Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Robert Frank's Contact Sheets at the Met

I finally got myself uptown to see the great Robert Frank show, Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was well worth the trip. Many of the pictures on view are large and beautiful vintage prints. Even if you have seen them often before in print or in various exhibitions they are well worth seeing again. As wonderful as the pictures are I will confess that I was more interested in the exhibited contact sheets that Frank made of individual rolls of film. We are awarded by them the rare opportunity to do a little forensic analysis of Frank's approach and manner of looking, thinking and photographing. In most cases we see what I think one typically expects to see in the contact sheets of an experienced photographer. The photographer sees something of interest, moves around the subject a bit perhaps and makes a few frames until they are satisfied, or dissatisfied, with the subject and the moment and then moves on. The contact sheets contain some gems, of course, as well as a few less successful pokes and pulls that are the byproduct of anyone hard at work. What is most surprising to see, and damn near shocking, is that there is often just a single frame of what are the most exceptional and iconic images from the book. That is the case with the great, if not arguably "THE" greatest, picture of the 20th century. One damn frame. That was it! In fact, most of this roll is comprised entirely of variations of pictures that are of a passing parade. At one moment, who knows why, Frank turns his back to the parade. Perhaps he nervously hears the loud screech of the trolly that must have been just a few feet behind him. He turns, sees this and snap, BOOM!

Robert Frank, Trolley, New Orleans, 1955. From his book The Americans

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1 comment:

smithy said...

Great point and a great show. I was blown away by how the quality of the work prints that didn't quite make it in the final edit of the book. Another amazing testament to his smarts.