Saturday, January 08, 2005

Robert Frank's America

Robert Frank, whose exhibition Storylines is now being held at Tate Modern, shot the photograph below in Chicago in 1956, in the course of documenting the Democratic National Convention:

Political Rally, Chicago
"Political Rally, Chicago" (1956), gelatin silver print, Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

That's an iconic image of Cold War America, captured at the moment when, having purged most of the real and imaginary Reds from political life, "even McCarthyism was losing its force," as "the Senator, curtailed by the Senate's condemnation motion of December 1954, was to die" in 1957 (Marjorie Perloff, "Poetry 1956: A Step Away From Them"). Joseph McCarthy's political death, however, hardly destroyed the paranoid culture of anticommunism, and, in 1955, the Swiss-born Frank, while documenting America on a Guggenheim fellowship, was arrested and questioned by the police in Little Rock, Arkansas, who were convinced that he was a spy on account of his camera, foreign accent, and papers in foreign languages. What the police didn't realize was Frank was a spy of an altogether different sort, stealing and exposing an open secret -- essential lonesomeness -- of the American way of life.

Below the display of patriotic bunting stands a tuba player, his face completely obscured by the horn. Or rather it is as if the horn grew out of his body, having supplanted a human face. Instead of speaking in his own voice, the man is condemned to play a red, white, and blue tune on demand. The tuba player is up against a bleak wall. The woman on his left and the man on his right, both faceless and fragmented, stand apart from him, looking away in opposite directions. "In Frank's images, people, whether alone, in twos and threes, or in crowds, always seeming curiously detached from one another" (Perloff, "Poetry 1956: A Step Away From Them"), embody alienation and isolation beneath the facade of prosperity in Eisenhower's America. If you look too deeply, blackness at the center of the tuba's mouth might swallow you up.

The same black emptiness exists at the heart of America today, made emptier than in the Eisenhower era by the yawning current-account deficit and the declining dollar, and it is waiting to be photographed by a Robert Frank of the twenty-first century.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Captures an essential element of the American experience. For all our talk of freedom, we've never learned what it truly is.

Lawrence, KS