a year through a lens by Marco Pavan

elephant panorama

Posted in elephant, mapjd by marco on 29 May 2009

Panorama1low

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50 New Kent road … which one?!

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jazzin’ with America

Posted in mapjd by marco on 28 May 2009

A short essay about The Americans by Robert Frank.

Download here the pdf

Robert Frank: jazzin’ with America

“..bebop appeared [in the 1940s] to sound racing, nervous, and often fragmented. But to jazz musicians and jazz music lovers, bebop was an exciting and beautiful revolution in the art of jazz.”
On the musical style of the bebop, Wikipedia

When The Americans was published, in 1959, it was labelled as badly composed and out of focus and characterized by a general sloppiness. But above all – and beyond the judgments – was the way that Frank used to look at the American dream that hit the critics and the public. On the other hand, he found the empathy and the support of the Beats, who shared his alternative look on the American society. Kerouac understood the poetry of the book, but, rather than depicting the sadness, The Americans unveils and sings the “normality-ness” of a dream. Moreover, if it is true that the poem is about America, it is also true that the country was seen through the very personal point of view of Frank and the various ways he composed his photographs are deeply related to his feelings towards the subject.

According to John Szarkowski, as he stated in his book Mirrors and Windows, Green (1984) reports that the three most important events in American photography of the 1950s were the founding of Aperture magazine (1952), the Family of Man exhibition (1955) and the publication of Robert Frank’s The Americans (1959). These are three events closely related; the Americans is a contrast to the classical positive photojournalistic view of the Family of Man; and some of the ideas conveyed by Aperture helped to ‘foster the radical vision that ultimately made Frank’s work available in America’ (Green, 1984 p. 69).

Green (1984 p. 72) lists six premises, emerged from a series of articles in Aperture, by which a photograph could be read, but two of them seem to me to be more relevant to Frank’s work. First,  ‘a photograph’s significance lies deeper than that which can be comprehended by an immediate response’, simply consider that critics come to look at Frank’s work as a breakthrough only many years after its publication, in the mid-1960s (Cook, 1982). Second, and most important, ‘a photograph is a complex whole composed of similes, metaphors, symbols, and forms that refer both to the visual world and to the perceptions and feelings of the photographer.’ Frank was aware that he was going to express himself in the photographs of the world he was seeing through his camera: ‘«my view is personal», Frank stated, and with this simple acknowledgment rejected the iron-clad tradition of the American documentary essay’ (Green, 1984 p. 85).

The style of The Americans was profoundly different from the classical documentary essay and from Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment, which was ‘something perfectly balanced from the point of view of its aesthetic and its meaning. [..] such perfect that seems to be staged’ (De Paz, 2000 p. 120).

The hostile response from the old guard to Frank’s shabby shocker of a book was almost guaranteed to endear him to a younger generation already at odds with the saccharine diet of Look or Life. It was also in complete contrast to the easy platitudes of the most popularly lauded photographic enterprise of the day, Edward Steichen’s ‘The Family of Man’ (1955), which he billed as ‘the greatest photographic exhibition of all time’, and which featured feel-good photojournalism at its most sententious. (Badger, 2009)

The Family of Man was selling the American way of life, ‘most photojournalism [..] was optimistic and upbeat, reflecting the attitude of a prosperous post-war America’ (Beecher, 2009). Frank, a Swiss immigrant coming from the old Europe, was instead showing a real and raw world,

implicating that the established style of photography was a falsification of it. The images of The Americans were new from a stylistic point of view, i.e. they couldn’t adhere to recognizable stereotypes, ‘and at the same time they were too familiar’ (Cook, 1986). It was a strangers perspective on America that wasn’t afraid of showing ‘the humor, the sadness, the EVERYTHING-ness and American-ness’ of the land he was crossing, as Kerouac wrote in its introduction to the book. In fact, Frank was called a ‘liar’ and Lee Barry stated it was ‘only logical to conclude that his book is an attack on the United States’ (Green, 1984 p. 85). Frank was shouting that ‘America was a land of cultural barbarism’ (Cook, 1982) and was showing it in print, looking at the everyday, the good and the bad, the common people, the racism. Making America look normal: that has been his sin, not taking blurred and out of focus photographs.

Always on the move, Frank was looking at the society from the outside and understood the potential of seeing America as an outsider: his purpose, as he wrote in the application for the Guggenheim grant, was ‘to produce an authentic contemporary document’. Frank has been honest since the beginning: in his statement of 1958, he says that he ‘attempted to show a cross-section of the American population. [..] The view is personal and, therefore, various facets of American life have been ignored.’ He then adds that he doesn’t ‘anticipate that the on-looker will share his viewpoint’ (Beecher, 2009). He is saying that his pictures are about how he sees America and its culture: therefore it is not a matter of truth and the book is about his feelings.

Indeed, many of the images of The Americans are out of focus, blurred and tilted – one for all, the ‘elevator girl’ (Elevator – Miami Beach). We can compare this “unconventional portrait” with one of the images appeared in The Family of Man, the birth of a child by Wayne Miller. Frank’s image is dreamy and two “ghosts” squeeze the subject, the girl who is looking at something outside the frame, which is left incomplete. Miller’s image, in its detail and perfect balanced composition, dissects and analyzes what is happening, it is a surgical intervention (apart from the medical subject) and leaves no space for any feeling even for something so personal and private as giving birth.

Frank travels through 48 states and takes his shots on the move. He is not interested in freezing a decisive moment, nor in looking for a perfect composition. His images are immediate, rough, spontaneous, they often have something that seems unfinished. The image of the two young men in the car (U.S. 91, leaving Blackfoot, Idaho) has a scary atmosphere, it seems to be predicting something that is going to happen and to be shot just before a Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment.

Other images, though, are perfectly composed and exposed, well balanced. In the photograph of the trolley (Trolley – New Orleans) the light draws nicely the iron surface and the reflections creates more images inside the frame. Despite the tranquil framing of the image, the content is striking: in the land of freedom everyone lives in his own box and the whites come first. The middle-class white woman looks at us with suspect and the eyes of the black man are deeply sad. The Americans didn’t expect their country to be so cruel and unhappy. Frank often shows also great irony, which comes from being detached from what he sees: there is not a big difference in the way he describes the assembly line of a factory (Assembly line – Detroit) and the people eating in a drugstore in Detroit (Drug store – Detroit), a repetition in perspective of the same pairing of person and machine that closely links life in the consumerism age to the work in a production line.

Using many different points of views and photographic techniques, Frank describes emotionally what he sees and how he feels towards it. The Americans is a continuum where all the photographs are linked and relate to each other, ‘each was taken for a reason, and each was purposefully included in the book [..] The cinematic sequencing of the pictures also contributes to the ambiguity of the individual images’ (Cook, 1986). Frank’s photography is ‘the visual equivalent of the stream-of-consciousness writing of the 1950s American Beat writers’ and ‘it is a quality that runs through much 1950s art’ (Badger, 2009). For these reasons it is useless trying to understand each single photograph, but the book needs to be read as a whole.

The feelings that Frank had towards America become clearer as we turn the pages of the book, and take a journey through the 1950s. The Americans has some similarities with a piece of music, where some melodies are repeated over a harmonic structure, and its performance is affected by the feelings of the musician. Frank’s book is a piece of jazz: fast, vibrant, improvised, where every solo grows over a general theme and the series of solos/pictures makes the song/book. For its loose nature, The Americans appears to be free and shows the character and the feelings of its author over a variety of aspects of everyday life.

It was a way of seeing that matched the Beats’ writing, a style that effectively placed the everyday rhythms of speech and jazz into visual form [..] It was a personal vision that converted an impersonal world into a divine comedy (Green, 1984).


Bibliography

  1. Badger, G. (2009) The Indecisive Moment: Frank, Klein, and ‘Stream-Of-Consciousness’ Photography [Internet] American Suburb X. Available from <http://www.americansuburbx.com/2009/02/theory-indecisive-moment-frank-klein.html> [Accessed 13 April, 2009]
  2. Beecher, J. (2009) Robert Frank: A Statement (1958) [Internet] Photokaboom.com, New York. Available from <http://www.photokaboom.com/photography/learn/ebooks/PATH/quotes/Frank_quote.htm> [Accessed 13 April, 2009]
  3. Cook, J. (1982) Robert Frank’s America [Internet] First published in Afterimage, March 1982 as ‘Robert Frank, a polemic view’. Available from < http://jnocook.net/frank/rfa.htm > [Accessed 13 April, 2009]
  4. Cook, J. (1986) Robert Frank: Dissecting the American Image [Internet] First published in Exposure magazine, Volume 24, Number 1. Available from <http://jnocook.net/frank/frank.htm> [Accessed 13 April, 2009]
  5. De Paz, A. (2000) Fotografia e società (Photography and society) Napoli: Liguori ed.
  6. Frank, R. (2008) The Americans, Steidl: Gottingen
  7. Green, J. (1984) American Photography, a critical history, New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc.
  8. Wikipedia (2009) Bebop [Internet] Wikimedia Foundation Inc. Available from <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bebop> [Accessed 15 April, 2009]
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rehousing sites map

Posted in elephant, mapjd by marco on 24 May 2009

among these are the locations I need to photograph for the ‘construction cityscapes’ project

E&C housing programme

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construction cityscapes

Posted in elephant, mapjd by marco on 21 May 2009

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bubbles

Posted in assignment, intelligent still life, mapjd by marco on 21 May 2009

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intelligent still life?

re-generation

Posted in elephant by marco on 11 May 2009

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New building in Elephant and Castle, London

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cityscapes from the elephant

Posted in elephant by marco on 2 May 2009

first walk around the heygate estate in elephant and castle, london

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