And now a few words on Robert Frank, The Single Image, and Looking In

Friday, January 1, 2010

Throughout my twenties and into my thirties I read biography, history, autobiography, and (late in the game) memoir. I read nonfiction, in other words—not poetry, not short stories, not novels—a habit gained throughout my years at Penn, where I had sidestepped writing and English courses in favor of my major, the history and sociology of science.

As many memoirs, novels, and poetry collections as I now read, I still love a solid history book, a critical study, a biography. There's all this and more in Looking in: Robert Frank's The Americans (Expanded Edition), a book I referenced a few days ago. It's been sitting on my coffee table (dwarfing it, for the table is small and book is huge) since I unwrapped it on Christmas Eve, and every day I pick it up, wrangle it onto my lap, and read.

Sarah Greenough's essays are, in particular, a tour de force, webbing together the history of mid-last-century photography (the art of it, the business of it, the prevailing philosophical frameworks), the yearnings and disappointments of Robert Frank, and the lives of those with whom he came into contact (Kerouac, Kline, Evans, Steichen, de Kooning, so many more). Heralded quite early on, Frank was nevertheless denied much of what he wanted (a photo spread in Life magazine, for example). In being denied, he was, as Greenough notes, spurred forward:

If radically innovative art is often the result of a blind leap of faith into an unknown realm, then it is just as frequently preceded by an equal dose of anger or frustration, coupled with calculated study and a large infusion of fresh ideas. When Frank returned to New York in March 1953, he was angry, rightly or not, that Life in particular had not embraced his work with the same conviction as it had so many others' photographs. And he was just as insulted when the newly formed Magnum group of photographers rejected him as a member.... in 1954, when he began again to work more actively, his images were more harsh and brutal than most of his earlier work. 'I went away from my early lyrical images because it wasn't enough anymore. I had used up the single image. I was aware I was living in a different world—that the world wasn't as good as that—that it was a myth that the sky was blue and that all photographs were beautiful.'

I had used up the single image. I ponder that, on this first day of the new decade.


Anonymous said...

It's good to hear that frustration can lead to more creativity. Though I ought to know that from my own experience.

septembermom said...

Love the thought: aware of living in a different world. I think these are valuable perspectives for writers to ponder. We have to embrace our evolution as people and writers. It's healthy to allow the present me to show the writer in me what new ways to express myself.

I think that I should not look at my writer's block as an obstacle anymore. It's a place to look for the new that may be sitting right there looking at me.

Thanks Beth for making me think again :) You're good at that!!

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