Robert Frank’s Storylines (Steidl) sits on my couch. It was a gift from some friends and it has been my companion these past days. The book has a resonant hum of energy.
The image on the cover is of a typewriter sitting in a window, and it forecasts the appearance later in the book of words scratched into the emulsion of the negative. Word becomes etched into the flesh of the photograph. The photograph becomes word.
This cover image alone could be the subject of a lengthy treatise on language and picture making; the typewriter as word making machine, the camera as image making machine. The window is the viewfinder and the picture plane. A wind has blurred the paper in the typewriter over a lengthy exposure. The image becomes a record of the passage of time into memory.
Inside the book there are pages of contact sheets from Frank's negatives reproduced in sequence. Studying these is a lesson in cinematic narrative. Through the sequences on the contact sheet we see his shooting process unfold and we get a feel for the pace and rhythm of his working method. He makes few bad frames. The shutter is not released until the next frame is composed. You can feel his pacing; expose a frame, wind the camera, recognize the next frame, expose the frame. The taking of the picture becomes an automatic act, an instinctive harmonic between inner and outer.
As important as each image in this book is, the distance between them is equally important. The spaces between each frame on the sheet create a unity in which the entire sequence becomes a nonspecific narrative unique to photography.
The interstices are as resonant as the pictures themselves.
Frank's work cuts a swath through America in a smoky dream. The photographs are smoothly toned as if the light were itself almost liquid. They fade in and out of focus with sprocket holes in the negatives creeping into the frame. Lens flare and optical effects bring Frank’s Leica into the picture. The instrument is apparent, and it so is the hand of the photographer.
Subjects here are presented without judgment. They are neither elevated nor denigrated. Frank positions himself as an equal moving in an ambiguous world, neither good nor evil. This gray middle ground is emphasized in the tonality of his printing. It is a world with few dark blacks or bright whites.
We see a world here that we recognize or that we are sure we remember. Wood paneling and vinyl seats become classic, not eternal, but clearly placed in memory and perhaps a dream. His is a dark poetry of America captured somewhere between the poverty and war of the 30’s and 40’s, and the eternal and unachievable pursuit of prosperity. Somehow he makes even American kitsch feel like a part of our archetypal memory.
This is photography as the complete package.