Archive for Robert Frank

Venetian Red Notebook: Robert Franks’ The Americans

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , on July 24, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Robert Frank—Americans 72, San Francisco, 1956

Robert Frank, Americans 72. San Francisco, 1956

“Looking In: Robert Frank’s Americans,” which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication, opened at the National Gallery in Washington just days before the Inauguration of our 44th President. In town for the latter event, I stole an hour to see the show, thinking at least it would be enough time to visit with a few old favorites. But I had forgotten the power of Frank’s work to arrest.  They compel you to stop and consider; across time and space, a Frank photograph has an uncanny ability to capture a shared piece of all of our American histories.

Nearly the hour had passed before I realized I was still in the first room. Unfortunately, I had to leave. Fortunately, there will be many more opportunities to see the show, as it will be at SF MoMA until August 23.

It’s hard to believe that the work for The Americans almost didn’t happen. Frank arrived in New York as a working photographer from Switzerland in 1947.  By 1953 he was deeply discouraged, frustrated that, after years of wandering and shooting images, he had been unable to publish his photographs more widely. In the midst of this dispair, he nevertheless recommitted himself to his photographic work.

In 1955 Frank received a Guggenheim fellowship, the first European-born photographer to be so honored. This allowed him the freedom and means to resume documentation of life in the United States. His output, The Americans, published first in France (1958) and then in the US (1959), consisted of 83 photographs culled from the thousands he made largely in 1955 and 1956 while traveling around the country.

As a foreign-born photographer,  Frank was uniquely positioned to peer into post-War American culture and capture its significant features. Among the scenes of everyday life, Frank recorded the particularly American penchant for cars, jukeboxes, gas stations, diners, and the open road. These photographs are compelling statements about what defined us then; in most respects their legacies are with us still.

Americans 72 captures the essence of place, both geographically and emotionally. Although the photo was shot 50 years ago, its location is instantly recognizable to anyone living in San Francisco, for that Victorian corner (like many others) has remained largely unchanged. Today, with no ethnicity a majority, we might lose sight of the fact that the Western Addition was once an African American enclave. The composition and tonality of the image mimic that segregation—the dark figures in the foreground separated by the park walkway from the lightness of the city beyond—although it’s not clear that this was Frank’s intention. The couple’s expressions define the emotional landscape. Unlike many of the subjects of Frank’s photographs, this couple has caught him in the act of photographing.  The woman turns in alarm, worry perhaps; someone has snuck up behind them. Her companion gives Frank a look that might be interpreted as a territorial warning (“back off buddy!”). Or maybe he’s simply scanning the scene, sizing up the potential danger posed by an intruder. With the benefit of hindsight, a lot could be read into this photograph.

Along with cars, jukeboxes, and diners, this scene also defined America in 1956. The Inauguration reminds me that we’ve come a distance since then.

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Installation, Liz Hager, Painting, Photography, Printmaking, Sculpture with tags , , , on June 8, 2009 by Liz Hager

On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when galleries and museums are closed. Every Monday we highlight a few current exhibitions, new installations, or art world tidbits. Get a jump on a week filled with art.

Lincart, 1632C Market Street, SF—Smart Art: Trash to Treasure through June 25.

SF MoMA—Robert Frank’s The Americans, through August 23.

Weinstein Gallery,  383 Geary Street, SF—Chagall and Picasso prints


Singular Gems—Anish Kapoor at the Sackler

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , on April 23, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

anish-kapoor

Anish Kapoor, S-Curve, 2006, polished steel, 32 feet (photo © the author).

File this post in the “Better Late Than Never” folder.  We admit gross dereliction of duty, possessed as we were in January by Inaugural Fever.  As a result of the mayhem, we overlooked posting on quite a number of the exceptionally good art offerings in our Nation’s Capital. Thankfully, we didn’t neglect everything—you’ll find Whistler at the Freer and Leo Villareal at the National Gallery among the Venetian Red pages. We we lucky to catch the Robert Frank retrospective—”Americans”—exhibition at the tail end of its run at the National Gallery. Fortunately for us, the show is coming to SF, so look for a posting in anticipation of that opening in May.

In the meantime, we are reminded that Anish Kapoor’s sculpture S-Curve will be in the entrance hall at the Sackler Gallery until mid July.  S-Curve is fashioned from two 16-foot-long pieces of polished steel placed that are placed back to back to form a convex and concave wall. In its construction, this work references the sculptures of Richard Serra’s, Band (2006) in particular. Further comparison is thwarted by the mirrored surface; images bounce back at us, making it impossible for us to really grasp the materialness of the sculpture.  As Kapoor once said: “The minimalists, of course, were very, very concerned with the idea that ‘What you saw was what you saw.’ That’s it, it’s there, nothing else. Now, I’m afraid I don’t believe that. I’m afraid I believe that what you see isn’t what you see. It’s never what you see. It never was what you see.” (Interview, Greg Cook, 6/2008).

The reflective curvature immediately evokes funhouse mirrors and their distortion of space. The distorted reflection of the space around it is alternately disorienting and fully engaging. It’s challenging to adjust your sight to the distortion, but then again the panoramic picture that morphs and changes with viewer movement presents infinite visual delight. The distorted reflection creates an additional dimension, the space in front of the sculpture, which is simultaneously real and illusionary.  Herein lies the fundamental genius of the piece—although the sculpture is solid and stationary, it is also fluid and dynamic.

Illusion is at work in S-Curve on another level. Like his other highly-reflective pieces (Cloud Gate in Chicago’s Millennium Park is a predecessor), here Kapoor has pushed the boundaries of surface articulation, or, more precisely, lack thereof.  On these shiny surfaces the artist is nowhere in evidence. The irony of course is that many professionals labored mightily to produce a piece that looks untouched by human hands.

Perspectives (Contemporary Asian Art)”  until July 19, 2009. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Wider Connections

Mental Floss—Sculpture is an Heroic Art

Kapoor interview, Guggenheim Berlin

Big, Red & Shiny—Anish Kapoor at the ICA


The Unpredictability of Life: Annie Leibovitz’s Sarajevo Bicycle

Posted in Contemporary Art, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , on January 16, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Annie Leibovitz, Bloody Bicycle, Sarajevo 1993

Annie Leibovitz, Bloody Bicycle, (Sarajevo, 1993), Kodak T-Max P3200 (©1993 Annie Leibovitz)

Though she is best known to the general public for her glossy “celebrity” portraits, Annie Leibovitz began her photographic career in the gritty tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, that is to say, wandering around “looking for stories.”  The unpredictability that characterizes photojournalism is a thread that runs through all of Leibovitz’ work, even those staged portraits.

In 1990,while reviewing images for a retrospective of her work, the photographer realized a pressing need to get back to “reportage.”

I was developing my own style of setting up formal portraits and theatrical scenes at the time, but I didn’t consider those conceptual portraits to be journalism. Portrait photography was liberating. I felt free to play with the genre.  Photojournalism—reportage—was about being an observer. About seeing what was happening in front of you and photographing it. You didn’t tamper with it. For my generation of photographers the rules were very clear. That’s why so much is still written about whether Robert Capa did or did not stage the picture of the falling soldier during the Spanish Civil War and why Roger Fenton moved the cannonballs for the picture of the battlefield in the Valley of the Shadow of Death during the Crimean War. What they did matters…

In the summer of 1993, Leibovitz found an opportunity through Susan Sontag to go to Sarajevo. The city had been under siege for over a year; Serbs had been shelling the city from many points along its ring of mountains. Basic amenities—food, water, shelter—were minimal. Necessities, such as medicine, were scarce. Life in the city was extremely dangerous. People tried to go about their daily lives. Snipers were shooting at random.  “Death was random,” remarks Leibovitz.

. . . Jeffrey Smith of Contact Press Images had helped me get in touch with someone who rented armored cars to news organizations. That’s how I met Hasan Gluhić. Hasan was my driver and guide. He got me everywhere. Hasan was with me the day I went to the apartment of a woman who had just won a beauty pageant. She had been crowned Miss Besieged Sarajevo. There was some irony intended, I think. Miss Besieged Sarajevo lived in a high-rise development on the western edge of the city where there was a lot of shelling. A mortar came down in front of our car as we drove through her neighborhood. It hit a teenage boy on a bike and ripped a big hole in his back. We put him in the car and rushed him to the hospital, but he died on the way. . .

. . . The concerns I had before I went to Sarajevo about what kinds of pictures I would take were erased simply by being there. There wasn’t time to worry about whether I was taking a portrait or some other kind of picture. Things happened too fast. You could only respond to them.

—all quoted texts from Annie Leibovitz, At Work, pp. 102-110 (Random House)

Put its difficult subject matter aside for a moment and notice that Bloody Bicycle is actually a graceful, well-composed still life. While serving up images of war, it’s a good trick for a photographer to play to an audience’s aesthetic sensibilities. (Do pictures of war need to be nasty for us to feel, to get the point?)  The arc of the blood smear echos the shape of the bicycle wheels;  the hurried brushstroke of blood counters the stationary mass of the bicycle. In some ways, by shooting in black and white, Leibovitz must have wanted to suspend our preconceptions about war, at least for a moment. No shocking red blood. Despite these strong pictorial components, the most powerful element in Bloody Bicycle is the unseen presence. The absent rider is the shocking reminder that the circumstances of death are the ultimate unpredictability of life.

Connections

American Masters: Life Through a Lens

Lee Miller’s Dachau photographs

Bridge Coaker: The New Photojournalism

Into the Valley of Death

Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others

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