Powerlessness

Bert Danckaert

“I speak of the things that are there, anywhere and everywhere – easily found, not easily selected and interpreted.” Robert Frank

Robert Frank, Santa Fe, 1955

If there’s a photographer with a patent on existential disorientation then without a doubt it’s Robert Frank (born in Zurich, 1924). He emigrated to the United States in the late forties. While the ruins from ww ii were still smoldering and Europe didn’t know where to begin with rebuilding, Frank opted for the call of freedom and opportunity. The myth of “The American Dream,” however, soon got too much for him and he set off to South America and then back to Europe to photograph Paris and London, among other places. With the work he was producing he convinced a Guggenheim committee to give him a grant enabling him to undertake a road trip through the us. Between 1954 and 1957 he would produce the legendary book The Americans. Frank, who first and foremost wanted to be sincere towards himself, created an entirely new photographic style: the autobiographical document, in which the ambiguity between registration, interpretation, and metaphor manifest as a mirror rather than a (window) frame. (11)

“I am always looking outside, trying to look inside, trying to say something that is true.” Robert Frank

Robert Frank, Luncheonette, Butte Montana, 1955-1956

This also brings us back to the aforementioned notion of “invisible contamination.” After all, how can a photographer work introspectively, referring to his deepest impulses, when he simply registers what takes place in front of him (outside him) with a mechanical instrument (the camera)?

It seems as though the photographer has little choice and is entirely dependent on the frame of his camera. Of all the arts, photography might be the most impotent because it is inextricably bound to what is there. And yet …

Robert Frank photographed roadside diners, elevators, gas stations, his wife, his children, in short: he photographed on the move. (12)  He captured everything that crossed his path, and yet at the same time it all seems to escape him; not only the moment he presses the button, which is always and irrevocably in the past (the tragedy of photography and its relation to death), but particularly in the way he surrendered himself to the unfathomable nature of imagery that, no matter the interpretation, can never fully be pinned down. Take the off-centered photograph of a bumper pool table (Luncheonette – Butte, Montana) or the “Save” gas station (Santa Fe, New Mexico). It’s precisely the aforementioned impotence (in this case, bound to Frank’s existential discomfort) that defines the poetry of this work.

Robert Frank belongs to a group of artists without a determined destination but for whom traveling itself is the journey’s end. Frank is the action painter and free jazz musician of photography. Searching, scraping, groping in the dark, drunk on impotence. And as such, he drew a sad poem from American society. (13)  Frank’s position is highly subjective; he doesn’t aim to give an overview. His photographs in The Americans therefore say more about Frank’s own demise than that of the United States.

11 John Szarkowsky, director of the photography department at moma (New York) from 1962 to 1991, curated the exhibition and book Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960 (Museum of Modern Art, 1978) in which he made a distinction between photographs that function as a window on the world and photographs that function rather as
a mirror through which, by means of the external world, the photographer is introspectively reflective.

12 Fellow comrade of Robert Frank, Jack Kerouac: author of the introduction to The Americans and writer of the cult novel On the Road, bible of the “Beat Generation.”

13 In reference to the introduction by Jack Kerouac of The Americans: “Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.”