It was a month of significant passings in the world of photography. First news of Robert Frank (+ September 9), then news of Fred Herzog (+ September 9, too). There were other photographers who departed in the month, people who made images at the edges of my vision, such as John Cohen (+ September 16) who was just in Göttingen in August to prepare a book with Gerhard Steidl; and Peter Lindbergh (+ September 3) who helped create the “supermodel” esthetic. When I visited Portland OR a few weeks ago together with GH, we went to the Blue Sky gallery and amongst other things saw a corner set aside as a homage to Frank (part of this seen in the picture above). He was there for the gallery’s opening in the 1980s. In his hand is written the injunction, “And keep yours eyes open …” – always good advice, and one he constantly gave to anyone with authentic aspirations.
So the giant tree falling in the forest is Frank’s, and it is even harder for me to grasp that “The Americans” was first published around 60 years ago. There is a wonderful farewell published by photography critic A.D. Coleman that begins to touch on Frank’s complexity as a photographer, as an artist, as a human being. I’m sure there is a manuscript of a biography of Frank resting in someone’s desk drawer (if that sort of thing is done anymore!) and my hope is it will be a competent piece rather than hagiography. I’m deducing reports of his curmudgeonly persona would most likely go along with attempts at the time to place him onto some sort of plinth.
All this has led me to wonder how much of Frank’s work has influenced our culture’s way seeing the world. We have sometimes heard around us a person say, apropos of the scene in front of them, that it looks like “a Monet”, or “a Turner”, or someone’s figure being “Rubenesque”, or the illumination being “Rembrandt light”. It’s a testament to the power of those artists that we now see something of the world that we hadn’t seen before or grasped before they revealed it to us. It is harder to hear the same being said of the great photographers, and partly that might be because so many have worked in black-and-white — one might refer to a photographic print as being like “Ansel Adams”, but I’ve yet to heard that spoken about a vista when standing in the wilderness. (This might, of course, speak more about the kind of company I keep.)
What I suspect – and this is only a hypothesis – is that Frank’s work in “The Americans” was was an attempt to show how uncommonly strange the world really could appear when rendered as a sequence of black-and-white photogravures in book form, when shorn of a self-satisfied benevolence. There is a lyric shimmer present in that book as well as in his later books (let alone his films). It is hard work to keep one’s eyes open, especially when you’re resolutely not told what to see.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, et lux perpetua luceat eis.