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He's Got Eyes : The 1950s are stripped bare with the reissue of Robert Frank's stark, subversive photography. : THE AMERICANS, By Robert Frank, (Scalo Publishers/DAP: $50 cloth, $26.50 paper; 179 pp.)

March 06, 1994|Grover Lewis | Grover Lewis, author of "Academy All the Way," is at work on a memoir of Texas and San Francisco called "Goodbye If You Call That Gone."

Photography, goes one clear-eyed definition, is a record fixed on silver of the light waves reflected by or radiating from objects. The human eye, like the camera, can collect these rays, but it fixes them only in memory.

Photography has advanced by now to the technological point where it occupies and "eyewitnesses" its own reality. A pre-set camera can gather images while orbiting the Earth via satellite, or it can snap your mug shot as you write a check for staples at the supermarket--no human finger on the trigger, no call and response of "Say cheese."

The scarcely ambiguous footage of the Rodney King beating to the contrary, such images constitute dead-on accounts of an event such as a crime, or a relative close-up of a place as trackless to the naked eye as deep space. The "information" obtained by such means is real and reliable, part and parcel of the process of comprehending "truth."

Still, the camera is merely a tool, capable of no more than mechanical honesty. The individual photographer must supply the aesthetic and make any attempt to distinguish between a random, meaningless moment and the rare moment of reality revealed, existence cast in a new light.

Many of the spate of "art photography" books available in overpriced editions these days seem to be trying to get away with art, rather than delivering it. Shutter-buggery lines bookstore shelves, alternating between the illusory prettiness of nature photography and the celebrity-worshiping snapshots of the haute paparazzi, perhaps best typified by Vanity Fair's Annie Liebovitz. To anyone who has spent time looking at photography, Liebovitz's flashy studies of the momentarily famous are, in essence, stunts. Pop technicians of this caliber have no guiding intentions, no aesthetic stake beyond the hope for a smooth shoot, the haute -er the better.

Photographic work of a wholly different and higher order is represented in Robert Frank's knife-edged master-piece, "The Americans," now available again after a shamefully long period out of print. The volume was first published in Paris in 1958, then in America by Grove Press in 1959. Frank, a Swiss-German emigre, studied with Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris before settling in New York in 1947. His early images of street life--dark, intense, often disturbing--established him as a premier talent in a photographic lineage that includes Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, W. Eugene Smith, Weegee and Dorothea Lange. Such was the power of "The Americans" that Frank in turn influenced a whole school of younger documentary photographers--Larry Clark, Bruce Davidson, Garry Winogrand, and Danny Lyon, to name but a few.

Lyon recalled in a Times interview in 1992: "(Frank) played a huge role in liberating American photography. The horizons are cockeyed in his images, a guy's head is behind a tree, part of the picture is blurred--he blew photography wide open and he's been a tremendous influence on countless artists, including me. Eventually I had to get away from Robert because he was too strong a force to be around."

You can get a pungent sense of Frank's youthful life and force in Patricia Bosworth's well-researched "Diane Arbus: A Biography" (Knopf, 1984). Frank and his sculptor wife Mary lived in a grungy loft with their two wild children while he eked out a bare existence shooting fashion spreads and photojournalism at $50 a throw for Fortune, Life and Harper's Bazaar. The Franks, known as a "pagan couple," were part of a loose-knit arts community that encompassed old-style Greenwich Village bohemia, the Abstract Expressionists and the Beats. In the lockstep mid-1950s, when the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was our national symbol, Frank personified the dissident artist, and his stark, subversive imagery constituted a form of fugitive expression akin to samizdat. Just as you had to "dig" to understand bop, you had to "have eyes" to dig Frank.

In 1955, traveling with Jack Kerouac, Frank crisscrossed the United States on an assignment for Life, but his hard-edged roadside pictures were rejected because "they looked too much like Russia." Then in 1956, sponsored by the patrician Walker Evans, Frank won a Guggenheim and spent the following year driving around the country in a clunker car with his family in tow. The entourage must have resembled a hip version of the Joads. In Arkansas, Frank was arrested for possessing a suspicious accent, a stubbly beard and New York plates. (Say cheese, indeed.)

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