Posts Tagged ‘City fathers

09
Oct
20

Exhibition: ‘Robert Frank – Memories’ at the Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur, Zürich

Exhibition dates: 12th September 2020 – 10th January 2021

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'White Tower, New York' 1948

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
White Tower, New York
1948
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

 

An interesting selection of media images, including some early Swiss and American photographs, which are rarely seen.

Frank’s perceptiveness of human beings and their context of being and becoming is incredible. Look at the faces in Landsgemeinde, Hundwil (1949, below), Paris (1952, below) and the attitude of the bodies, surmounted by the sun (top left), in London (1951, below).

“It is important to see what is invisible to others.”

Dr Marcus Bunyan

.
Many thankx to Fotostiftung Schweiz for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

The recently deceased Robert Frank is widely regarded as one of the most important photographers of our time. His book The Americans, first published in Paris in 1958 and then in New York the following year, is quite possibly the most influential photo book of the 20th century. As a kind of photographic road movie, it sketches a gloomy social portrait that served as a wake-up call to all of America at the time. And his personal style, alternating between documentary and subjective expression, radically changed post-war photography. But The Americans wasn’t merely a spontaneous stroke of genius. Frank’s early works already feature back stories and side plots that are closely connected to the themes and images of his legendary book. The Fotostiftung Schweiz holds a collection of lesser-known works – many of which were donated by the artist – which illustrate the consolidation of Frank’s subjective style. In addition to essays from Switzerland and Europe, it also includes works from early 1950s America that are on par with the well-known classics, but remained unpublished for editorial reasons. At the heart of the exhibition Robert Frank – Memories is the narrative force of Frank’s visual language, which developed in opposition to all conventions and only received international recognition when Frank had already abandoned photography and turned to the medium of film.

The exhibition is accompanied by a presentation of the books that publisher Gerhard Steidl produced with Robert Frank over a period of more than 15 years.

 

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'New York City' 1948

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
New York City
1948
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'Landsgemeinde, Hundwil' 1949

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
Landsgemeinde, Hundwil
1949
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'Landsgemeinde, Hundwil' 1949

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
Landsgemeinde, Hundwil
1949
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'Landsgemeinde, Hundwil' 1949 (detail)

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
Landsgemeinde, Hundwil (detail)
1949
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'Landsgemeinde, Hundwil' 1949 (detail)

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
Landsgemeinde, Hundwil (detail)
1949
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'London' 1951

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
London
1951
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'Paris' 1952

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
Paris
1952
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'New York City' early 1950s

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
New York City
early 1950s
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

 

Robert Frank, who was born in Zurich in 1924 and died last year in Canada, is widely regarded as one of the most important photographers of our time. Over the course of decades, he has expanded the boundaries of photography and explored its narrative potential like no other. Robert Frank travelled thousands of miles between the American East and West Coasts in the mid-1950s, going through nearly 700 films in the process. A selection of 83 black-and-white images from this blend of diary, sombre social portrait and photographic road movie would leave its mark on generations of photographers to come. The photobook The Americans was first published in Paris, followed by the US in 1959 – with an introduction by Beat writer Jack Kerouac, no less. Off-kilter compositions, cut-off figures and blurred motion marked a new photographic style teetering between documentation and narration that would have a profound impact on postwar photography.

It is quite possibly the single most influential book in the history of photography; however, rather than being a spontaneous stroke of genius, Frank had worked on his subjective visual language for years. Many of his photographs from Switzerland, Europe and South America, as well as his rarely shown works from the USA in the early 1950s, are on a par with the famous classics from The Americans. The photographer’s early work, which remained unpublished for editorial reasons and is therefore little known to this day, reveals connections to those iconic pictures that still define our image of America, even today.

At the heart of the exhibition Robert Frank – Memories is the narrative force of Robert Frank’s visual language, which developed in opposition to all conventions and only received international recognition after Frank had already abandoned photography and turned to the medium of film. The exhibition mainly features vintage silver gelatin prints from the collection of the Fotostiftung Schweiz, which either come from the former collection of Robert Frank’s long-time friend Werner Zryd (now owned by the Swiss Confederation) or were donated to the Fotostiftung Schweiz by the artist himself. They are complemented by a number of loans from the Fotomuseum Winterthur. A presentation of the books and films that publisher Gerhard Steidl released with Robert Frank over a period of more than 15 years accompanies the exhibition (in the corridor leading to the library and in the seminar room).

 

Early Work

In March 1947, Robert Frank arrived in New York following an adventurous journey on a cargo ship. The young, ambitious photographer had found Switzerland too stifling and he hoped to gain new freedom in America liberated from social and family obligations. The photographer carried a 6×6 Rolleiflex and a small spiral-bound book of 40 photographs taken during his apprentice years from 1941 to 1946. This portfolio included landscapes, portraits, personal photojournalistic works, and meticulously executed still lifes, all of which reveal that the 22-year old was a highly skilled photographer. It is therefore unsurprising that influential Harper’s Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch swiftly hired Frank as an assistant photographer after seeing his portfolio and first test photos.

In the magazine’s in-house photo studio, Frank photographed fashion industry products from clinical shots of women’s shoes and every imaginable accessory to laboriously staged fashion shoots and occasionally even photojournalistic assignments offering a little more freedom. Frank was successful and rose through the ranks, but quickly realised that this industry cared only about money, an attitude to which he couldn’t reconcile himself. Only a few months later, he quit his job in order to be able to work wholly free of constraints. He traveled to Peru and Bolivia the following year and often used his 35 mm Leica. Later he recalled: “I was making a kind of diary. I was very free with the camera. I didn’t think of what would be the correct thing to do; I did what I felt good doing. I was like an action painter.”

Frank returned to Europe in spring 1949. He photographed the yearly cantonal assembly in the Swiss canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden, during which citizens (exclusively men back then) voted by a show of hands. However, he was unsuccessful in placing this story with a major periodical, even though he circulated the images via the acclaimed agency Magnum. Evidently, Frank had focused too little on the actual events. He was more interested in the bystanders’ stances than in the pomp of government officials wearing tailcoats and top hats. His photographs of this assembly prefigure the penetrating and critical gaze he would later level on America’s societal and political landscape. Here as there, his was an outsider’s subjective and inward looking perspective.

 

Black White and Things

In late 1949, the international magazine Camera published a first selection of Robert Frank’s work. The accompanying text described him as a photographer who loved “truth and unvarnished reality”, as someone “whose thirst for experience compelled him to get out and capture life with his camera”. Indeed, Frank worked chiefly in Paris, London, and Spain between 1949 and 1953, frequently traveling between Europe and the US. He reported on a bullfighter in Spain and observed life in London’s financial district. In Paris he took pictures of objects – mostly chairs and flowers – photographs he assembled in an album dedicated to his future wife. In subsequent years, he shook off any sentimental tendencies.

Frank continued his attempts to publish both smaller and more substantial stories and photo essays in glossy magazines such as Life, but with limited success. His reportage on Welsh coal miner Ben James, which appeared in U.S. Camera 1955 annual, was a rare exception. But Frank found himself less and less able to reconcile himself with the conventional view of photography as a universal language accessible to all. Instead, he increasingly distanced himself from print media’s expectations and developed a strong aversion to what he once termed stereotypical “Life stories”, “those goddamned stories with a beginning and an end”.

In autumn 1952, Frank created Black White and Things with his Zurich-based friend Werner Zryd. This handmade book comprising 34 photographs was an attempt to counter these expectations with something new: an intuitively ordered series of photos with neither text nor linear narrative structure, introduced simply by Saint-Exupéry’s famed lines from The Little Prince: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Accordingly, Black White and Things is a kind of three-part visual poem: “Black” evokes death, materialism, loneliness, and anonymity; “White” evokes home, love, religion, and camaraderie; and “Things” engages with diametrical oppositions such as friendship and cruelty, and affection and solitude. The order and pairing of the images sparks thoughts, associations, and feelings. Yet Frank’s evocative arrangement is intentionally ambiguous and open: “Something must be left for the onlooker, he must have something to see. It is not all said for him.”

 

America, America

After a further trip to New York – which he assured his mother would be his last – Robert Frank applied for a Guggenheim fellowship in October 1954. His project proposal was for an “observation and record of what one naturalised American finds to see in the United States that signifies the kind of civilisation born here and spreading elsewhere”. The result was to be a book, for which he had already won support from Arnold Kübler, the long-standing editor of the Zurich-based culture magazine Du, and Robert Delpire, a young publisher in Paris. Thanks to help from Alexey Brodovitch, Walker Evans, Edward Steichen and others, Frank was the first European photographer to be awarded this generous fellowship. The award made it possible for him to set off on his now-legendary road trips across the US in spring 1955.

Over almost two years, Frank took more than 20,000 photographs on his travels. He made roughly 1,000 work prints in the autumn and winter of 1956-57, which he pinned to the walls and laid on the floor of his apartment. At the time his home was East Village, New York, where artists including Alfred Leslie and Willem de Kooning also lived. Over many months Frank made countless passes through his photographs, eliminating those images he was unsure of and focusing on specific themes. He constantly rearranged the selection that was gradually coming together until he had a first mocked-up book with just under 90 images and the provisional title America, America. Frank took this book with him when he traveled to Europe in summer 1957, showing it to Delpire and his Swiss photographer friend Gotthard Schuh.

Over the years, the America photographs not included in his final selection disappeared into archives and collections or even got lost altogether. Only recently has it been possible to ascertain that many of the rejected and unpublished photographs were of the same caliber as the 83 book images Frank and Delpire agreed on. Frank’s contact sheets show that these photos were often taken directly before or after the images that have become icons of photographic history. Rather than putting forth a single message, Frank’s dark take on 1950s America contains impressive variations, facets, and excursuses that made a powerful impression on many, including his early supporter, Schuh. Schuh wrote to his young friend: “I don’t know America, but your photographs frighten me because in them you show, with visionary alertness, things that affect us all.”

 

The Americans

Following the first French edition of Les Américains, Robert Frank’s book was published as The Americans in New York in 1959. The English edition dropped the cover illustration and the selection of texts on America (which Delpire had insisted on over Frank’s protests), and added an introduction by Jack Kerouac. Frank had much in common with the Beat poets, though he only met them after his Guggenheim-funded travels. Like Kerouac’s main character in On the Road, Frank crisscrossed the country with apparent aimlessness, working spontaneously. Moreover, his work shares a stylistic consonance with Beat literature: Frank had abandoned all technical conventions and photographed intuitively instead. Many of his photographs are underexposed and grainy; they frame a scene and omit key details; their horizons are slanting and the lighting is often murky. Frank’s focus was the everyday, the fleeting, and the marginal. People are shown turning away from the camera, and his landscapes are desolate and bleak, “really more like Russia”, as Frank once remarked to Kerouac. He flouted the rules he had learned during his early training as a photographer in Switzerland in order to be as true as possible to his subjective experience and to capture unvarnished reality.

Kerouac’s introduction begins with the words: “That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and music comes out of the jukeboxes or from a nearby funeral, that’s what Robert Frank has captured in tremendous photographs taken as he traveled on the road around practically forty-eight states in an old used car (on Guggenheim Fellowship) and with the agility, mystery, genius, sadness and strange secrecy of a shadow photographed scenes that have never been seen before on film …” The Americans is a long, poetic image arc with cross-references, digressions, and associations, but also mental leaps and ambiguities, which provoked many critics. Although most acknowledged that Frank’s photographs were highly powerful, they read his take on Americans as a malicious attack on the country. Frank, a Jewish foreigner, was resented for picking up on the racism, hollow patriotism, commodified cheer, and political corruption lurking behind the façade of American society. Even before his groundbreaking book was published, Robert Frank wrote: “Above all, I know that life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference. Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love. It is important to see what is invisible to others.”

Martin Gasser, Curator

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) "Los Angeles" 1955

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
“Los Angeles”
1955
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'City fathers – Hoboken, New Jersey' 1955

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
City fathers – Hoboken, New Jersey
1955
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'Bus-Stop, Detroit' 1955

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
Bus-Stop, Detroit
1955
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'Bar – Gallup, New Mexico' 1955

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
Bar – Gallup, New Mexico
1955
Gelatin silver print
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019) 'Charity Ball – New York' 1954

 

Robert Frank (Swiss, 1924-2019)
Charity Ball – New York
1954
© Andrea Frank Foundation; courtesy Pace / MacGill Gallery, New York
Collection of the Swiss Photo Foundation

 

Müller + Hess, Wendelin Hess and Jesse Wyss, Basel / Zurich

 

Müller + Hess, Wendelin Hess and Jesse Wyss, Basel / Zurich

 

 

Fotostiftung Schweiz
Grüzenstrasse 45
CH-8400 Winterthur (Zürich)
Phone: +41 52 234 10 30

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Sunday 11am – 6pm
Wednesday 11am – 8pm
Closed on Mondays

Fotostiftung Schweiz website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, a photographic archive and form of cultural memory, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Dogs, chickens, cattle’ 1994-95

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