This Week in Photography Books: Robert Frank

- - Photo Books

 

My wife told me an awful story last night.

(Prepare yourself, it’s a tough one.)

Apparently, one of the kids in my daughter’s 2nd grade class gave a note to two of her best friends that read: I’m going to kill you.

They told the teacher, as you might expect, but it turns out the boy’s mom is co-workers with one of the victim’s mother.

So the perpetrator’s parent approached the victim’s mother at work, called her a “Snitch,” and started a physical altercation.

Now, the aggrieved mother told my wife, when the little boy, (who wasn’t suspended,) walks by the girls he threatened, he also whispers “Snitch” each time.

In 2nd grade.

In a charter school constantly ranked one of the best in the New Mexico.

Welcome to America in #2019!

This morning, trying to unwind from an overwhelmingly busy trip to Chicago, (a string of 18 hour days with zero downtime,) I put on “Next of Kin,” a silly-looking, late-80’s action film set in the same city.

It starred Patrick Swayze, (RIP,) rocking a mullet-ponytail, (of course,) and a thick Appalachian accent. It also featured Bill Paxton (RIP) and Liam Neeson playing “Hillbillies,” and a very young Ben Stiller as an Italian mobster.

Say what now?

Honestly, it’s no surprise we all miss the “seeming” innocence of the 80’s and 90’s.

I’m not done with the movie yet, as I took a break to write for you, but the Italian Mafia plays a central role, and we can thank them for the culture of “Omertà” that evolved into the 21st Century’s “No Snitchin’.”

How on Earth did “tattletale” become the worst thing a person can be? Worse than rapist, or killer, or thief? I mean, sure, we learn in kindergarten that “no one likes a tattletale,” but how many parents out there say “Go tell the teacher?”

I know I do.

Another word for “Snitch” or “tattletale” is “whistleblower.”

Right?

And sure enough, our pathological narcissist of a President may have finally managed to kick off an impeachment trial, because someone came forward to share that he, like the Mafia Don he appears to be, leaned on a foreign government to get dirt on Ol’ Joe Biden.

No one likes to hear “I told you so,” but honestly, I called him a Mafia-like-thug in this column so many years ago I don’t even remember when I first said it.

How did we get here?

And where is here?

2019 is so fucking confusing that sometimes I don’t even know what month it is, as I feel like I was just in London, (4 months ago,) or California, (2 months ago,) but if you told me it was December right now, I might not argue with you.

The NYT, my former employer, published an op-ed this week that confirmed this sense of perpetual confusion plays right into Trump’s hands, as the more unsettled people feel, the more likely they are to vote conservatively.

Which means there’s a strong chance that DJT is courting all this chaos ON PURPOSE.

All because 40% of the American population, nearly entirely white, wishes we could just go back to the 1950’s. That mythical time when non-ethnic, hat-wearing, square-jawed White Guys went out into the world each day to their office or factory job, and came home to a cooked dinner, served by their subservient, non-working wives, who kept their mouths shut, and did what they were told.

“Alice, why I oughta!”

That’s right.
The 50’s.

Sock hops and drive ins and juke boxes. Greasers and varsity jackets and pork chops and Coca Cola.

Mickey Mantle and Johnny Unitas.
Be like Ike.

This is what Trump means about Make America Great Again.

Let’s build a fucking time machine, out of a DeLorean big enough to fit 40% of America, and let’s all go back to a time when you didn’t have to acknowledge or respect other cultures.

When Thai Food was only in Thailand.

When 16 year old Swedish girls stayed in Sweden, and did what they were told.

When date rape was acceptable, and rampant pollution had not yet ruined America’s environment enough to draw regulatory blowback.

Make America Great Again?

No thanks.

Things may be royally insane these days, with our incels and our AR-15s and our Brexit and our Kardashians.

But I’d take it over a repressive, patriarchal monoculture each and every time.

You know who else was critical of the 50’s, while still managing to capture the best it had to offer?

That’s right.

Robert Frank. (RIP.)

Given the title of the column, you probably knew I was going to get here eventually. But still, in honor of Jack Kerouac, who wrote the introduction to the never-famous-enough-to-be-too-famous masterpiece, “The Americans,” I thought I’d push my stream of consciousness skills as far as they can go.

(Hey Andy Adams, still think Blake Andrews is the most brilliant photo blogger out there?)

As anyone reading this likely knows, Robert Frank, that once-a-century-genius, passed away recently. And though I’ve had the honor to meet and interview many of photography’s legends in my 10 years as a journalist, I never met or spoke to the man.

Hell, I don’t think I was ever within a few miles of him at any given time, though friends and colleagues did know him, and I send them my condolences.

But really, Robert Frank, Swiss Jew turned proper American, and his seminal book named after all of us, belonged to everyone.

Show me a trained photographer who never saw the book, or never cared for it. I dare you! Because we all know, no such person exists.

Each and every human being who ever picked up a camera in earnest, and then devoted him or herself to the craft, found this book to be an inspiration.

And rightly so.

Robert Frank, in the middle of the middle decade of the 20th Century, that decade now considered our heyday, came across the Atlantic Ocean and showed us who we were.

He used a camera, instead of a pen, to create a rambling visual poem, (as Kerouac correctly nailed,) that wove together a story about a newborn Superpower, one that used symbols in such a specific way that it took years for anyone else to have the guts to take back the American Flag, the crucifix, and the jukebox.

Because he owned them.
He made them his, and he made them sing.

Power brokers and fat cats.
Lonely workers and nobodies.
Trans people and cowboys.
African-American nursemaids and their lilly-white charges.

It was all in there.

TV screens and shotgun shacks.
Dancehalls and Drive-ins.

Death and despair.
Life and love.

It’s all there.

As a student, nothing impacted me more, as my final project for Photo 1 at UNM, called “Ten Hours to Vegas,” aped his style so strongly that I’m lucky I got out alive.

As a professor, I used the book to teach sequencing, as the transition from covered car to covered body, and rich banker in an office full of chairs followed by a worker squeezing his ass onto a narrow curb, will never be improved upon.

Those combinations are perfect, and help anyone and everyone understand how photographs can work together to strengthen each other.

I would not be the person I am today, nor the artist, had I not encountered it back in the 90’s, that decade the Millennials and Gen Z’ers are looking to as a model of a different kind of American Ideal.

Friends and Nirvana.
Pulp Fiction and Biggie Smalls.
Michael Jordan and Beavis and Butthead.

Yeah, I guess things weren’t so bad back then. But no matter what, unless you stumble on a wormhole, or a souped-up DeLorean, there’s no returning to the past.

Onward we go, instead.

So in honor of Robert Frank’s passing, I hope we all have the chance to do something important, like he did, because Lord knows the world needs all the help it can get.

Bottom Line: The best of the best, in honor of America

 

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 1 Comment On This Article.

  1. Frank saw through the cracks and the eventual demise, even when America was supposedly at its peak. A decade later, many actually feared America would succumb to a radical Leftist takeover. Two decades into the 21st century, we’re so far Right, that what was considered center Right a half century ago, is now referred to as “Leftist.”

    We’re in the last dying gasps of everything that was wrong with America. They know it, and that’s why they’re so rabidly, desperately trying to prolong it. The only question- will the final nail find it’s way to the coffin by 2020, or are we to endure yet another four years of prolonged and increasing madness? Whenever that end does come, only then will we be able to pick ourselves up and maybe (just maybe) realize the state our planet’s in, and start preparing ourselves for the remainder of a century that promises to deliver a world of vastly diminished resources and environmental degradation the likes of which man has never quite dealt with- ever…