Robert Frank: What Am I Looking At

at the Art Institute of Chicago, through February 2

Considering that one of photographer Robert Frank’s stated goals is to “search for an image that comes close to a truth,” it’s ironic that critical debate has focused on his work’s subjectivity. When he published The Americans in 1958, most critics assumed that documentary photographers could and should record objective reality–and Frank’s opinionated critique of American life was derided as a lie. By the late 70s the establishment had reversed itself: documentary photographs were seen as inevitably colored by the artist’s bias, and The Americans was praised for helping unmask this fact. The Art Institute’s current exhibition of Frank’s photographs, “What Am I Looking At,” affords a glimpse of what’s lost in either perspective: Frank’s uncanny ability to capture unmistakable realities on film.

The first of the show’s two adjoining galleries features 23 black-and-white prints selected from the 83 in The Americans, taken during Frank’s 1956-’57 travels across the United States. If there’s a purpose to these grainy shots, it’s to show the way humanity’s escapist tendencies are manifested in American life. Instead of facing up to our social ills, they seem to say, we Americans distract ourselves with consumerism and unthinking patriotism.

Frank’s photographs of political events and celebrations clarify this theme. In the late 50s, America was still awash in patriotism. The United States had withstood the Depression, vanquished its enemies during World War II, and helped reconstruct Europe. One of the reasons Frank’s book was so widely criticized was that it portrayed America’s self-idealization as fantasy. Take Fourth of July, New York. The setting is an Independence Day picnic, where two young girls stride toward a giant, tattered American flag hanging like a curtain in the middle of the frame. The suggestion is that the girls are crossing a threshold, being indoctrinated into the prevailing patriotism. But the flag is threadbare, indicating that this reverence is unhealthy and unfounded; American ideals, like their symbols, are worn.

Frank’s stirring images of the racial divide, contradicting our stated love of equality, explicitly expose America’s dilapidated ideals. Most striking is a photo of a segregated streetcar, Trolley, New Orleans. Here a black man stares out one of the rear windows, mouth open as if gasping for air. Two seats in front of him a well-dressed white woman sits stiffly and scowls into the camera, her angry expression encapsulating southern hostility toward integration. By exposing viewers to everyday examples of oppression, Frank documents the troubling realities mainstream America ignored. Moreover these photos highlight his stunning ability to identify symbolic moments, then capture them in perfectly composed photographs shot on the fly.

Mass entertainment was in the midst of becoming America’s preferred diversion, and the Art Institute’s selections highlight the growing ubiquity of mass media. A television punctures the solitude of an empty roadside diner. A man in a Las Vegas bar stares intently into a glowing jukebox, apparently enraptured by the song titles. Three movie usherettes beam into the camera, their smiles seemingly vacant attempts to mimic celebrities on-screen. By today’s standards the radios, televisions, and movie studios Frank shows are unassuming, yet they seem ominous precursors of the current entertainment juggernaut.

Shortly after completing The Americans Frank declared himself finished with photography and spent roughly the next 15 years making art films, including Pull My Daisy, which featured many beat artists. He resumed making photographs in the mid-1970s, and the second segment of “What Am I Looking At” features ten pieces from the period that began then and continues today. Here Frank replaces sociopolitical snapshots with an innovative array of still lifes and collages, sometimes incorporating text.

The work reads like a cathartic attempt to understand the circumstances of Frank’s life: a failed marriage, his daughter’s death in a plane crash in 1974, the vicissitudes of age. One standout is Make Love to Me, Brattleboro, Vermont, 1979. It’s a nude portrait of Frank’s second wife, June, set in the lonely interior of what appears to be a cheap motel room. She gazes seductively into the camera, her weathered face and sagging breasts harshly lit; scrawled across the image are the words “4AM Make Love To Me.” This stark reminder of our physical decay also reassures us that desire persists with age.

Another high point is Playa del Ray, Wendover, Mabou, 1978/79. Frank starts with four images: one of a crescent moon rising (or falling) behind a dark hillside, one of a cow’s skull nailed to a pole, and two close-ups of what looks like a volleyball net stretched across a sandy beach. The images are arranged in a square with their edges overlapping. “The next trip is insight,” reads one of several lines typed across the print. “I’ll get a map I won’t get lost.” Against the desolate imagery, this text reads not just as a resolution but as a wish, perhaps for the youthful certainty that characterized Frank’s earlier work.

Most of the other pieces in the second segment are less successful. The still life New York, 1976 shows a toy car and a glass bottle on a windowsill; these melancholy, solitary objects have a stark beauty, but the piece lacks the intellectual gravity that powers Frank’s best photographs. Including four images in What Am I Looking At, Today Is My Daughter’s Birthday, Tokyo-Hokkaido, 1994 seems like overkill. To me this requiem for his daughter should have consisted of only one photo–the one showing two Japanese girls leaning away from the photographer’s hand as it reaches out to them, giving voice to an old man’s continuing grief and loneliness.

One wonders why other, more compelling images from this period–many featured in the latest edition of Frank’s book The Lines of My Hand–aren’t on display. One of these shows a large block of snow melting on a plot of grassy land with the text “Hold Still, Keep Going” written over the print: we must try to hold our ground even as our lives melt away.

Shortly after publishing The Americans Frank wrote that “it is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph”–and perhaps this insight helps explain critics’ preoccupation with bias in Frank’s images. But the most remarkable thing about his work is the way he transcends subjectivity, translating the personal into the universal. It would be foolish to claim that his pictures are complete portraits of reality. But it would be equally foolish to deny that, whether Frank is pursuing the personal or the political, he makes aspects of the truth shine bright.