Robert Frank’s ‘San Francisco’: Questions and confluences

A great Robert Frank photograph from 1956 takes the measure of our progress


I first saw Robert Frank’s book of photographs of 20th century America, The Americans (1955-1957)—many of which are presently on view at the Portland Art Museum—when in the throes of reading Jack Kerouac. I’d then been casually acquainted with the poetry and jazz culture of the 1950s and ‘60s, and I was making amends by reimagining what American life was like then, relative to the beauty and meaning these artists were able to summon up.

Frank’s photographs astonished me—they had the congenial spirit you get from poets like Allen Ginsberg, partly because of their everyday vernacular and spontaneity—but also because, maybe more subtly, of their keen eye to the plight of marginalized people. Frank’s photographs give us the America of that specific time, when car sales skyrocketed and TV dinners were all the rage. It was all Disneyland, McDonald’s, and The Seven Year Itch. On the other hand, 1955 also marks the beginning of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the onset of the Civil Rights movement, when Rosa Parks and others refused to obey bus segregation laws.

Formally, Frank’s photographs depict people in urban and other environments, often on the move. This is part of Frank’s expressive panache: He’d apparently snap a photograph from the window of a moving car, sometimes through a dirty windshield, and the outcome seems just perfect.

Robert Frank, “San Francisco” 1956

Of all the photographs from the museum’s American Photographs exhibition, on display through June 4, San Francisco (1956) might most aptly be called quintessentially American. The picture is of a black man and woman reclining on a grassy hillside, trying to look out over San Francisco and enjoy a sunny afternoon together. They are presently interrupted by some white creep with a camera—Frank. And they give him a look.

To appreciate this photograph is to enlarge the moment: What happened right before this photo was taken; or maybe more interesting, what happened just after Frank’s shutter slammed shut? In this moment, Frank captured an encounter between two worlds, and it makes the photograph so keenly, and tragically, American.

There are many reasons to love the important work that Frank did in The Americans. Swiss born, Frank came to New York City in 1947 with questions about what people were calling The American Dream—incisive ones that eventually led to Frank’s “disturbed and mournful song-of-the-road portrait of a new homeland.” Frank’s book can be likened to a work of poetry; I’m thinking of what Ginsberg did with his poem “America,” a delirious rant:

“America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956.
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war…”

Two years earlier, Robert Frank had applied for and was granted a Guggenheim fellowship to make “an observation and record of what one naturalized American finds to see in the United States.” Frank saw this country with fresh eyes and the technical competence that allowed him to basically point and shoot, without any theatrical set-up, whenever he wanted.

His photographs depict all kinds of life and lifestyles that tell us what American culture had started to become. Throughout the book there are images of kids, old people, party-goers and politicians, the rich, the desperately poor, and workers of all types. Another of his Americans photographs illustrates why the passing moment in a photograph like San Francisco is so important, and grows in importance as time goes by. Elevator—Miami Beach has been popularized recently because its subject, a (then young) white woman named Sharon Collins, has given interviews to talk about the fact that she was the girl in Robert Frank’s photograph. Collins also intrigued Jack Kerouac, who, in his conclusion to the introduction to The Americans wrote, “I say: That little ole lonely elevator girl looking up sighing in an elevator full of blurred demons, what’s her name and address?” Ugh.

Robert Frank, “Elevator — Miami Beach”, 1955

Frank’s elevator subject looks lonely, and the others in the scene are blurry. The matter of what happened after the photograph was taken doesn’t arise—who really cares? We might imagine she went up or down a floor or two. In San Francisco there’s the pressing question of “Well, did he tell Frank to get the hell out of there?”

The National Gallery of Art describes the series of 83 photos that make up The Americans as being non-narrative, going on to describe the book’s purview as being an exploration of “the American people—black and white, military and civilian, urban and rural, poor and middle class.” And while the book does offer glimpses of these various cross-sections of people, this particular photo, like some of the others in the book, shows much more than an ad hoc, spontaneous snapshot. It’s what’s behind Frank’s eye that makes the idea of a disinterested modernist kind of a joke. Frank was able to show the “politics, alienation, power, and injustice at play just beneath the surface of his adopted country” — all while experimenting with and challenging the chosen medium.

In what San Francisco doesn’t show, there’s the potential for more imaginative possibility than if it showed the subject interacting with the intrusive photographer. San Francisco, like many of the other photographs in The Americans, somehow carries more intensity in its subtleties, which is why many people during the book’s release hated what they saw when looking at this — a somewhat truer-to-life look on their precious America that was too much to face in this way, too full of the power to make their imaginations do the work that church, TV and pop culture couldn’t do.

Again I think of Ginsberg, particularly the poems in Howl. In San Francisco, the gaze is a white man’s onto a black couple who have just turned to catch it, which Frank then has just caught on film. Its power comes not only through the technical capacity that Frank has to frame a meaningful, arresting shot, but it comes also from our cultural memory. “With regard to many of these photographs, it was History which separated me from them,” to use a line from Roland Barthes, as a bit of insight into perhaps why at the time, Frank’s Americans was also misunderstood.

Without the history of black Americans, or virtually any person of color in America, this photograph’s meaning and effect would be far different. That history makes  it more than an intimate moment interrupted by an intrusive camera. The history, the memory, of America isn’t one of joy and happiness; it’s a sad one, and one in which many people have given such a sullen and suspicious look out of one necessity or other. The photographs that Frank took for The Americans counter the banal ugliness of America in 1955 with poetic depth, even beauty, that rendering it in black-and-white film brings. This is also what sets Frank apart, like his Beat Generation poet comrades, from any given racist in America now or then: His creative impulse and humane eye allowed him to really see the people and situations he encountered.

In 2009, Holland Cotter wrote an art review for the New York Times, discussing the history and relevance of The Americans. In the review, Cotter poses and answers an important question: “how does the The Americans come across today? In the nominally post-racial Obama era, its political urgencies feel less immediate than they once did.” Cotter shows how complex the issue of race in America can be depending on who is doing the storytelling and who is listening. Frank’s photographs are more timely than ever and at least as urgent.

“Every photograph is a certificate of presence” to quote Barthes once more. With this in mind, it’s the presence of the couple on the hillside in San Francisco that make this photograph memorable, important, historic, monumental.

As the city opens beneath them, the subjects of San Francisco are about to turn their eyes back to the cityscape and each other, we imagine. What will this America be for them; what will they make of their history relative to its present conditions? With The Americans, Robert Frank wasn’t just capturing a simple scene or asserting a point of view. He was posing questions and noting confluences, illuminating memories and specters by way of the unfortunate paradoxes that make up American life.

It’s kind of a shame that the formal, aesthetic power of the photograph wasn’t strong enough to reverse the course of things. Art doesn’t work quite like that, and that’s just not the way things turned out. The man glares at us, as we stand in Frank’s place. Or maybe, the photograph is actually a mirror and we’re the ones doing the glaring—at all the private moments interrupted.

One Response.

  1. Jeff Forbes says:

    “In this moment, Frank captured an encounter between two worlds, and it makes the photograph is so keenly, and tragically so, American.”

    This sentence apparently left its heart in San Francisco, or maybe it just got lost on the way to Fred’s for a quart of milk and never found its way home…

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