Robert Frank was born in Switzerland in 1924 and raised in a Jewish household in Zurich. He moved to New York in 1947. His photo essay, “The Americans,” resulted from a journey that he undertook by car starting in June 1955 during which he photographed the people and places that he encountered along the way. In fact, he took some twenty-seven thousand photographs which he eventually whittled down to the 83 images that were published in book-form in 1958. Frank’s book evoked strong reactions from many quarters at the time of its publication. He was even accused of being “unAmerican” – perhaps due to the critical commentary on contemporary urban life in America that was delivered by his stark black & white imagery.
I was particularly drawn to this image of the trolley car taken by Frank in New Orleans, due to its depiction of social degradation resulting from the racial segregation of those times. Robert’s framing of this picture delivers a sharp, metaphorically driven focus on the distinctions being made in society at that time between the rights of “whites” and “blacks”. We, as present-day viewers, can only be revolted that such ignorance and prejudice could in any way have existed. However, at the time of the publication of this photographic collection, there was a certain degree of outrage about the “unAmerican” reporting that had been carried out by Robert Frank. Such reactions from the past and present give lie to any assertion that the image itself is essentially benign, despite the fact that there is no violence of any kind depicted.
The subject of this photo is the ordinary citizens of New Orleans, going about their business, and peering through the windows of the trolley car. This has been made clear through the framing of this photograph, which deliberately excludes all other paraphernalia that might distract the viewer’s attention. Indeed, we understand that Frank meticulously cropped many of the images prior to publication. The tension in this scene is clearly palpable through the stern and miserable face of the woman who has her hands clasped tightly upon her purse. And then there is the stark contrast between the white boy and black man behind him. They’re clearly different colors. They’re quite obviously a generation apart in age. But the viewer is unwittingly drawn to the disarmingly similar gesture of the two, with their arms leaning on the window of the trolley car.
I consider that this image is far from innocent. Its depiction of a perfectly ordinary urban scene fails to mask the smouldering malevolence of racial segregation, with whites at the front of the trolley car and blacks behind. This, I would argue, was the photographer’s intent. Back in the mid-fifties, to actually present opinion on this subject matter in written form – to dare to question the sense and purpose of the inequalities arising from racial segregation – would simply not have been tolerated by the political class. Especially coming as it would have from an “alien” and a “Jew!” It would have been inconceivable to even consider it. Because words are powerful. They can be misappropriated, ultimately judged and even prosecuted. Words take on a life of their own. But Frank managed to make a statement about what he saw. Not by unequivocally writing it down black-on-white; but cleverly – and perhaps not a little devilishly – through the publication of his photographs in black-and-white.
Apart from being appreciated technically, a photograph is ultimately treated subjectively. And Frank was highly circumspect with his descriptions of the images in the first edition of his book. He left the burden of interpretation almost entirely upon the viewer. This was his masterstroke. Many years later writing text to accompany the auction of this very picture, Frank observed: “life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference. Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love. It is important to see what is invisible to others.” Clearly, and even without the benefit of hindsight, Frank was not (and could not) be indifferent to what he saw and photographed. One should recall the background of those times. Frank had emigrated from a Europe that had been torn apart by the barbarism of Hitler’s ideological war. As targets of hatred during that dreadful period, Frank and his family would have experienced hardship at best and the threat of extermination at worst. Essentially, Frank had intimate personal experience about the ultimate path that blind racial intolerance could follow. My interpretation of his decision to publish this photographic essay was that he felt a duty of care to highlight exactly those dangers. Frank’s images served as a “wake-up call” to American society. He saw what others did not; what had hitherto been invisible.
I would assert that the conclusion to be drawn by the viewer of this photograph is quite naturally: “what is the sense of this inequality?” And that conclusion would be drawn regardless of whether one is viewing this image at the time of its publication or with the benefit of hindsight today.
Image source: Los Angeles Times (accessed on May 6, 2012).
Lane, Anthony. “Road Show: The journey of Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans.’”
The New Yorker (accessed on May 6, 2012).
Wada, Karen. “The making of Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans.’”
Los Angeles Times – Culture Monster (accessed on May 6, 2012).
Lawrence, Sidney. “Perfectly Frank.”
Artnet (accessed on May 6, 2012).
Christie’s Auction House (accessed on May 6, 2012).
“Lot Description: Robert Frank (b. 1924) Trolley – New Orleans, 1955 gelatin silver print”