Swiss photographer Robert Frank’s exhibit “A Foreign Look: Paris/ The Americans” is a fascinating collection of photos at Jeu de Paume definitely worth seeing before it ends on March 22, 2009. The exhibit displays two sets of photograph series by Frank, “Paris” and “The Americans,” side by side.
His “Paris” collection consists of photographs that Robert took while in postwar Paris from 1949 to 1952. As the title implies, most of the photographs concentrate on the streets of Paris, and people or objects often fall in the background. There is a recurring image of flowers throughout the collection of images. This series is a compilation of snapshots of Paris, and it doesn’t tell a fluid story. Frank seems to spontaneously capture the moments on the move.
“The Americans” series, taken by Frank from 1955 to 1956, is quite different. Unlike the “Paris” collection, this series does tell a coherent story, a story of racism, financial inequalities, and change that the country was going through at the time. As this title implies, most of the images include (and concentrate on) people. Under each photograph is a description of where the photograph was taken (eg. Chattanooga, Tennessee). The images are political. The images bring about many different emotional reactions from viewers. Like in his “Paris” series, Frank also captures the photographs from “The Americans” while on the move. It seems as if the Americans being photographed did not realize that they were on camera. Many say that this series “changed the history of documentary photography.” It is that strong.
The major messages in Frank’s two series are quite different. For example, “The Americans” emphasize race as a major cultural issue. The strongest photo that expresses this matter, in my opinion, is one that shows a bus with, from the front to back of the bus, a white man, a white woman, a white boy, a white girl, a black man, and a black woman. The white boy assumes the exact same body position and facial expression as the black man, but the boy confidently holds a pole of the bus, whereas the man drops his hand over the bus, almost as if he is saying, “I give up.” “Paris” does not emphasize race as an issue. In one photograph, a black man holds a white woman’s hand, and in another a white and black man talk and walk down the street together.
Although clearly different in depictions and political messages, similar important and deep messages permeate both series. In my opinion, putting these series side by side helped to highlight these messages.
Frank clearly rejects materialism and the elite in both series. In “The Americans,” he photographs a woman from Hollywood, as he clearly marks below the image, who is draped in feathers, jewels, and rich fabrics that go well with her perfect hairdo. She is beautiful, and I cannot help but think of how lucky she must feel, especially when comparing herself to the woman shown two photographs later, who is also from Hollywood but working in a fast-food diner— her head down, he facial expression of boredom— and wearing an ugly white uniform. However, Frank clearly changes my opinion of the luck of the Hollywood star when, towards the end of his story (the series) he shows a woman resembling the first Hollywood woman, still dressed fancily. This time, however, there are many people in the photo who seem to be dressed much more humbly and not a single person watches her; it is as though she is unimportant. She looks distressed and stares downward. In the “Paris” series, Frank also seems to make a statement against extreme wealth. He captures a moment in which a woman dressed in silk and covered in pearls is at a fancy ball with men in suits and indoor columns. This is one of the only photographs in the collection without flowers in it, perhaps suggesting that the elite are not well connected with the rest of world.
In both series, Frank also conveys problems of financial inequalities that exist in America and in Paris. In “The Americans,” he shows Butte, Montana, a horizontal photograph that emphasizes the low, dark buildings that are poor and breaking down. The following photo vertically depicts a New York City shiny building that seems tall and modern with colorful magazine stands in front of it.
In “Paris,” Frank similarly reminds the viewer of wealth inequalities that exist in the world. In one picture, he shows a man selling single flowers in the middle of the street to cars in order to make money to eat, while in another picture he shows rich folks buying bouquets of flowers at a store.
Furthermore, Franks images side by side reminded me of my tiny size in this colossal world. In “The Americans,” following the image of the New York City tall building, he shows a small Los Angeles businessman leaning against a huge building with a magazine titled “Awake,” as if to tell me that the businessman needs to wake up and realize that his role in the world is not as powerful as he thinks it is. The way that Frank depicts large open spaces occupied by tiny people also reminds me of my minor size. In one ironic photograph, he shows people walking away from “Rue de la Sante” between a huge wall and gigantic trees. I interpreted this photograph as if Frank was telling me that even though the humans in this photograph were symbolically rejecting “health,” it did not matter, since health, as represented by the street, was a lot larger (and more powerful) than them anyways.
The artist also uses death to emphasize the insignificant nature of humans in the world. In “The Americans,” a dead man lies in a tomb while those at his funeral look beyond him as if to indicate that they have already moved on. Similarly, in “Paris,” Frank photographs people walking by without paying attention to a memorial with flowers around it. Another photograph shows plastic flowers with a sign that reads “Remember your loved ones: 69 cents,” suggesting that those memories of loved ones are not worth much.
In a few instances, Frank catches similar objects on camera and portrays very different scenes to being about the same emotion in me. For example, in “The Americans,” he shows six adults, all around the age of 80, sitting on two benches back to back. Not a single one talks to another person. I feel sad because their facial expressions seem so lonely and bored, yet they are not friendly with one another. In “Paris,” on the other hand, Frank shows one adult sitting on a bench with a sign that expresses that he wants to help people move in and out of houses. This adult also looks lonely and bored, and I feel sad because no one is reaching out for his help.
The many similarities illuminated by these two exhibits side by side serve as powerful reminders of how connected each human is to each other. Whether through financial hardships, struggles of loneliness, episodes of sheer joy and love, feelings of insignificance, or simply through sharing a space on a street, each person can connect to each other. Since Robert Frank delineates such a wide variety of people and places in America and Paris, I think that each person can intimately relate to at least one of his photographs. A French mother with three black girls cutely expressed to her children how they could relate to an image of young, rich white boys, “Ils ont une mamon comme vous.” I hope that the mother realizes that she would have found many more similarities between her daughters and those in the photograph if she had just spent more time absorbing the messages that Robert Frank was delivering.