Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ 50 Years On

539w Mark Feeney in the Boston Chronicle:

Robert Frank’s “The Americans’’ certainly is a book, one that consists of 83 photographs taken during 1955 and 1956. But to say it’s “just’’ a book is like saying the same thing about “Moby-Dick.’’ Both works are central, defining documents of American culture. What the white whale was for Ahab, a red, white, and blue nation was for Frank. Ahab employed a harpoon. Frank used a camera. Unlike Ahab, he not only managed to capture his prey, he survived. Frank turned 85 on Nov. 9.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the US publication of “The Americans.’’ (The French edition came out a year earlier.) To observe the occasion, the National Gallery of Art has organized a superbly comprehensive exhibition, “Looking In: Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans.’ ’’ After stops earlier this year at the National Gallery and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, it’s at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Jan. 3.

“Looking In’’ is just right as a title. Seeing, an act that’s optical in nature, is as much passive as active. Looking, an act that’s not just optical but directive, is inherently active. It’s no accident that the first photograph in “The Americans’’ shows both an American flag and people watching.

Looking at America, Frank took in things others had seen but failed to note. Some were banal: jukeboxes, the ubiquity of flags, the many manifestations of automotive culture. Other elements – vaguer, abstract, even sinister – were anything but banal: a sense of isolation, the place of African-Americans in US society, a tension between openness and confinement. The latter is evident in everything from the sweep of a Southwestern landscape to the flickering image on a TV screen. Precisely because Frank’s exteriors look so large, even boundless, his interiors (bars, elevators, the inside of an automobile) feel so constricting.