I’ve been on the road, and so have a lot of you and here’s the road,” begins Jack Kerouac’s introduction to the 83 photographs in Robert Frank’s 1958 book The Americans. Frank commissioned Kerouac to write this introduction, and it still provides an insightful point of entry to this major work of American photography.
Organized by the National Gallery of Art, this exhibit of the original photographs from this book is on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through Aug. 23.
Of course, one has to be careful when invoking the name of Kerouac. The cultural detritus of the beat movement attaches to it like barnacles. To call these photographs “cool” or “hip” or to see them as critiques of the Eisenhower era has a certain small-minded accuracy, but misses the larger purpose of Frank’s work.
Frank wasn’t some James Dean-like figure, clad in Ray Bans as he criscrossed 1950s America with a used Ford and a Leica camera. Not at all. Frank was a Swiss immigrant, a child of prosperity who sought escape from convention. As Frank himself put it, “The Americans is the voyage of a European in a country that he crosses for the first time. You are on beach, you dive into the wave.”
Kerouac’s road in these photographs is more than just a metaphor; it’s the path of the pilgrim, where people die and mourners pass by to take a peek at the “holy face to see what death is like.”
These are photographs about the deepest mysteries of life, about the forces that drive through the settings and the costumes and the masks of our individual lives.
One of the most resonant images in the show is that of a Jehovah’s Witness clutching his copy of Awake! Magazine, his eyes haunted, perhaps from being too awake as he witnesses how the divine moves among the human.
These photographs are in the great transcendental tradition of Emerson. Frank’s work echoes Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road,” where we walk amid the “unseen.” The Americans is Frank’s attempt to give us glimpses of those unseen elements and the marvels hidden in the clothes of the everyday. For Frank, America becomes a kind of allegory.
A photograph about Los Angeles reminds us that this is no ordinary city. This is, after all, the City of Angels, and we see a statue of St. Francis holding the cross in benediction over a Standard station that sells Atlas tires, and soon the meaning of the commercial and the Christian are tied up with Greek mythology, and the photograph becomes witty and ironic and spiritual all at once, its meanings shifting back and forth like the grainy shadows in much of Frank’s work.
Some of these pictures are political, certainly. The book has four sections, and each begins with a photograph built around a flag, but these flags accrue rich and sometimes humorous meanings as the book goes along.
The Americans has had a profound influence on art photographers like Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander, but the book, with its graininess and movement and unlit spaces, also influenced the most common images of American culture. In television shows, in ads, in movies, in virtually all the corners of our visual culture, we can still see echoes of Frank’s work, and I think it’s illuminating to see the source of this impact, a source which, even after 50 years, seems as fresh as it must have when Frank watched these pictures emerge in his darkroom.
What a thrill to consider the reverberating meanings of a blanket-covered car-crash victim placed beside the photograph of a cloth-covered car, which glows like a talisman. How resonant the image of the African-American woman sitting outside, below a hill with a telephone pole that has a spooky resemblance to a cross.
It is interesting that Frank, in later years, has been drawn more and more to filmmaking, for the photographs in The Americans are hardly still. Frank is a master at catching things on the fly, and the whole series, especially when seen on a museum wall rather than in a book, seems to be a series of frames from a movie.
Compare this esthetic to, for instance, that of Ansel Adams, who wrote about his famous shot of the moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico that he was looking for a subject that would, in his word, “bend” to his visualization.
In other words, Adams, like probably most of his contemporaries, went to the scene with an idea already in his head with the hope that reality would show him what he saw. Frank, on the other hand, bent his seeing to the shape of what he found.
This is a well-organized show that gives us just enough of Frank’s influences (Walker Evans, Bill Brandt, and others) to see how much what he once called his “European Eyes” learned from others.
The show also sketches out a bit of Frank’s art after The Americans and ends with a short film that has, interestingly enough, both footage of photographs and images of the photographer himself, who appears, at first, to be videoing us. “I am always looking outside,” the subtitles of the video explains, “trying to look inside, trying to say something that is true. But maybe nothing is really true. Except what’s out there. And what’s out there is constantly changing.”
Slowly we realize that he is not filming us. No, we are seeing his reflection in a window. The film of us is really a film of Frank, and so our insight goes back and forth, in this lively sutra of meaning, as one of the great artists of the 20th century shows us what our lives are really like.
LOOKING IN: ROBERT FRANK’S ‘THE AMERICANS’
Through Aug. 23 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., San Francisco. Open every day but Wednesday. 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. Open Thursdays until 9:30 p.m. Summer hours begin Memorial Day: Open at 10 a.m. $12.50 for adults. Members free. Discounts for seniors, students, and children. www.sfmoma.org.