“San Francisco”

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

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

By PAUL MAZIAR

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.

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