Saturday, February 21, 2009

Robert Frank: A foreign Look. Paris/Americans

Robert Frank was born in Zurich in 1924 to a wealthy Jewish family. As a child, he became interested in the art of photography and formally entered into an apprenticeship with photographer and designer Hermann Segesser. During his formative years, Frank was introduced to modern art, in particular the works of Paul Klee. Later, Frank became interested into documentary genre by exploring themes of everyday life.

The Frank exhibit is currently situated in a stately building in the Jardin des Tuileries (Métro: Concorde). The exhibit focuses on two main bodies of Frank’s work where he concentrates on the narration of Parisian and American life in the fifties. The Paris photographs chronicle the years of 1949 to 1952, or the end of the era of WWII. Most of the photographs are centered on capturing moments in the street, which evokes the idea of Benjamin’s “flâneur” (street saunterer) casually strolling down the street and observing passersby. His shots are varied and inventive. They chronicle shopkeepers, churchgoers, flower sellers, and restauranters. They focus on mundane objects such as rusty metal folding chairs and taxis in the street.

One in particular showcases Notre Dame in the hazy background, but the real focus of the photograph is the suited man on the bicycle ready to cross the plaza in front of the well-recognized building. In this juxtaposition, Frank suggests that fleeting moments of small human activity can be just as interesting as huge monuments. Another shocking picture is one taken in a butcher shop of a suspended horse, the elegant beast taking up much of the photograph and hanging with such a weight that you cannot help but stare at the picture twice, or even thrice. The subject of the photo is compelling and unique. With this photograph, Frank reminds us that Paris, like any other city, has a wide range of moments, some of which do not fit in with a current romantic conception of the “city of lights.” Any of these happenstances can be found daily, in the street.

The series of photos on American life evoke the same type of sentiment of the “flâneur.” Frank, financed by a Guggenheim fellowship, travelled with his family on a photographic journey of American. Frank similarly chooses the street as his main subject and elaborates his thoughts with a picture from Chattanooga, TN. In this photo, a well-dressed couple crosses the street while looking left to avoid oncoming traffic. In fact, the picture is so similar to ones in the Paris series that the answers to the question “What is Parisian?” and “What is American?” become more ambiguous and blurred. When comparing the two series of photos, one finds striking visual similarities that Frank’s work suggests. As a current inhabitant of Paris, I too find that it is hard to strictly define what makes Paris “Parisian” and what makes America “American.” Yet Frank also culls some images of America that Paris does not possess. His pair of photos depicting highways US 30 and US 285 showcase the expansiveness of America’s land. The two photos give a visual reference to and realization of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road that underlines the sense of limitless travel.

Reactions of visitors to the exhibition were fascinating. The room holding the American series of photos was packed, with many people jostling for position and craning their necks to get a better view of the photographs. They too seemed to possess the desire to answer the question, “What is American?” Meanwhile, the room showcasing the Paris series of photos was relatively quieter and less crowded, which made the viewing of the photos less complicated. In fact, by meandering from picture to picture, I felt that I was reenacting Franks’ “flâneurism.” Other exhibition-goers looked more introspective while accessing shared memories or memories of their own about the city. In all, the exhibition cleverly juxtaposed two series of photos that explored daily human interaction and questions of American and French identity.

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