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Robert Frank: Sideways

Robert Frank played a leading role in re-writing contemporary standards for photography. This exhibition brings together a selection of rarely seen photographs from 1947, the year the artist first moved to the United States, to 1961, when he presented his first major museum exhibition.

Introduction

In 1951, four years before the Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank (born 1924) began work on his most famous series, The Americans, he stated, “When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.”

The Americans, comprising 83 photographs culled from more than 27,000 that Frank shot careening around the country in a second-hand Ford coupe, has often been identified as the most influential photography book of the twentieth century. Frank’s quick-reflex, camera-vérité style shocked some traditional critics (one writer complained about his “drunk horizons”), but it was at heart straightforward, at least to Frank: “I was tired of romanticism,” he explained. “I wanted to present what I saw, pure and simple.” The impact was overwhelming. The exposure of melancholy and alienation lurking behind the scrim of red, white, and blue altered our awareness of ourselves as a country. It also altered our understanding of what photography could do, to a degree that could be inspiring, but also daunting.

The Americans retains its power today, full force. But its emblematic status makes it perhaps not the best place to delve deeper beneath the surface of Frank’s method and his art. Images read so often are hard to read for the second time. This selection of farther-flung work lent by the Pennwick Foundation offers a fresh chance to peer sideways into an oeuvre that is usually encountered head on. Nearly sixty years after the debut of Frank’s iconic paean to America, these photographs provide an essential way to read the great poem twice.

This exhibition was organized with Bowdoin faculty members Michael Kolster, Russ Rymer, and students in the spring 2016 seminars, “Writing Creative Nonfiction Through Photography” and “Documentary Photography.” Financial support is provided by the Elizabeth B.G. Hamlin Fund and a generous gift from Martha F. and Richard E. Burns ’58

All of the photographs in this exhibition are lent by the Pennwick Foundation.  The Museum appreciates greatly their generosity. 

The Pennwick Foundation was founded in 2008 as a not-for-profit organization dedicated to broadening public awareness of fine art, photography, and film through a variety of exhibitions and publications. The core of the Pennwick Foundation's material consists of an extensive array of German Expressionist periodicals and illustrated books and a significant holding of Robert Frank photographs.  Please visit their website: http://www.thepennwickfoundation.org.

Works in the Exhibition

"Washington, D.C.," 1961, gelatin silver print, by Robert Frank. On loan from the Pennwick Foundation. © Robert Frank. On reflection: An unseen camera catches a photographer either shading his eyes or saluting the flag. Frank’s simultaneously ironic and sentimental American homage is half mirror, half window, though it’s hard to tell which is which, or whether the distinction is important.

"Washington, D.C.," 1961, gelatin silver print, by Robert Frank. On loan from the Pennwick Foundation. © Robert Frank. On reflection: An unseen camera catches a photographer either shading his eyes or saluting the flag. Frank’s simultaneously ironic and sentimental American homage is half mirror, h ...

"Man on Road, Wales," 1952, gelatin silver print, by Robert Frank. On loan from the Penn Family Trust.  © Robert Frank.  During the same postwar years when he was photographing London and Londoners, Frank chronicled a community of Welsh miners. Here, where the fogs of London deepened into smoke and night and grinding toil, Frank’s comradeship with the poor workers inspired him to take a narrative approach more akin to his later movies than his usual still photography. “This became my only try to make a ‘Story’,” Frank said later. Instead of brilliant unconnected glimpses, as he presented in The Americans, Frank’s project in Wales produced a body of images better read as one, as frames in a fluid essay whose meaning lies as much in their connection as their individual content, and in which the same persons appear over and over, followed from shaft to pub, from shift change to the slow commute home.

"Man on Road, Wales," 1952, gelatin silver print, by Robert Frank. On loan from the Penn Family Trust. © Robert Frank. During the same postwar years when he was photographing London and Londoners, Frank chronicled a community of Welsh miners. Here, where the fogs of London deepened into smoke and ...

"Russian Exhibition," ca. 1955, gelatin silver print, by Robert Frank.  Private Collection.© Robert Frank.  Frank’s presence transforms a gallery exhibit into a hall of mirrors, as a young visitor perusing a statue is frozen by his camera into an ageless subject of portraiture. The photographer’s gaze spotlights this girl as the true subject of this image; she rivets our attention as she does his.

"Russian Exhibition," ca. 1955, gelatin silver print, by Robert Frank. Private Collection.© Robert Frank. Frank’s presence transforms a gallery exhibit into a hall of mirrors, as a young visitor perusing a statue is frozen by his camera into an ageless subject of portraiture. The photographer’s g ...

"Richard Nixon," 1960 , gelatin silver print, by Robert Frank.  © Robert Frank. Private collection. Though Frank usually documented the American commonplace instead of headline personalities or events, his portrait of presidential aspirant Richard Nixon is notable for its commentary, and its prescience. Frank captures in the politician’s sideward glance the distrust of journalists that would compel him to declare, at a press conference two years later, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” and that would contribute to his resignation from the presidency in disgrace in 1974.

"Richard Nixon," 1960 , gelatin silver print, by Robert Frank. © Robert Frank. Private collection. Though Frank usually documented the American commonplace instead of headline personalities or events, his portrait of presidential aspirant Richard Nixon is notable for its commentary, and its presci ...

"South Carolina," 1955, gelatin silver print,  by Robert Frank. Private collection. © Robert Frank. To record the many faces of bereavement—from compassion to anger to stunned disbelief—of mourners leaving a South Carolina church, Frank insinuates himself into a stranger’s funeral, an interloping pallbearer for other people’s grief.

"South Carolina," 1955, gelatin silver print, by Robert Frank. Private collection. © Robert Frank. To record the many faces of bereavement—from compassion to anger to stunned disbelief—of mourners leaving a South Carolina church, Frank insinuates himself into a stranger’s funeral, an interloping p ...

"London," 1952, gelatin silver print, by Robert Frank. Private collection. © Robert Frank. Like a line of Prufrocks “scuttling across the floors of silent seas,” a queue of Londoners rounds a city corner, in a shot that emphasizes the monumental scale of the metropolis and the uniformity and anonymity it imposes on its denizens. Frank found more privilege in London than in Wales, where he was photographing industrial laborers during the same period, but this photo suggests that the bourgeoisie endure their own compulsory descent into the mines.

"London," 1952, gelatin silver print, by Robert Frank. Private collection. © Robert Frank. Like a line of Prufrocks “scuttling across the floors of silent seas,” a queue of Londoners rounds a city corner, in a shot that emphasizes the monumental scale of the metropolis and the uniformity and anonym ...

Visiting the Exhibition

September 15, 2016 - January 29, 2017

    Shaw Ruddock Gallery

Press

The Boston Globe

Time Magazine Lightbox exhibition, "The 32 U.S. Photo Exhibitions You Can't Miss."  Subtitled "From Maine to Missouri, New York and Texas."  Robert Frank: Sideways is slide #9.

Multimedia Resources

View a recording of the lecture, "Robert Frank: Nobody's Home."

Sarah Kennel, curator of photography at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, spoke at Bowdoin College on the photography of Robert Frank in conjunction with the exhibition Robert Frank: Sideways on September 15, 2016.