Thursday, 6 March 2014

Robert Frank: The Americans

Robert Frank // The Americans from haveanicebook on Vimeo.

This exercise asks us to choose 5 images from the above that use symbols and explain the role they play – so here goes.

First up the opening image – at 21secs – which shows two people standing in separate windows of a building. One of the individuals is partially hidden by an American flag draped over the outside of the windows – the other is partly hidden by the curtains. The flag is a very obvious symbol of America – flags are perhaps the symbols of nationhood par excellence. In this case it is obscuring the identity of the person behind – hinting perhaps at the idea that the individual is lost lost behind the American identity – that the idea of being American over-rules the idea of being an individual. The individual behind the curtains is less clear as a symbol, but the building does not – on the limited evidence look like it comes from a wealthy area – so there is a hint of the less affluent being forgotten in the rush to Americanism.

At 1:16 we have an image of a group of gowned academics – undergrads from their age – parading into a building while a rather bored middle aged man in civvies sits on a park bench looking a bit out of place and trying perhaps too hard not to notice them. The gowns are clearly a symbol of academia, which in this instance might also be a symbol for potential and opportunity – a chance to fulfil the American dream. The bored, non-academic on the bench then serves as a reminder that it doesn’t end quite that rosy for some – that the expectations of youth are not always fulfilled.

At 1:27 we have an older lady bedecked with furs and jewellery – obvious symbols of wealth. She is turning away from the camera somewhat – clearly not that bothered about what’s happening around her. It’s rather too easy to read these things cynically – is cynicism an inevitable consequence of learning? I hope not. There are several rich ladies dotted around the book – they offer an interesting counterpoint to the shots of the less well off without giving the same idea of class obsession that some UK documentary work provides.This is itself says something about America.

At 2:11 there is a species of table skittles, backed by political election posters. Would it be too far-fetched to read the skittles as symbols of the politicians, standing proud in their differing colours waiting for the electorate to knock them down?

Finally for this part of the exercise I have chosen a simple shot looking down from an elevated position at a man walking past a building, with a neon arrow on the wall signposting his direction of travel. At this point I start whistling Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” -

So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner's pies
And we walked off to look for America

The arrow can be symbolic on a couple of levels. It could reference Frank’s travels in search of America, or it could perhaps reference the American of in search of the dream.

There are plenty of other symbols referenced throughout the work – there are a lot of cowboys –and their hats and cigars – referencing the mid-West and euro-American heritage. Cars feature quite highly – both as symbols of mobility – upward or otherwise, and as backdrops to life in general. I may be missing something but there a re few pictures with a mix of coloured and white Americans – the most notable is the black nurse holding the white baby. I didn’t notice any obvious references to native American history or heritage – perhaps symbolic in itself of attitudes at the time.

Several others are picked up in Kerouac’s intro to the book, including the regular use of religious symbols, the road and the empty west and the juke-box as a symbol of youth and rebellion.

One final observation – I have a copy of American Photographs by Walker Evans (not a first edition before anyone tries to burgle the house!) and the images are quite different. Much gentler and more formal. Evans captures the details faithfully, perhaps even more accurately than Frank, but Franks are somehow more atmospheric, more American. Or is that just me?

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