On Robert Frank
On his transatlantic journey in 1947 he was twenty-three when he emigrated from Switzerland to the United States Robert Frank photographed an overhead view of a male figure leaning over the ship's stern. The marbled wake looks like Earth's swirling land and ocean masses now familiar to us from satellite photos, but it also has a pounded silvery murkiness, the sea foam resembling macerated ore. The depth of the image is so compressed that the man seems to be standing before a wildly painted backdrop. An artist's images may remain mysterious even while they instruct us in how they ought to be seen and felt. That image of the crossing is mysterious and instructive because it is a stilled configuration of the massive turmoil of consciousness, of the mind confronting a natural metaphor of the consciousness in which we all swim. We do not experience consciousness as a sequence of thoughts or moments. No one instant can be separated out or known apart from the whole forceful pitch of mental activity, of what comes before and after, or of what we imagine came before and might come after. But photography can represent what we want (and need) to recognize as a moment experienced in time. Frank's work is singular because, by exercising different styles of attention, he not only separates out the moment lived by his subject but also braids it into its penumbral streak of time passed and passing. One of those styles is evident in his photo of a Detroit drive-in movie, made ten years after his arrival in America. The figures draped across the big screen, vague and granular in the twilight, compose a stilled moment picked from the narrative that consciousness uses to represent to itself certain patterns of human action. The screen image, as Frank envisions it for us, has a decorative aloofness. The ranked pods of cars beneath it are receivers, little housings for motion-picture lore. Between the screen and cars there exists an intimate confrontational relation. The viewers those, at least, who are bothering to watch the show are folding back into their story hoard the patterns acted out above their heads. Frank's station, his angle of attention, is a witness's half-step backward, at the margin of the relation, shaping its tonal blend of melancholy and expectation. But the image is just as decisively shaped by an alertness that cants the artist toward his little world of fact. Slightly estranged from the scene, Frank is at the same time at the threshold of a crossing into the scene.
Frank has enacted that powerful mixed predisposition again and again as his work has progressed. If progressed is even the right word. For his work in still photography has not matured or developed along formal lines. He began as a finished artist who moved not through formalist stages of development, but from subject to subject, from one style of attention to another. The ambitious pursuit of formal discoveries that Edward Weston conducted has never been important to him. And yet no other photographer so casually combines quick instincts with formal awe, or possesses a preparedness for the revelatory pattern in a given scene so natural and primed that it is indistinguishable from mere reflex. His work represents, in individual pictures and as an adventure, the crossover state where material being is at once a spiritual consistency; it records and claims as its most frequent subject consciousness caught in the act of migrating from the inner to the outer.
In Macy's Parade, New York (1948) the bulbous, ethereal trapeze artist hangs from its balloon, and beneath it swells the darkly corrugated lower rim of the frame. The image is scrubbed of illusionist depth. The tilted, wedge-shaped buildings with their cheesecloth textures are fuzzy backdrops against which the circus figure seems printed. All that familiar solidity, the steel and granite stabilities, is dematerialized, brought over to the floating giant's state of helpless weightlessness. It is an image of world stuff as we sometimes feel it as momentarily condensed vapors. Frank practices a rather different style of attention when he collapses depth not to deplete the image of materiality but to laminate and impact it. In White Tower, 14th Street, New York (1949), for instance, the image is pressured forward with the joyful urgency of self-offering or appeasement. In such a picture, the display of its contents is an act of moral intensification, physically enacted in the allover immediacy of the image. Six young women sit at a window counter facing out at us from the frame of the White Tower window. Five of them they would be "office girls" are smoking. Around the head of the central figure, whose mouth blooms with smoke like the old Times Square Camel billboard, bursts an array of signs: "Pie 150Â¢," "Beans 10Â¢," "Hot Soup 20Â¢." The prices, the smoking, the costumes, recorded less than half a century ago, have the kind of archival shock that reminds us of the velocity of change in American society. Only twenty-five years after pie cost fifteen cents, Frank would film a documentary of a Rolling Stones tour, called Cocksucker Blues .
But the archival reach of Frank's career that which is most available, most given, to any straight photographer is its least interesting quality. Pressed behind the girls, backs turned, are men sitting at the counter, wearing felt hats. The wall clock reads 5:25. The girls are having their after-work coffee. Like most of Frank's images, this one preserves American facts, especially facts related to ritual celebrations. But what makes it formally compelling is the way all the bundles of fact congest the foreplane, the front wall, of the picture. Frank refuses to allow for a more discriminating, and therefore more accommodating, clarity of illusionist depth. All the materials occupy a heraldic foreground. Even the background food cases, which ought to suggest depth, are pasted over the front of the image like a transparency. More than just a documentary image of overlapping social and economic zones, White Tower is an image of momentary intimacies and the precious spaces that define those intimacies among the girls, among the men, between the counterman and his customers and that require social crossings. And the girls, who are having such a great time, look out into the imagined distance that separates their reality in the image life from us. It's the look, and the distance, that we see in Canal Street New Orleans, from The Americans, where the front of the image, engorged with the different races and ages hurrying along the sidewalk, is broken up by the stare of a young man standing tallest in the composition yet almost concealed behind the others. Looking into that distance, out at us, he is the courier of consciousness from the image life to our own, and he triggers a nostalgia that inheres in a lot of straight photography, as it represents things or places or persons that at some time have been the mind's home and are lost
or far away. That look, from the girls, from the young New Orleans man, is a call to another existence which, even while it carries the full charge of consciousness, does not change.
Photography is an act of visitation. It does not engulf and master reality with a made form language, as painting does. The visitations conducted in Frank's images are invariably polite, wary, and unstoppably inquisitive. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, while earning a decent living as a fashion photographer for Harper's Bazaar and other magazines, Frank spent his off-hours taking photographs of street life in New York and in the European and Latin American countries he visited. The attention in many of those pictures as in White Tower and Macy's Parade is pressurized by the fugitive circumstances in which they were made. They already showed the manners of a migrant or transient who must depend on the disclosures and presentations of strangers; but the manners are also shaped by hunger, and that brings with it an almost rude pertinacity. When he received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1955 (it was renewed the following year) Frank was able to cut loose from his commercial work for a while, and the product of those two years was The Americans, first published in France and later criticized by several American reviewers as a vicious, distorted, unjustifiably bleak portrait of American culture. Frank's ambition to move through the different levels of American life, to visit not only marginal social groups but also more stable and prosperous communities, with special concentration on politically charged scenes, brought him into natural affinity with beat writers. His images have the breakneck rush into the random offerings of circumstance that we hear in the poetry Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso were then writing. It can be heard in Jack Kerouac's prose, too, though the introduction Kerouac wrote for the 1959 American edition of The Americans strikes a tone of petulant righteousness: "Anybody doesnt like these pitchers dont like potry, see? Anybody dont like potry go home see Television shots of big hatted cowboys being tolerated by kind horses." That tone of sour rebuke, mocking the presumed expectations of a philistine, bourgeois audience, whined beneath even the more exuberant and audacious assertions of beat writers. Frank, however, was too curious about experience to be self-righteous or sullen or theatrically manic, and he was too polite to whine. Unlike Ginsberg, Corso, and Ferlinghetti, he was not a megaphone artist, though one of his favorite subjects was the megaphone squeal that pierces so much American culture.
From that early image of the crossing in 1947 to a 1981 picture of Mabou, Nova Scotia, with snowdrifts and mist melting around coastal rock like two energy states, gaseous and solid, transferring one into the other, there is an all-availing readiness of vision, a formidable receptivity to the instant lost as soon as it is lived in the course of time. The spiritual configuration of the instant, as it is actualized in appearances, is one of Frank's subjects. In his 1965 film Me and My Brother from 1959 to 1969 he worked almost exclusively as a filmmaker, usually on independent, low-budget productions, with occasional money-making assignments in still photography from magazines like Fortune, Vogue, Esquire, Glamour the subject is Julius Orlovsky, brother of Allen Ginsberg's long-time companion Peter Orlovsky, who after many years in an institution was released into his brother's care. The film documents Julius's mind emerging from its long catatonia; he is, as Ginsberg says in the film, "coming into consciousness." Frank shapes the film into a narrative of innocence becoming available (and vulnerable) to the contingencies of the world of experience. When an off-screen voice asks, "Where does truth exist?" Julius answers: "Inside, outside. But outside, the world is . . . well, I don't know." That could be a statement of Frank's own curiosity and bemusement about his work, which he takes to be the expression of spiritual truth of the moral force and structure of relations as it is lived out in appearances, though Frank certainly knows that the changefulness of matter can give the lie to spiritual consistency. He talks about his ambition in a self-interview included in the 1983 video Home Improvements: "To tell something that is true; maybe what's 'out there' is the truth. The problem is, what's out there is always changing." He has never been interested in photography as a meditative activity. In contrast to the presentation of objects as holy existences in Minor White's photographs, Frank's images have an immediacy of lived physical fact that yet records migratory movements between what's "out there" and the moral consistencies of "in here-ness." I use spiritual and moral interchangeably because while Frank is clearly involved in trying to make visible a spiritual condition, a meaningfulness that preexists and outlasts its material manifestation, that spirituality is also value laden, subject to deliberation though not to physical laws, and its expression is determined by the selective judgments of the artist. His pictures, which express so vibrantly the material presence of subjects in the stream of circumstance, are at the same time spiritual configurations; or, to put it differently, they articulate the stirrings and deliberations of consciousness in response to living in a world of contingency.
The young woman steering a bumper car in one of the pictures Frank took in Paris in 1950, her eyes shut, her mouth split into a delirious gummy grin, is twisted away from the young man beside her, who is himself lost in a giddy swoon. In the exhilaration of their shared moment, the turmoil of youthful sexuality is immediately made available to us in the gashed hilarity of the image. The moment's truth is out there in the swimming physicality of the scene, but in that configuration there exists also a contentious mix of moral feeling, the confusions and decisiveness that are part of erotic anticipation, of attraction and ecstasy. At the peak of their joy, the two figures are ever so shyly turned from each other. When we go back to the image, its mood can switch from buzzing fright to jubilation. But it's characteristic of Frank's artistry that we do not feel manipulated into a predetermined moral "fit" or attitude. The crossed zones, the spiritual pitching into the quick of physical fact, exist entirely there in the (apparently casual) formal qualities of the image. It is not a formal perfection he seeks but a quality of presence. In fact, the better part of his art grows out of his passion for imperfections and irresolutions.
The children playing on the slag heap in the 1953 image Caerau, Wales have the same look of crazy joy as those Parisians. But if the bumper-car lovers are a momentary resolution of the shimmering flares of light on metal shattering all around them, the kids on the slag heap look like concentrates of the crude industrial byproducts on which they play. They don't emerge from the glittering heap of scoria, they are stamped on it, tooled into that support. The dross
that possesses the children's flesh, their material being, is a valueless castoff from the material that supports the town's economy. A moral and economic relation is thus made available in the physical truth of the image. The simultaneity of matter and spirit becomes more complexly toned in the series to which the image belongs. In one of the Caerau street scenes, for instance, three generations of males stand on a corner, idle, backs to a wall. A dog crosses the street. (It looks like Giacometti's scavenger dog.) Grimy row houses slant upward to the right like a stage flat in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari . Down the street runs muck from the slag heap we've seen in the other picture. The town, with its inert economy and distressed male population, is physically and spiritually trapped in, and fouled by, the consequences of its own mean prosperity.
When I try to understand why Frank's images have been so tenacious in my life, why their mystery and clarity have for nearly twenty years called me back, asking for some answer, some reciprocal spiritual response, I come up with things not very helpful to formal analysis. His purity of intent, for instance. He is more than just preternaturally sensitive to surprise. His mind holds no determinants, no categorical resolutions or sentences of experience, nor does it imply any expectation of them. Among photographers he is the one who most completely possesses the quality of imaginative response Keats called Negative Capability, "when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." A too scrupulous creative mind, or one too obsessed with thoroughness and completion, "would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge." It's certainly not innocence. It's rather a fearless availability which exercises itself as inquisitiveness. It's judgment by selective inclusiveness, not by austere exclusiveness.
What are the purest expressions of this selective quality? There is a picture in The Americans of a black funeral in St. Helena, South Carolina: six men stand around cars, self-contained, each an island of thoughtful, ritualized waiting, except for the figure deepest in the image who stares at us from his distance. In formal terms, though, the image has no "deepest" point or "distance"; the figures, the cars, the gray air, all the things in the picture float on the surface of the scene, a scene that they themselves make up. There is the black Pentecostal in Mississippi River, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, dressed in white, a white cross in one hand, a tambourine in the other; kneeling on the riverbank, he looks at once like a black parody of a Klansman and a minstrel-show performer, but subsuming both shadow presences is the sheer presence of power that worship generates, especially when it is enacted by that river, America's holy river, which we can actually see flowing. There is the black woman in Beaufort, South Carolina, sitting in a chair in a field at sundown: at her elbow, though positioned at the field's horizon line, rises a telephone pole that looks like a man-sized version of the cross held by the Pentecostal. The passing awe of Frank's encounter with the world is written into so many of his pictures that they suggest the purity of apprehension of early childhood, or of holy idiocy. But I never feel that the pictures issue from an Edenic blankness or dawning of consciousness. Frank's strange purity is history-freighted. He is not naming what has not yet been named. He is feeling in images the particularity and value-charged distinctiveness of what he knows to be old and used. If there is any Golden Age innocence in him, it is welded to Swiss orderliness and American good sense. His purity of intent, at any rate, accounts in part for his attraction to children as subjects. In the Parisian lovers we still see the hysterical child, and the Welsh children on the slag heap are already miniature adults.
Unlike the drifters and marginal characters slanted into their scene such as the cowboy of Rodeo, New York City leaning against a sidewalk trash basket rolling a cigarette, or the black and Hispanic queens mugging the camera from a doorway, with their penciled eyebrows, hipshot poses, and "done" hair the children in Robert Frank's photographs are positioned among the world's instructive objects, as if in preparation for the irreversible passage into adulthood's circumstantial improvisations. During his 1952 visit to Spain, Frank made another of his sea-journey images: a child in diapers sits atop a wooden horse, ramping on the shore. The horse looks seaward, the child toward the clapping hands of his mother. The formless sea is the counterforce that would pull the child from those protective, instructive maternal hands. In a 1948 picture, Peruvian children sit on a curb watching a military review, absorbing that model of force, discipline, and order. The swaggering precision is one appeal from the adult order to children just beginning to sort through desirable images of behavior. Frank often photographed his own children. (The child on the horse is his son, Pablo.) They rode along for several months while he took pictures for The Americans, one of which, U.S. 90, En Route to Del Rio, Texas, shows them drowsing in the car with their mother, Mary Lockspeiser, whom Frank married in 1950. Road weary, co-cooned in the dark car in dusk light, they form an image of love sustained during a fugitive existence. A counterimage is the 1956 Mary and Andrea, Third Avenue, New York City: Frank's young daughter occupies the light at the lower right of the image, looking straight at us while her mother, on the left, stares out the window. Andrea is patched by a smothering light spread across her face. Her emergent consciousness is so needful and vulnerable that she seems adrift from the mother, who is distracted, secretive, absorbed in an already formed selfhood.
For Frank, making pictures has always been a way of living into the moral moment. He once said that The Americans "showed that period in an unmistakable way, how I felt about it, where I stood it's a way of life for me How I live, that's my politics." This is, I think, his own version of Matisse's insistence on making an image not of the thing seen but of the feeling the thing calls into existence. For Frank, however, the intimacies of photography are tied not only to the rhythms of his own life of feeling but also to his politics, his view of life in a governed society. Bristled about by a contingency it is only beginning to intuit, a child's mind is the purest, most immediate register of these two conditions. The two fused in the adult mind make for political feeling. Frank is by no means a naive or childlike artist, but he is (like Wordsworth and certain other poets) by sympathetic capability wonderfully close to the child's experience as it is kept by adult consciousness in its experiences of the world, and this makes him a photographer of unusually complex yet fresh political feeling. Throughout The Americans children are implicated into political mood. Centered in the famous image of the New Orleans streetcar, in that congested synoptic view of America's sullen racial and social varieties, are two children staring from a window. Like all the faces in the picture, theirs are in distress. Each of the adults looks out with a different greeting of the spirit, from the white woman's defiant frown to the black man's pained squint. The children are placed as both precursors and inheritors of those moods.
Like most of the pictures in The Americans, the New Orleans image is so bled of vivacity and good cheer and therefore contrary to what the popular imagination conceives (or did at least in those days conceive) as essential characteristics of our national temperament that the book inevitably drew outraged moralistic criticism from some reviewers. In Popular Photography Bruce Downes wrote: "There is no pity in his images. They are images of hate and hopelessness, of desolation and preoccupation with death. They are images of an America seen by a joyless man who hates the country of his adoption." Frank himself said of the book: "I knew the photographs were true. They were what I felt, they were completely intuitive. There was no thinking." The remark suggests his hatred of pedantry and justified suspicion of any moralistic intellectualism that would suck the intuitive force out of art images.
But I think he is also saying that in making that book (and, I would generalize, in nearly all his work until 1974) he did not design or belabor scenic elements in his pictures, did not concern himself with the "supreme instant" of formal realization, did not seek out social configurations that might serve as political slogans. If he is the purest (and least smug) straight photographer of our time, pure in his attention to the ceremonies of circumstance as value-laden relations, he cares little about the formal purity of his images. The few times he has tried to contrive the order of a scene or schematize the political content of an image, the results have been arch, self-satisfied, and literary. Perhaps because it is yet another portrait of childhood, the most glaring example for me of things gone wrong is Cape Cod (1962), where Andrea is running across the beach unfurling an American flag that forms a canopy beneath which sits Pablo, reading the Daily News . The headline, shoved at us in the compressed space, announces: MARILYN DEAD . From a front-page photo the movie star's hand reaches out, a familiar gesture of appeal in Frank's pictures. The image is programmatic, the figures of children inserted into a scheme of cultural signs that carry a monotonal charge. It's the one photograph of his that might pass as beat art a sour, overconceptualized image of moral relations that have had all the suppleness and mystery of actual existence, actual occasion, leached from them. Marilyn, the fallen goddess, the fallen fiction, vulgarly remembered beneath the vulgar, glamorous providentiality of the flag. The picture is not dishonest or lazy. Frank is incapable of the disingenuousness that in some contemporary artists is praised and rewarded for its delectable self-contempt. In Cape Cod he is testing another way of making a picture, a way I think was dangerously available to him if he wanted it, but the effort suppresses his remarkable intuitive capacity for selecting moments in which the moral or spiritual life is enacted most intensely in material circumstance.
In a 1975 lecture at Wellesley College, Frank had this to say about photographic form: "I'm not interested in taking a beautiful photograph. I don't mean that there's no room for it; I just don't want to do it. For example, I live in a very beautiful place [Mabou, Nova Scotia]. I could get a camera and make a very beautiful picture. It could be almost as good as Ansel Adams. But I don't want to take a beautiful picture, and I can't, really." Privileged visions, darkroom exaltations, definitive "finish," these have never mattered to him as much as making the photograph a materialization of subjective consciousness. I want to suggest that his work has its best apologist in William James. In the Principles of Psychology James set out his famous description of the stream of consciousness: "Consciousness does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as 'chain' or 'train' do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed: it flows. . . . Let us call it the stream of thought, or consciousness, or of subjective life ." Because of its selectivity a photograph by Robert Frank presents a chopped-away image of consciousness. But most of his pictures also bear signs or memorial traces of their own selection and contain fossil scorings of the stream from which they have been cut. In contrast to the work of photographers as diverse as Weston, Stieglitz, Minor White, and Harry Callahan, no one of Frank's pictures has the tone or aura of an eternal moment. His images in fact bear some mysterious quality I cannot account for but feel as a healing agent that, always serving continuity and fused consciousness, soothes the lesions its own chopping activity creates. This healing is intensified, and situated morally, by Frank's imaginative sympathy for his subjects. In The Americans there is a photo of a Detroit assembly line in which the workers look entangled in the hoses, tools, cables, parts, and storage racks all around them. It is an image not so much of industrial tyrannies workers caught in a webwork their tools and support systems create as of toiling absorption, where human attention to a task fuses to the instruments that execute it. There is no tone of exclusivity, no sense of privilege, in the selection of the moment. But like many of Frank's images, it has a shadow existence where other possible pictures, other imagined configurations, stream in his consciousness.
Later in the same chapter in Principles, James writes that the mind is a theater of simultaneous possibilities: "Consciousness consists in the comparison of these with each other, the selection of some, and the suppression of the rest by the reinforcing and inhibiting agency of attention." The selectivity of the subjective consciousness is one of the decisive dramas in Frank's work. His "Bus" series pictures taken from Manhattan buses in 1958 and the last thematic series he finished before going into filmmaking is interesting because the view of consciousness is determined by a given scheme, a bus route, a pattern for the inquiring eye. I've seen the contact sheet and two prints of a sequence of shots made while Frank's bus was pulling up beside another. Pinched in the narrow space ahead, between the two vehicles, a pedestrian crosses the street. The contact sheet is a record of the chopped moments making up the mental event. The two prints demonstrate the shocking changes consciousness absorbs and photographic selectivity isolates. In one, a blade of sunlight slashes the image vertically, and the small pedestrian is nearly dissolved in its brilliance. The light, in those city spaces, is both heavenly visitation and ordering force. In the second image, taken just a moment before or afterward, the side of Frank's bus obstructs the light; its radiance is deflected, its disclosures interrupted, curtailed by the shift in view, by the turning of attention. In formal terms, neither is superior to the other. Each imprints the action of the selective mind, both are rich with the sense of a larger, more inclusive stream of awareness.
But artists who are guided too much by sympathetic attractions and inquisitiveness become hostages to occasion and risk a drifting arbitrariness. Decisions must be made, themes pursued, subjects owned. The most decisive figural pattern in Frank's photographs, one that drives and organizes what otherwise might become a desultory receptivity to the world's offered occasions, is the call. Sometimes it's political, sometimes religious. ("Politics," he once said, "it's close to religion. To believe in a voice that is what I think much of it is about. But I think it is better to believe in religion than to believe in politicians.") When the call comes, it gives provisional shape to the community that amasses around it, which may be a crowd of strangers or a familiar group. The call, and the response to it, are not just a theme in Frank's work, they're also a technique. His alertness has a religious intensity, though he usually stations himself a little way from the heat of the source. In 1947 Louis Faurer took a picture of a New York crowd on a sidewalk rubbernecking something out of view: one step back from the crowd is the young Robert Frank, hands in his pockets, interested in the off-camera event but not gawking. The others are looking at what's happening; he is seeing it. The call in American life must have leaped at him when he came here, and he responded immediately to its presence. New York City, 1951 shows in close-up a preacher's hand holding a tattered book of Scripture and a sign announcing God's will. In San Gennaro, New York (1949-51) the hand extended toward us, in a gesture that crosses commerce with supplication, is draped with holy medals. That festival offers such abundant local color that in Frank's image we feel the shaping force of what he elected to exclude, of how he is answering the call of his theme. The foreground in both images is sharp, emergent, expansive, stabbing at us from the out-of-focus throngs, the canopies and parentheses of bleared light. Less aggressive is the appeal of the old Jehovah's Witness in Los Angeles (from The Americans ) clutching a copy of Awake! as if to rebuke passersby, and us, for dullness and ignorance. The mind of the image maker, whose shaping selective powers are worked into the tone and texture of these pictures, is alive to the appeal exercised by anything that might answer to spiritual need. The hands holding out amulets or words also hold out some promise of hope, solace, knowledge, redemption. They all promise a way of being delivered out of time. But Frank is also alive to the dangerous constraints that a call can impose on the social order.
He has created an entire class of images that consider the place of the call in the social order. Many of the interiors in The Americans are structured around message sources, and often the most desolate scenes are those most dominated by instruments meant to attract and enthrall an audience. In Restaurant, U.S. 1, Leaving Columbia, South Carolina, the TV in the corner of a vacant lunchroom looks all the more solid and promising, more full of plenty, in a space where half the Formica top of one of the tables is vaporized in window light. The television set is the strongbox. The obsidian jukebox in Cafe, Beaufort, South Carolina looks like a cargo cult object. The scene is bare: a wooden floor, a table, and a pillow or fluffed pallet on which lies a black child, like an offering to the enchanted jukebox. There's another in Westside Bar, New York City, it too in a desolate space, glowing like radioactive material, a hazardous, attractive power source. The jukebox in Frank's images makes its own social appeal because its song shapes our consciousness of circumstance and consequence. It's the aural equivalent of the TV and the drive-in movie screen, returning to us ritualized patterns (or moral paradigms) of experience. All of these, as social instruments, rhyme pictorially with the tuba bell shining forth from one of the several images in The Americans taken in Chicago at the 1956 Democratic National Convention. In the political images, however, the specificities of melodrama played out in TV shows and jukebox music are overwhelmed by a more general, indiscriminate, and virulent appeal. The intent of a political rally is not to inform or to enhance consciousness but to rouse emotion to the pitch of action. The communities improvised by the political call can become ideological mobs whose purpose is not celebration but forceful persuasion. The human figure that rhymes with the others I've mentioned is the convention delegate standing on a balcony above us, legs spread, a "Vote for Kefauver" placard pinned to his shirtfront. He thrusts his arms upward in a gesture which, as Frank tones it, may be exultation or demagogic rage. Both, in this very disquieting image, exercise their appeal. Frank is seeing into that current of American passion where optimistic glee flows inseparably with ideological mania, and when he made the image of the Kefauver supporter, he was also remembering balcony speeches that had been so decisive in reshaping his native Europe twenty years earlier.
Frank is an artist of such complexity of feeling, however, that even when his subject lends itself to satirical broadness or prescriptive stringency, he sees into the shadow zones of the relation. When in New York City (1961) he shows us a crowd looking literally to the heavens, with an elderly woman in the foreground clutching a book titled Listen to God, the easily mocked gullibility of that populace is tangled and snagged by other tones. That group is looking beyond itself for deliverance unto another's will, the weakness of the subjective life when it thinks it wants to be told what to think. That feeling is a true one. But the individuals in the picture are not represented as sheepish anonymities or whacky fanatics. Each figure dramatizes a different attitude of the wish to be saved saved from uncertainty, from the random instabilities of existence, from the solitude that these enforce. One ritualized demonstration of the desire for redemption from solitude is holiday festivals. The black couples and solitary figures spread out on the dark beach in the 1958 "Fourth of July, Coney Island" series look like castaways, remnants of a society of exiles. Another image, but one of bounty and sanctuary, is the Fourth of July picture Frank had taken three years earlier for The Americans: over the entrance to a community fair or picnic, Old Glory hangs low, like a portal, and two young girls holding balloons pass underneath. The protective presence of the flag is benign reassurance, but its immense, assertive size it hangs from the heavens makes it, as Frank selects the scenic instant, a visual equivalent of the strained American happiness that is sometimes indistinguishable from self-righteousness. The flag is both a sheltering and smothering benefactor. Its flamboyant confidence issues from some uncertainty, some unsettling sense of insufficiency. But it also exists as a political stability, an almost Platonic image of the ideal, the good. The children would seem, in Frank's presentation of them, free of all these deliberations. They are part of the social and political configuration, wards of the flag, but, as in Frank's other renderings of children, they remain blissfully open to possibility and unconcerned with accident. They do not yet know they should feel that they need to be saved.
The images in The Americans were credited by an intelligence that, while it focused on the pinch of contingency so visible in its subjects, was not itself whipped or driven by the awareness of contingency. Frank was a happy artist. Not frivolous or insouciant, but happy as Wordsworth was happy. Even as he scrutinized his subjects in what he knew to be a world of accident and suffering, the actual expression of that knowledge was not strife-ridden or dissonant; it was becalmed, composed, accepting, and benevolent in its regard. For the happy artist, the sheer involuntary momentum of the ongoing stream of thought overcomes what is for the tragic artist a jangled, headstrong, quarrelsome nurturing of the consciousness of hazard. In Principles, James writes: "Experience is remoulding us at every moment, and our mental reaction to every given thing is really a resultant of our experience of the whole world up to that date." The nature of experience as Frank lived it until 1974 was a rolling, processual, uninterrupted sequence. Events and images flowed, and he flowed along with them, always the passionate bystander, a little off to the side. He did not strike back at the presentations of time, he did not spike himself into the process. Rage was a tone as foreign to him as it was to Wordsworth.
In 1974 he became a changed artist. Early that year he began experimenting with Polaroid film, making collages using multiple negatives and handwriting. He had separated from his wife in 1969 and, with June Leaf, moved to Mabou, where they built a house. For about fifteen years he had spent most of his energy on film-making. In December 1974 his daughter, Andrea, died in an airplane crash. Most of the images he has made since then register or recall the grief of that event in a ripped, pictorial idiom. His art, in James's terms, has been recast to meet a changed experience of the world. The familiar reserve and sweet-tempered receptivity to the world's offerings become a cry of alarm and outrage. The continuity of the subjective life so firmly sustained in The Americans is now fractured; the new images are obsessively mauled over, lacerated, intruded upon. For the first time in his career, the picture-making process becomes part of the pictorial finish. Act is transferred as artifice. The negative border, the invisible housing of his previous images, is now a garishly exposed, tentative restrainer. The front of the image, the inviolate, pristine transparency that had been Frank's chief device in organizing the intimacies he observed, becomes a violated zone slashed by messages, stray marks, autobiographical debris. Frank's response to the new devastating fact in his life it's unseemly to trample on his grief with commentary, but I don't know how else to get at the important questions in the career of this artist is to tear into his own image patterns, to borrow old pictures and set them in a different redefining context, to disrupt form until it responds adequately to his new feeling. The violence in the images after 1974 is an effort to find new patterns that can answer to a new mind. What once was instinctive and familiar in his art no longer sufficed.
In an essay on Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin describes the peculiar power of the camera to fix an event for an indefinite period of time: "The camera gave the moment a posthumous shock." It's that shock we feel, in its finely blended tones, in Frank's earlier pictures. After 1974 his images purge the posthumous shock from the moment and dramatize instead the jangled densities of the feeling of remembrance. The new images are excruciatingly self-conscious, above all in the way they expose Frank's interventions. Throughout his career he had made incursions into erotic relations, household intimacies, and public ceremonies, but the happy spirit that allowed him to treat the front wall of the photograph as a divisive transparency is shattered now. The image field becomes a workspace memorializing contested feelings. As viewers, we no longer look on safely from the margin but are made co-witness and conspirator to turbulent assertions of the image as a contrivance, not a gift; a made thing, not a visionary mood. Our own attention is spiked into the image. The mechanical details of remembrance are hammered into many of the new images not as a retrieval or recovery but as an expression of the strain of remembrance as it elides, crosses, crowds, and chops up moments in time's passing.
In the 1977 Words, Nova Scotia, two of his own famous images, the tuba from the "Chicago" seri es and the 1953 London to New York, in which passengers on the Mauretania look out expectantly from the rail the evening before their arrival, hang from a line across a stretch of beach. Beside them hangs a flag bearing the letters W O R D S . Unlike those other autobiographical photographic bits of Frank's early practice, W O R D S recollects no images of the world, has no feeling tone in isolation, and is morally numb as the other images are not. It refers to (it does not image ) the abstractions of consciousness that give us sometimes the power to express qualities of the visible world. That neutral blazon represents, if anything, ineffability and the annihilation of the material reality that had always been Frank's primary subject, as the companion pictures demonstrate. (The Mauretania image is another in Frank's album of crossings.) Those early pictures, made when the subjective mind creating them was different, are here exposed for their inadequacy to absorb the feeling of desolation. All three, however, are set in a larger context, the formless expanse of sea and sky in the background, against which the autobiographical moments and the bland W O R D S sign are feeble, tentative exertions of imagination, of image making. Words, however, become essential intrusions in his new style of attention. And style, for any artist, is completed feeling.
Andrea is elegiac shriek. Across snapshots of her and a plain clapboard house are smeared brown and white splashes; the house is blotched by black marks that look like grim, wildly thrown bunting. Written into the image is a dedication, the date of the crash, and the words: "She lived in this house and I think of Andrea every day." The words, a simple, exact, restrained statement of grief, are excruciating in their inadequacy to the occasion, and the anguish of that inadequacy floods the image. Frank is attacking and dismantling what had sufficed in his earlier work as the consolation of form form as a binder, a unifier, a healing agent. So many of his pictures in the 1950s and 1960s had a decisive clarity and immediacy of occasion. Even in the smoky fluorescent interior of Bar Gallup, New Mexico in The Americans, with its furtive under-the-table view, the figures slouching at the bar are carved from the opacities that contain them. But singularity, immediacy, and marginal watchfulness are precisely the formal values that a work like Sick of Goodbys (1976; Plate 8) upsets in order to reach for a quality of feeling that, for all the richly mixed and evocative tones of the early work, was not available to him before. In the new work he pushes himself to be a master of extremity. In Sick of Goodbys mirrors are stacked and set at angles to other mirrors, in a vicious parody of the niceties of pictorialism and of the banal conceit of the reflective surface in straight photography. For the reflected images are muddy and unrecognizable. The top half of the image is a separate negative a Polaroid, I think that melts away into a ragged fringe at the margins. The devastated appearance of the support and Frank's exertions against its stability are active stylistic elements. It's impossible to sift out all the debris. An arm extends across the front of the mirrors, breaking into the space in a way reminiscent of the plaintive gestures of the call in his earlier work. But the hand in Sick of Goodbys has no intention to instruct or persuade; it is not reaching out toward anyone. Dangling from it, against a background of what looks to be the horizon of sea and sky (everything is turbid in the mirror), is a tubby little skeleton, a Day of Death toy. The title is swabbed across, as if to identify and cancel the image in one lurching gesture. If this picture has a subject, it is the toil of the mind to contrive a form that can contain the annihilating feeling of grief and the struggle of consciousness to find a way through its own raging contrariness, a contrariness inseparable from the bereavement it hopes, in vain, to assuage.
The French couple in the bumper car were at the stage before sexual anxiety and fatigue can determine a life, the Coney Island images of the 1950s expressed a muted erotic melancholy, and other of Frank's pictures have revealed the relatively secure (because stable and stabilizing) normalcies of erotic bonding. Given this history of moods, one of his most startling recent images is 4 A.M., Make Love to Me, Brattleboro, Vermont, 1979 . The print is raw, its margins fluid and blurred, the title written across the surface like a defacement. The scene is a bedroom containing a TV (glowing dully like the TVs and jukeboxes in The Americans ), an open suitcase, a dresser, a rumpled bed, and in the background a naked woman who looks fatigued, annoyed (or disgusted), physically and emotionally sagging. She incarnates eros as a long weary story. The appeal, the cry scrawled across the picture, comes from the bed, from the subjective mind that contains the image. The cry of appetite? habit? boredom? Whatever the source, the woman doesn't seem very interested. This is a picture of a call, to be sure, but the mind of the image is entirely implicated in its history and consequences. This is not a call to a passing crowd; it has no political or social force. It is the call of private need, and the image does not so much present it as enact it. And it enacts an appeal cast against, perhaps stifled by, the world's response. Other versions of this scene have attracted Frank from the beginning of his career: stopping places for transients, spaces where we see the human figure in transition from one place to another, or from one spiritual zone to another. In no other picture, though, has Frank established so forcefully the distance in the image between the seeing mind and its object, nor has he ever pressured the space so definitively around his own presence inside the event of the photograph. With this new scenic turbulence Frank's art is able to contain more because it now contains his own consciousness as subject participant. His old lyricism, played out in the sweet composures of the middle distance, has become in his recent work an intrusive, obsessive action. We should not want him to remind us of the early style, extraordinary as it was, because what he has come to, what he has contrived in answer to the call of his own spirit, is a jagged, divisive, complex lyricism, which, though it has little of the aching affability of The Americans, yet lives into the quickened densities of consciousness more exactly and completely than anything he has done before.