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Robert Frank

Robert Frank: London/Wales duotone photographs by Robert Frank, Introduction by Philip Brookman (Scalo) "War is over; the heroic French population reaffirms superiority. Love, Paris, and Flowers ... but London was black, white, and gray, the elegance, the style, all present in front of always chang­ing fog. Then I met a man from Wales talking about the Miners and I had read How Green Was My Valley. This became my only try to make a `Story. "'-Robert Frank, letter to the author, May 29, 2002

This is a war story of a different kind, of the aftermath. It's nineteen fifty-one, fifty-two, fifty-three, when coal was still hauled down the mountain railway to heat the cities and fuel the fires of a postwar industrial economy. The skies are solid gray from fog and smoke; a miner returns home from work underground as a banker emerges from the dense snowy air, walking the street with agility and pur­pose. The British bankers and miners lead obverse lives, facing each other across these pages, but treading very different paths. Who are these people of the London streets and Welsh valleys, the finan­ciers and colliery workers? What is their relationship to the past and to each other? Robert Frank's images locate them in the context of their environment, and in doing this he suggests a social narra­tive that connects these people of the city and the country to their money and work in 1950s Britain.

In London, the bankers seem pensive, preoccupied, and anxious. They are always moving to or from their workplaces and always looking away from the camera. Frank portrays them as very ele­gant figures whose clothes show off their position in society. But he doesn't know their names or any­thing about their lives. They seem mechanical and locked into place by the sidewalks, crosswalks, and streets that channel their movements, as if they were on tracks. They glide through the fog and appear alienated as they intersect with people of a different social class. The bankers exist in a sepa­rate world and move through discrete spaces with few connections to any other workers. There is a weight to their traditions that keeps them apart. But the life of the street itself begins to come into focus as the chauffeurs, deliverymen, beggars, and mothers pushing prams catch the photographer's attention. These people seem at home in their city, solitary but at peace. On one level Frank's view of London is a pessimistic portrayal of individuals alone with their destiny, an existential vision emerging from the bad dreams of history. But his despairing outlook is tempered by the genuine hope he dis­covers in the faces of the children.

Unlike London, Wales at the time was an outpost, an industrial region isolated from Britain's financial center, with a different language and culture. Most of the people in these pictures lived there all their lives. The village of Caerau, in Glamorgan, South Wales, was built around the Caerau Colliery,

which opened in 1889 to produce steam coal. In 1945 the mine employed 586 men, down from 1,839 in 1918. It finally closed in 1979. Arriving in Caerau in the late winter light of March 1953, Frank chose to focus his attention on one man, 53-year-old Ben James, who had been a miner since he was 14. His wife's father had died in the same coal pit in which James spent his days 1,200 feet underground, shoring roof beams with timbers. Caerau was a close-knit community, bound by a tra­ditional way of life and working-class values. Many people there lived in austere conditions. James, for example, did not have running water inside his home. Yet as Frank grew close to the miners and their families, his photographs took in the full scope of their lives, warming as he moved beyond doumentary conventions to express a personal point of view.  

"Concentrate. How to follow the MINERS BANKERS into another time and place. And from there, to a break from the Traditional, to the confusing business of leaving values behind, because I'm trying to forget easy photo, trying to make something coming from within ... Time moves on and never stops or waits. "-Robert Frank, letter to the author, March 26, 2002

For more than fifty years, Robert Frank has repeatedly broken the rules of photography and filmmaking to expand their expressive potential. Best known for his seminal book The Americans, first pub­lished in 1958, and his experimental, elegiac film Pull My Daisy, made in 1959, he has pioneered a revolutionary approach to photography and filmmaking that combines autobiography, poetry, and emotion with the logic of gritty realism. The Americans was like a mirror reflecting 1950s America through European eyes. His revelation that the best way to tell a story was searching, imperfect, and free of rhetoric became a model for future artists struggling to understand the ambiguities of society.

Frank's creative voice, which came to fruition with The Americans, had evolved through years of experimentation and practice. The Swiss-born photographer immigrated to the United States in 1947, and his art was transformed by this experience. He worked on fashion and editorial project; but his goal was to become independent, an artist able to pursue his own vision without relying on the picture magazines for work. Between 1949 and 1953, before he photographed The Americans, Frank traveled back to Europe twice, on extended trips to France, Switzerland, Great Britain, Spain, and Italy. During this time he developed an increasingly unique style from his ongoing interest in both European and American aesthetic and philosophical traditions. In 1949 and 1950 he worked prima­rily in Paris. These images show chairs, animals, signs, and flowers-lonesome, romantic places pre sented as visual impressions rather than a structured story. On his second return to Europe from late 1951 to early 1953, Frank began to work toward more extended and revealing narrative sequences featuring bankers, flowers, bullfighters, and coalminers. These efforts, especially in London and Wales, helped to spark a new maturity in his work.

In the winter of 1951-52, Frank visited London accompanied by his wife Mary-her family was British-and their young son Pablo, who was born in February 1951. He set out to photograph the atmosphere of the place: the light, the fog, and the otherworldly feel of the financial district known as the City of London. "In a sense, all pictures exist because of their atmosphere," he later declared in the September 1954 issue of U.S. Camera. He followed bankers dressed in traditional top hats and long coats, emblems of the former empire. He paradoxically pictured their movements as a kind of formal dance through the miasma. He also photographed laborers, street musicians, markets, dogs, children playing, and people waiting in queues and riding buses. While in London, Frank visit­ed photographer Bill Brandt, whose edgy documentary work he truly admired. In his books, The English at Home (1936) and A Night in London (1938), Brandt explored the differences between social classes in Britain and the visual mood of London before the war. In addition, he had photographed British coal miners at work during the Depression. Also informed by Brassai's Paris By Night (1933) and Andre Kertesz's Day of Paris (1945), Frank at one point imagined his own project as a diary of daily life. His proof sheets were sometimes labeled with words like "night" or "after­noon" to categorize the different types of images he was making. He depicted London in all kinds of weather but he loved the fog best, as it softened and reduced the contrast between light and dark to an almost even level. He worked intuitively, only in natural light, and never used a flash or light meter. He peered into the shadows where hidden details were often absorbed and ordinarily would remain unnoticed. One image shows a deliveryman standing in the gutter, straining under the weight of a huge coal sack as a banker resolutely strides down the sidewalk, umbrella cocked in his hand. This photograph is split vertically, almost in half; the stark divide he witnessed between two classes of British society is drawn right down the middle.

Frank was already looking beyond the traditional photo-essay form for a more experimental rendering of his experience. He left London for Spain in March 1952. In June he wrote from Valencia to Life photojournalist W. Eugene Smith, who had also photographed miners in Wales: "By the little experience I had with Life I can understand how you must feel working with and for them for so long," Frank said. "The only question for me would be how long do I need to stay with them." Back in Zurich in October, working with Swiss graphic designer Werner Zryd, he constructed three copies of a handmade book of photographs. Titled Black White and Things, it was his most ambitious and challenging sequence of images to date. The pictures are organized in three distinct sections: "Somber people and black events, quiet people and peaceful places, and the things people have come in contact with." The pictures are structured in a way that suggests emblematic, conceptual ideas. Photographed in various locations in the United States, Peru, and Europe from 1948 to 1952, they relate in a visual, sequential, and metaphorical manner. They do not order the world as a narra­tive or travelogue but illuminate its lyrical connections through movement in solemn, rich tones of

black and white. The opening sequence depicts a marching band, a funeral procession, and a group of London bankers hurrying off to work. This progression of images launches the book into an ellip­tical arc that confers meaning to the relationships between people, objects, places, and the empty spaces in between. Black White and Things signaled a significant point of departure in Frank's work.

Almost a year after leaving London for the mainland, Frank returned and traveled twice to the southwestern Welsh mining towns of Maesteg and Caerau. Mary and Pablo joined him in Caerau before they left together on March 16 for Southampton and the ocean voyage back to New York. Inspired by Richard Llewelyn's poignant 1939 novel How Green Was My Valley, Frank sought an iso­lated community with complex cultural traditions and a history of self-determination-all elements of a Great Story. Spanning the early years of the century, this sprawling tale is narrated by Huw Morgan, a child who grows up to witness vast changes in the beloved valley where his family had lived and worked for generations. As conditions worsened, Huw's close-knit family split apart in the face of union conflict, company exploitation, and bitter strikes. A growing mountain of slag pollutes the beautiful landscape, literally burying his childhood memories.

Frank photographed Caerau during another transitional time in the lives of the miners. He arrived only six years after the country's coalmines had been nationalized in January 1947. To rebuild the economy after the Second World War, the government worked to renew peacetime productivity and put people back to work throughout the country by taking`over many key industries. Mines were modernized, production boosted, aging pits were closed, and working conditions slowly improved. For example, soon after Frank's pictures were made, showers were installed at the mine where Ben James worked, allowing him to wash before returning home. Guided up the Llynfi Valley by a repre­sentative of the British Coal Board, Frank found a community-like the one in Llewellyn's novel­where people's lives still revolved around work, family, and tradition. This was the first time he had photographed so extensively in a working-class environment. With permission from the Coal Board and from the working men themselves, he was allowed to follow the miners from home into the pits, on the buses, to the pay window, into their clubs, and home again, tracking their daily lives. He set out to create a picture story about James and his family that could be organized, like his London images, as a day in a miner's life. On the back of one of his proof sheets Frank wrote an outline to plan the story:

1. Breakfast      5. Lunch underground   9. Washing up

2. Walking to work       6. Work underground   10. Pools

3. In canteen     7. Waiting to come       11. Dinner 4 PM

4. In the cage    8n Walking home-payday          12. Club

Frank's photographs of Ben James were first published with descriptive captions in the 1955

issue of U.S. Camera Annual. There he confessed, "I could have followed a livelier and perhaps

more colorful Welsh miner but I'm happy I decided to portray Ben James. When I said farewell to him I realized that no future story on any Welsh miner will look as this one does. I'm sure the new generation is essentially the same but I wonder if not having such hardships will make it easier`for them." He understood that the miners' lives were changing and their culture would soon change, too. He set out to document their lives during this transition but ended up showing their humanity from within. At the beginning of his portfolio on Caerau, the magazine editorialized: "In his story Frank has combined his intellectual insights with a poetic sense of the revealing moment." In retrospect, look­ing back at the negatives, proof sheets, work prints, and finished pictures, these images disclose a more critical narrative, one that defies the journalistic, photographic "moment" in favor of a more provocative form.

Like his symbolic, musical sequencing of images in Black White and Things, Frank's Welsh miner story subverts the accepted notion that documentary photographs should dispassionately bear witness or disclose narrative truth. Although he set out to construct a photo-essay that might be pub­lished in Life, his pictures of Wales often look like informal, revealing glances rather than photojournalistic documents of events or a series of anecdotal moments in time. The pictures do not fit togeth­er like a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. They express more emotion and ask questions about people's inner lives and their environment, unlike much of the work that picture magazines were publishing at the time. Frank's photographs are more attuned to the passing of time. They depict expository, symbolic moments as informal but universal encounters rather than as single images that could unlock an entire narrative. They are not composed to tell us how to think but to convey the feeling and psychology of a miner's life through movement, light, tone, and atmosphere. In this regard they connect to much of Frank's work in London. His evolving style evokes the character of everyday life in an open way that leaves many details of the narrative up to the imagination. In effect, these photographs broke all the rules.

Comparing Frank's pictures from London and Wales, we discover focused juxtapositions of opposites: money and work, rich and poor, stagnation and change, alienation and redemption. He rendered a unique tension between these opposing groups of images, referencing the geopolitical dif­ferences and social polarization within Britain at that time. Between London and Wales, he forged a more complex story than he had previously told, one that is truly subjective in form. It brings togeth­er his personal views on these different societies instead of summarizing journalistic facts about them. Each project informs the other to offer a broader, more nuanced view of social conditions in relation to his subjects' interior lives. Together, the images in London/Wales add up to something more, approaching an authenticity that is not evident in the fragments of the separate stories.

In many ways, though, Frank's London pictures are visually very different from those he made in Wales. His depictions of London are, for the most part, salient, elegant constructions, per-

haps his most artful. The bankers are distant. The gray skies and fog-filtered light make the space appear shallow, the people and buildings flattened. There is no sense of graphic depth except that implied by the perspectives of architecture and city-street lines; most everything appears on the sur­face like a Cubist abstraction. These pictures can often be divided into grids; in half, in thirds, in quarters, bisected by angles, and so on, composed like much of the very best Bauhaus-inspired European photography at that time. Swiss photographers Jakob Tuggener, Paul Senn, Gotthard Schuh, Walter Laubli, and Werner Bischof had each expressed a rigorously composed documentary human­ism in their work, which Frank knew well. However, in Robert Frank's view of London, people seem to float in space, creating a tension between the actual world and the world that exists in their minds. The backgrounds of banks, pillars, bridges, streets, and terraced houses are like cutouts, stage sets for the people who drift through them. These are silent pictures; cars, trucks, and buses go by but they are purely visual sensations, their din seems dampened by the fog. Frank's goal was to simplify his images, to downplay technique and eliminate extraneous details from his work in favor of mood and meaning, one reason he loved to photograph in the fog and low light. "The photographer must have an attitude towards the things around him," he insisted.

Some of Frank's photographs of London edge towards the rougher, more chaotic or expres­sionistic form of those he made in Wales. Placed side-by-side, the transition in style that occurs between these two projects becomes more evident; you can trace the change. For example, a few of his nighttime city scenes are looser and more relaxed, as if the dim light and lack of clear sight gave him permission to experiment. A beggar plays a violin in virtual darkness under a lamppost at Victoria Station; a shadowy, empty industrial road resolves into a muted, spatial loneliness worthy of painter Edward Hopper; a musician carries his bass up the steps from a subterranean tube station into the hazy streetlight-nightlife of the city. Frank clearly feels something for these people. He casts his shadow into the night for a glimpse into their hearts.

Frank haunted London. In Wales he was a welcome participant. With Mary and Pablo, he briefly stayed with a family in Caerau. Away from the big city, in the Welsh countryside, his pictures are more open and the grids dissolve. His images are freed from their Bauhaus bars. There are hints of this pictorial freedom in some of his earlier photographs from Peru (1948), Switzerland (1949), and Spain (1952) where, as in Wales, he pursued more narrative projects outside the cities. Yet his Welsh images seem to burst; the picture elements are no longer composed so tightly in the frame, held in tension by a grid-based structure. In one portrait of Ben James, his coal black face and hands smear into their surroundings, connecting with fragments of other figures, moving along with the rhythm of the bouncing bus that takes them home from work. In another moody picture, a sea of soft-focus eyes glistens behind the proud smudged masks of miners, cresting like waves across the image. A boy sorting coal leans easily into the sunlight streaming through clearstory windows above

the railcars. His quizzical gaze seamlessly connects him and the photographer to their surroundings. The mineworkers are often seen in close-up, moving doggedly through their workdays in a way that distorts traditional photographic structure. Their actions seem to splash across the surface of Frank's prints as if flung from Jackson Pollock's brush. Maybe this was the first time photography came right up against Abstract Expressionist painting as an art of physical participation. Frank's sentiment for the workers in Caerau is very clear. His emotions are on the surface. The time-honored, perspective­bound composition he had perfected in London was no longer sufficient as his feelings propelled him actively into the center of the miner's life, and helped shape that experience into his art.

Between 1951 and 1953, while on the road from London to Wales and home again to New York, Frank began to understand that a single photograph could not adequately represent real life or document the truth about something he had seen or felt. A photograph could be a record, a testimo­ny, or a fragmentary, symbolic statement, but a single image could rarely summarize a moment in real time. One picture could not really render his experience in the pits of Caerau, express the lamp­lit dampness, smell, and fear of descending deep within the earth to carry out the coal that burns the sky to particulate darkness; or the exultant joy he felt in the music that fills the town after the colliery whistle sounds its shift-ending song.

On May 27, 1953, just over two months after Frank's return to the United States from Wales, Edward Steichen's Postwar European Photography exhibition opened at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Twenty-two photographs by Frank were shown, including fifteen from London and Wales. His unframed, Masonite-mounted prints appeared for the first time as expressive, moody, highly charged works of art. These images of bankers, miners, and beggars were grouped in rhyth­mic juxtapositions that filled one large wall almost floor to ceiling. The dense compression, pairing of pictures, and all-over-the-wall installation, gave an impression of simultaneity that provoked concur­rent and immediate connections between these photographs, like the cuts between scenes of a film. As if his trips to London and Wales were practice runs for the marathon, within months, many of the same subjects would draw his attention in America: bankers, laborers, people on the street and on the bus, a mine, children, cemeteries, and the tension of money and work, rich and poor. By refining his methods in Europe and thinking about innovative ways to connect groups of images, the stage was set for Frank's groundbreaking work on The Americans, photographed in a style that was already emerging in his British pictures of the early 1950s.


"Have written a few lines under the photo of Friedhof Cimetiere Resting place, all almost holy ... What a souvenir for old long gone Ben James and these anonymous Workers, Bankers, Miners, Workers, Wives, Bus Riders, and the now Grandmothers, Grandfathers, Boys and Girls-a trip for me almost out of memory but standing still for NOW and LATER. "-Robert Frank, letter to the author, December 5, 2002

Robert Frank's photographs of London and Wales document a small corner of our history but they also set forth the struggle and spirit that defines the character of a place and its people. His expres­sive combination of chronicle and testament in this work opens a doorway through which to view that spirit. Before leaving Caerau, Frank made a formal family portrait of Ben James, his wife, and their son, David, who was the first in his family to escape the colliery-he was studying geology in the nearby city of Swansea. It captures a transitional moment for the family. They are posed together as a group in front of the window of their home, the morning glow streaking across their faces from the side to illuminate their close relationship. Dressed in his Sunday best, David is beaming, standing tall with his arm resting easily on his father's shoulder. Ben and his wife stare straight into the cam­era-serious, still, and solid in the raking shaft of light that carves his angular face from sun and shadow. They are clearly proud of their son and his accomplishments--their legacy-yet quite unsure of his future beyond the boundaries of their established way of life.

In London/Wales, Frank's depiction of a cemetery in Maesteg follows this endearing portrait, reinforcing his expression of loss and transition. For the people of the valley, the graveyard repre­sents their collective history and memory, but for us it's something more. The hinge on which the end of the book pivots, this image breaks the narrative spell of the miner's life. An angel's wings spread over a grave in a far corner of the cemetery with a billboard in the background: "News of the World," it reads. With her hand raised to her lips, the stone angel guards the insular, generational silence of the community memorial, but news from the outside intrudes even on this pastoral scene. The sign connects the world of the miners to global culture and media from the city. Under this picture Frank dedicates his work to the miners, bankers, and children in his pictures. Recalling Jack Kerouac's inspired soliloquy about all the holy sounds of time pouring through the window, from their film Pull My Daisy, he writes, "... The angel of silence has flown over their heads."

We return to London following Frank's reflective, voice-over invocation. Wings appear again on the back of another tiny angel holding a wreath that ornaments the hood of a hearse. The impos­ing vehicle is seen from the front, its gleaming, polished grille and headlamps staring back at the photographer like the face of a mechanical banshee. This visual shift connects his memories of Wales back to London , and recasts the same foreboding symbol first imposed at the beginning of the book. By examining the proof sheet positioned at the front of London/Wales, we learn that Frank pho­tographed the same hearse from different angles. His classic picture from this series-which follows the proof sheet and starts the main London sequence-is an image of stillness, conjunction, and fate. After picturing the hearse from the front, he stepped to the side and found the rear door open, wait­ing. A street sweeper is perfectly framed within a decorative wreath etched onto its window. On the sidewalk, a little girl, arms outstretched, runs from the inevitability of death into an unknown future. The fog embraces her.

In Frank's portrayal of London and Wales , the children become our guides. They glance at us across the gulf between social classes to chart a passage from their wartime memories to a future they could believe in. Their eyes seem to be looking for escape as if they were born under siege. Children "free and curious," as Frank calls them, now play on the slag heaps of waste dug from the mines or on the streets beside empty lots left from the blitz of London. Although their earliest memo­ries may be colored by the fear of bombs falling and buildings on fire, their cries like air-raid sirens, life returns to normal. For these children, the early 1950s was the time of change; it was their present and future. The past still haunts them but they look for hope anyway, staring down the despair that surrounds them.

The final photographs in London/Wales, made on the streets and in the stations of London , form a coda to the story, building intensity to a simple conclusion. A cast of compelling figures, most of them children, emerges from the fog, beckoning the photographer to follow them. Like music, Frank's form of expression is now equal to his feelings. His camera becomes an extension of his eye. A boy about ten stands knowingly in the center of a foggy brick street, still in short pants and knee socks, dressed smartly like he's on his way home from school. His pose is relaxed and self-assured, old beyond his years; one leg is planted firmly forward, his head cocked, a cigarette held up confi­dently between two fingers as though he's imitating a movie star. The area behind the boy fades into fog, a gray nothingness that tilts the background forward as two other figures emerge from the gritty light beyond. All three look directly at the camera, each with his or her own silent story that we will never know until we invent it. Another young girl stands with her bag on a subway platform, looking to the side, distracted by the photographer as a train pulls into the station. Where is she going? Should we follow? The visual space in these final images is so indistinct, so tentative, that these peo­ple appear to be outside of a specific time and place, like hovering ghosts. They look like they inhabit a land beyond Frank's photograph of the hearse, that silent place to which the little girl is running.

How do these isolated children escape the bad dreams of the past? How will they make the world anew, in their own image? Like all children, they live as much in a land of make-believe-in which they control their own destinies and carry their dreams in a bag-as they live in the real world. Their struggle is to keep running. In these final few redemptive frames, Robert Frank's work seems more mysterious, more connected to the literature of life, inventing a place where time moves on and never stops or waits.

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