So I'm playing catch up here. But with the show coming down & the Independence Day weekend upon us, it seems like a good time to reflect on one of the best exhibitions in Detroit so far this year, Detroit Experiences, Robert Frank: 1955,@ the DIA.
Anyone familiar with photographic history or with Beat culture knows Frank's masterpiece The Americans, published in the US in 1959 with a preface by Jack Kerouac. In 2009, the National Gallery of Art mounted a 50th-anniversary exhibition of the photos collected in the book, which traveled, fittingly enough, to San Francisco and New York.
Taking a cue from that, DIA Associate Curator Nancy Barr rifled through the DIA's own substantial photography collection and came up with a trove of images taken as part of the original project, all done during the Detroit leg of Frank's road trip sponsored by a Guggenheim Fellowship. She selected more than 60 drawn from a pool of some 1500 in the collection and, in a curatorial move of pure inspiration, installed them in the galleries behind the south wall of Diego Rivera's magnificent Detroit Industry (1932-33) murals. The exhibition includes the Detroit images contained in The Americans plus many that have never been seen before in public.
I saw the show several times, in part because I took all of my CCS classes there as part of the required coursework. As a result, there are many ways I could riff on this exhibition and I'll touch on a couple.
First, is the art history part. In the catalog, Barr notes that Frank was motivated to take up the project due to the influence of Walker Evans, whose book American Photographs (1938) is a direct predecessor. She also references Charles Sheeler, who in 1927 was commissioned by the NW Ayer ad agency to photograph the Rouge Plant for its client the Ford Motor Company. Then there's Rivera, of course.
Frank's project is almost the mirror image of Evans. For one thing, Evans was working on commission from the Farm Security Administration and other government sponsors to capture a particular view of America, namely, of the impoverished rural communities in need of welfare-state intervention during the Great Depression. Frank had unprecedented free reign to photograph at will in the Rouge Plant and elsewhere, courtesy of the Guggenheim Foundation.
The reversal is also reflected in content: where Evans was "praising" the deserving poor, Frank was at pains to register his idea of the underbelly of the American Dream. Evans's pictures were taken with an 8x10 view camera, which required conscientious set up and resulted in razor-sharp images, capturing "reality" in detail. Frank, on the other hand, worked almost surreptitiously, using a lightweight 35mm camera to shoot on the fly. His photographs are often blurry, poorly lit, and gritty in the density of their grain.
Comparing Frank's images with those of Sheeler, we can see another dialectic at play. In Sheeler's photographs, technology is the hero, ruling over the natural landscape with the productive might of a Prometheus unbound but ultimately for the good of humankind. With Frank, technology is also the master but instead of helping us enjoy the fruits of material abundance, it lords over us, alienating us from one another and from our natural selves. (This is essentially what Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno are getting at when in Dialectic of Enlightenment they state in one of their key passages: "Myth becomes Enlightenment; Enlightment is a myth.")
Second, is the issue of content. As part of the project, Frank endeavored to capture specific iconic images: American flags, automobiles, workers, and cowboys among the most prominent. Frank was essentially on the lookout for key images of American ideology as represented in its visual culture. The flag, of course, is the logo of Team America ("Fuck Yeah!"), and an early image in the series from 1955 presents one in the form of a plastic inflatable pillow perched above a Detroit bar flanked by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Cars are abundant in the photographs and they certainly represent a central aspect of American culture, specifically mobility, at a time when Detroit was ground zero for that idea, both in terms of producing the physical means to freely move from place to place and in providing the economic means for the average worker to do so.
In writing about his subject, Frank, as noted in the catalog, says, "America is an interesting country, but there is a lot here that I do not like and that I would never accept." The workers in the Rouge Plant provide the images to express some of that disaffection. There are many photographs framing workers as literally trapped within the maw of industrial capitalism, lost in the machinery to which they are bound by wage labor. In others, the division of labor between those who work and those watch workers work is represented in the physical barriers erected between management and also consumers who tour the plant for their leisure.
The alienation of the individual in modernity is a trope that goes back to the beginnings of Romanticism, carries through the avant-garde, and remains with us in a highly degraded state in the form of lifestyle consumption. At the time Frank took these photographs there was something called the "other-directed" critique that was being mounted against the perceived ills of mass conformity as embodied in "the lonely crowd," "the organization man," "the status seekers," etc. The Beats and their progeny -- the hippies, the punks, and now vegans, DIYers, etc. -- reacted against this "square" culture with reveries of their own individual hipness. We all know where that -- what sociologist Robert Bellah calls "expressive individualism" -- has gotten us. And these days we might be tempted to look back on those times with fondness.
To be sure, one of things I noticed quite often as I hung around the galleries were viewers who ironically used the images as objects of nostalgia. I think it's good to keep in mind Frank's original intention but to also acknowledge a certain amount of elitism at play. The people captured in those images literally made America and even with all the troubles then it wasn't an entirely bad place to be, especially when you consider what's become of us.