the-radar approach, a style that suggests the rest of us might have been able to take those photos, too.

You can see how photos like Frank’s are now part of the fabric of today by looking at any newspaper or magazine. Or online.

Many of us post photos taken daily on blogs, social networking sites like Facebook, or photo sharing sites like Picasa. Probably several photos too, not just one. And these images are usually mundane events in our life, no matter what our whim: a restaurant meal, a social gathering, someone or something noticed crossing the street.

Technology gives us the tools to take such photos quickly and easily. But it was Frank and other photographers like him who showed us where and how to point the smartphone or the camera.

In Frank’s case, the revolution did not start with the photographs of Blue Sky but long before them.

In 1958-59 Frank published a book of photographs entitled

After the initial hostility, critics and historians warmed to the book and left a legacy for Frank which he took turns embracing and doing his best to elude. His work, say his most ardent champions, has passed into American consciousness a kind of documentary street photography that we take for granted today.

But Frank was far from the first documentary-style photographer – there were many, many more before him, including Henri Cartier-Bresson and his mentor, Walker Evans, as well as dozens of his equally accomplished peers such than


Perhaps it is fairer to say that Frank and his book came at the right time: “The Americans” captured a special moment in America and in the development of photography a zeitgeist. And part of it had to do with Frank’s personal story.

american.jpgCover of “The Americans” by Robert Frank

In 1947, Frank, born in Switzerland, immigrated to the United States. Eight years later, he used the money from a Guggenheim scholarship to drive through his adopted country and take tons of photos. His task was to try to capture on film nothing less than the very spirit of America. But a kind of America that the people of the Eisenhower era had not yet recognized or seen widely through pictures.

During those two years, Frank took over 28,000 photos. Eighty-three of them have become a book that was skewered by some critics upon publication. Why?

Back then, photographs were not as widely distributed as they are today on the Internet. And with few exceptions, the dominant perception of America portrayed through magazine and newspaper photos was that of an idealistic and heroic place captured, appropriately, in images of classically constructed.

Frank’s images – and others like those of his peers – ran counter to this perfectly proportioned ideal in terms of style and substance. They were blurry, sometimes oddly cropped and composed. And they portrayed the layers of social and political division within our country, as well as ordinary Americans – people of color, loners, lovers and outcasts caught at times not often filmed.

In short, the book captured the daily rhythms and drama of American life.

Today, “Americans” would hardly wrinkle shirt collars because we have accepted the style and substance of this kind of photography so well. Many non-professionals with smartphones or digital cameras work Frank’s style even if they don’t know Frank or the story of this photographic progression. Those of us who are in the know do so at the risk of pride.

Looking at Frank’s Polaroids at Blue Sky, for example, I thought for a moment: I could have taken them.

But, really, could I? This is a question that highlights the challenges of art and professionalism in the digital age: what separates the professional from the amateur?

says digital technology can have a lot more people taking photos, but that doesn’t change what constitutes a photographer or a good photo.

“It’s a question of intention,” says Dolan. “That’s what separates us from Robert Frank. I can do a shopping list, for example, but that doesn’t mean it’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning poem.”

Dolan also thinks it’s a bit grandiose to assume this is the democratic era of photography.

“Photography has always been accessible to the masses,” she says. “This was true even in the 19th century. Digital technology has just amplified this perception and added new capabilities to us.”

Intention, as Dolan understood it, suggests several things: a knowledge of photographic technique and composition, but also of the history of photography. This means that the best images have a larger design behind them, a skill that often eludes amateurs.

“Robert Frank did, what, 28,000 photographs for ‘The Americans'”? said

“But he edited it all until 83. That’s what separates the good from the big, the professional from the hobbyist. Big guys are editors too. They’re willing not to hang on to a picture. “

helped me put Frank and today’s plethora of photographic options into perspective.

The story, titled “Robert Frank’s Unsentimental Journey”, follows Frank on a trip to China and ends with some personal observations that reveal a photographic legend with an unfailing bitterness towards his loved ones, himself, his art and his life. photograph as a whole.

“There are too many images,” Frank says of how digital technology has changed photography. “Too many cameras now. We’re all being watched. It’s getting more and more dumb. As if every action makes sense. Nothing is really special. It’s just life. If all the moments are recorded, then nothing. is not beautiful and maybe photography is no longer an art, maybe it never was.

Maybe Frank thinks society is experiencing photographic overload.

Or maybe his stern rebuke is a reminder that partying and famine can be partners in this lavish photographic climax. Frank, now 87, continues to keep his artistic intentions thin and hungry by pushing back the legacy that has defined photographic practice for 50 years.

For the millions of us with smartphones and small pocket cameras, he still has a lot to show us.

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