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In 1955, Swiss-born Robert Frank
criss-crossed the United States. From 27,000 shots, 83 images:
The Americans. Factory workers in Detroit,
transvestites in New York City. Billowing American flags,
gossamer-thin & torn. ‘Trolley—New Orleans’:
five cars, whites in front, blacks in back.
Just off center, the black man with a furrowed brow,
a stark & doleful gaze.
Ten days before, Frank himself locked up in Memphis.
The jailer tells him:
You have eight minutes to get across the state line.
Criticized as grainy / muddy / sloppy / bitter / bleak / grotesque,
those 83 prints transformed photography.
At 90, Robert Frank travels back to Zurich,
the celebrated native son, in faded work shirt,
frayed pants, an Olympus in his pocket.
June Leaf, his wife of 40 years, is with him.
He says: So much guilt….You can capture life,
but you can’t control it.
His children Andrea & Pablo, both lost, his daughter
in a plane crash, his son to schizophrenia.
Frank, known for arrogance & brutal honesty,
finds Zurich organized & clean.
So much life, so many losses. He says:
The kind of photography I did is gone.
Fast film, low light, wide angle.
Not easy to take the quick & covert shot, even with a Leica.
Two months after Paul died, I needed a bolt of lightning,
so I drove to Washington, DC to see Frank’s work
at the National Gallery. In the photo of the Ike rally,
from the tuba’s mouth—
I could almost hear the ooom-pah-pah.
Then two iconic photos juxtaposed:
black nurse holding the white baby
& the sign,No Negroes allowed.
We’ve seen the world through Baldwin, Didion,
Arbus, Mapplethorpe & more
yet Frank can still unsettle us with a gesture,
a glance, a stare, pursed lips,
the distilled anxiety & the epic isolation of the Fifties.
As Frank, the camera artist, says:
It is important to see what is invisible to others.
Copyright 2018 Joan E. Bauer. Previously published in Main Street Rag