Friday, September 25, 2009

A giant of modern photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 3

Robert Frank at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Through January 3
Not for the first time, I've got a few bones to pick with The New York Times. Can't they assign a copy editor who knows something about photography to write the head for a review of one of the most historic photo exhibits in a long time? "America, captured in a flash"???!!! Why would you use the word "flash" to describe the work of a pioneer of available light street photography like Robert Frank? And why "in a flash" to describe a yearlong odyssey, one of the defining works of the 1950s, the legendary 1959 book "The Americans," almost a perfect companion piece to Jack Kerouac's "On The Road"? (Shown above: "Elevator -- Miami Beach).

Times art critic Holland Cotter is a good writer, but everybody has an off day. He begins with a classic example of stretching to find an offbeat lede appropriate to the subject:
Like probably a zillion other school kids, “My country tears of thee” was the way I understood the first line of “America.” Maybe that’s the way the Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank heard it too when he came to the United States from Europe in 1947, at 22, with English his second, third or fourth language.
I don't know anyone who ever heard it that way. A kid would be more likely to drop the "t" and hear it as "is of thee," and in any case, pass over it as archaic language that can be ignored. Why on earth would Robert Frank hear it in this idiosyncratic way? Whatever. Nobody's perfect.

Other than that, Cotter provides a good, thoughtful review of a major exhibit, and you can read it here (there's also a slide show, a multimedia feature and other references). Cotter does a good job of writing about what made the work such a landmark, and why its relevance has only deepened with time.
And how does the “The Americans” come across today? In the nominally post-racial Obama era, its political urgencies feel less immediate than they once did, but also prophetic. Its mournful tenderness, without being sentimental, seems deeper than ever. The days and nights it records are more than a half-century gone. The preacher, the nurse, the woman hidden by the flag, the sharp-eyed woman and the tearful black man on the trolley are, you imagine, gone.

What’s left is a still-strange country and a book of pictures by a foreigner who came to America impulsively, traveled our roads restlessly, and by not fully knowing our language heard it correctly and told us, the way we could not, truths about ourselves.
If you can get to New York, go. If not, a new, 50th anniversary edition of "The Americans" was published earlier this year in conjunction with the first showing of the exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. After that it traveled to San Francisco, and now the Met is it's last stop. It's either that or the book. Or both.

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