Part II: This Crazy American Sensation

Art Dealer, Curator and Writer Charles Guice expands on his commentary from Nueva Luz volume 17:1, Transforming Destiny Into Awareness: The Photographs of Baldomero Fernandez, Thomas Holton and Alex Leme. In this post, Charles narrates the historical and social connections between master photographers Robert Frank and Joel Meyerowitz. Additionally he illuminates the connections between Frank’s and Meyerowitz’s bodies of work and those of Alex Leme, Thomas Holton and Baldomero Fernandez. This is the second blog post of a five part series. Read Part 1 of this series here.

Transforming Destiny Into Awareness: This Crazy American Sensation

Robert Frank, Charleston, South Carolina, 1956
Robert Frank
Charleston, South Carolina, 1956. (© Robert Frank. All rights reserved.)

In 1955, Robert Frank became the first foreign-born recipient of the prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship. In his statement of intent, Frank wrote that he wanted to “photograph freely throughout the United States, using the miniature camera exclusively, the making of a broad voluminous picture record of things American, past and present.”

For the next nine months, Frank travelled over 10,000 miles in a used Ford throughout the country, producing 767 rolls of film—more than 27,000 images—in the process. A selection of eighty-three images was published, first in France in 1958 under the title, Les Américains, and in the following year in the U.S. as The Americans.

In an introduction to the American edition, beat poet Jack Kerouac wrote:

This crazy American sensation in the torrid streets when the jukebox plays for the funeral next door, it’s what Robert Frank captures in his stunning photos taken throughout all forty-eight states, from the window of an old used car (thanks to a Guggenheim Grant); he photographed with agility, a sense of mystery, genius, sadness and the odd discreetness of a shadow, scenes we have never before seen on film. We will finally recognize him in this book for all the great art he’s made. You look at these images and by the end you don’t know which one is more sad, a jukebox or a coffin or the intermediate mysteries, this black preacher on his knees for his own reasons with liquid brightness, this Mississippi bayou, Baton Rouge, it’s sunset, a snow white cross and secret incantations that no one knows outside the bayou—or this image of a chair in a café with the sun in the window pouring onto the table in a halo and I never thought we could take pictures of something that couldn’t be explained in words, in their integral visual splendor.

And in an essay on the work published in U.S. Camera that same year, Evans added:

That Frank has responded to America with many tears, some hope, and his own brand of fascination, you can see in looking over the rest of these pictures of people, of roadside landscapes and urban cauldrons and of semi-divine, semi-satanic children. He shows high irony towards a nation that generally speaking has it not; adult detachment towards the more-or-less juvenile section of the population that came into his view. This bracing, almost stinging manner is seldom seen in a sustained collection of photographs. It is a far cry from all the woolly, successful “photo-sentiments” about human familyhood; from the mindless pictorial salestalk around fashionable, guilty and therefore bogus heartfeeling.

Irony and detachment: these are part of the equipment of the critic. Robert Frank, though far, far removed from the arid pretensions of the average sociologist, can say much of the social critic who has not waylaid his imagination among his footnotes and references. Now the United States, be it said, will welcome criticism, and use it. At its worst moments, the U.S.A. today may seem to think it is literally illuminated by the wide smile of one man, and saved for something-or-other by energy and money alone. But worse moments are the province and the mainstay of the daily newspaper.

Despite this praise, the book was poorly received. Critics considered it to be “an indictment of American society,” faulting the photographs for their “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness.” Even the Museum of Modern Art would not sell it.

Robert Frank, Trolley, New Orleans, 1955 (© Robert Frank. All rights reserved.)
Robert Frank
Trolley, New Orleans, 1955. (© Robert Frank. All rights reserved.)

Although the photographic community eventually came to appreciate his view of America—and the book itself as a masterwork—Frank worked as a commercial photographer to support himself. It was on one of these assignments, in 1962, that Joel Meyerowitz would meet the Swiss-born photographer.

Meyerowitz was not a photographer at the time. An art director for a small advertising firm, Meyerowitz, whose boss had assigned him to watch Frank during a shoot, did not even own a camera. In a 2009 interview, Meyerowitz recalled:

It was such a magical experience, watching him twisting, turning, bobbing, weaving, and every time I heard his Leica go ‘click,’ I would see the moment freeze in front of Robert, and it was such an unbelievable and powerful experience, that when I arrived back at my office, I walked in the door and said to my boss, “I’m quitting.” And he said, “What do you mean you’re quitting?” I said, “I saw this guy take photographs. I want to be a photographer. I want to go out in the street and take photographs of life.”

Joel Meyerowitz
New York City, 1963. (© Joel Meyerowitz. All rights reserved.)

Emboldened by Frank’s lyrical style of photography (and the gift of a Pentax by his now ex-boss), Meyerowitz did become a photographer—a “street photographer” who adapted Henri-Cartier Bresson’s artistry of the candid and Frank’s inventiveness and creativity into his own. In addition, as one of color photography’s earliest advocates, Meyerowitz has been instrumental in changing the prevailing attitudes toward the use of that form “from one of resistance to nearly universal acceptance.”

The enduring legacy of these pioneering artists—Evans, Frank and Meyerowitz —is evidenced in the work of a new generation of artists: Baldomero Fernandez, Thomas Holton and Alex Leme. Capturing images that eschew explanation in words, their photographs of a new American reality seek to transform destiny into awareness.

Next, Part III: A New American Reality

Previously, Part I: Defining an American Style

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