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by Sidney Lawrence
The National Gallery of Art’s "Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans" (through April 26) opened in Washington during the surge of populist optimism surrounding Barack Obama’s inauguration in January, and aptly so. The exhibition’s subject, though a half-century old, well suited the intelligent, post-racial, community-organizing promise of that otherwise frigid week.

Frank’s celebrated photography book, first published in 1958-59, offers a no-nonsense look at all types of Americans going about their lives in a spectrum of settings coast to coast. The hairstyles, clothing, cars, TVs, storefronts, graphic styles, product displays and prices are vintage 1950s, but the themes underlying "The Americans" are anything but dated. Race, politics, class, consumerism, religious fervor, regional myopia, youthful rebellion, pop myths and celebrity worship weave unapologetically through Frank’s intuitive sequence of 83 images. The way we were is the way we are, and it’s not only fascinating -- it’s OK.

The Swiss-born artist, now 84, was brought up in a well-to-do Jewish household in Zurich. He started his career there, and relocated to New York in 1947, at age 22, traveling extensively from this base thereafter. A variety of experiences spurred his development, and organizing curator Sarah Greenough, mostly using an extensive archive donated in the 1990s by Frank, lays these out in two introductory galleries.

New York, Latin America and Europe turn up in Frank’s photographs of the early 1950s -- Peruvian worker scenes, glimpses of British bankers and coalminers, and the oddly grouped, internationally roving photo book, Black White and Things, whose 33 pages line the walls of one space. Frank’s ability to extract emotional resonance from fleeting reality is increasingly evident.  Next stop -- "The Americans," his next and definitive project.

The show-within-a-show begins with a you-are-there presentation of the pre-publication process -- Frank’s applications to the Guggenheim Foundation (which paid for the project), a map of the U.S. charting his three road trips of 1955-56, handwritten progress reports to American-scene veteran Walker Evans, who wrote one of Frank’s grant recommendations, and drafts of the introduction by Jack Kerouac, fresh from his own coast-to-coast opus, On the Road.

Most engrossing, however, is what the museum calls a collage -- a large bulletin board, really -- of nearly 120 torn, marked-up, crinkly work prints assembled for the show by Frank to chart his process of elimination. (The artist made some 1,000 of these from an astounding 27,000 shots.) Are the rejects clichéd? Too tough? Too tame? Is there a better way to crop this one? Why did that one win out? Anyone who has written, edited, painted, curated, composed or rehearsed will understand the sweet agony embodied by this wall. One of my D.C. critic colleagues dubbed it "porn for photographers."

To actually walk into a picture gallery with the final selections as framed, mostly vintage prints on walls is oddly discomfiting. It took me a long time to figure out why, and then bingo: this isn’t a book!

Labels here and in the next two galleries explain Frank’s intentions, and the sequencing is proper, but the photos are better served in three-dimensions by scanning, spotting, criss-crossing and otherwise moving around to search for knockout images, and there are many.  I go for the blurry, John-Cassavetes-esque subjects myself, the more off-kilter the better. 

One thing these elevator operators, pedestrians, lovers, celeb watchers, cowboys, factory workers, barflies, country folk, soap-boxers, teenage queens, TV personalities and politicians have in common (besides mostly being caught unaware by Frank’s lens) is that they seem OK with whatever flaws or inequities might be depicted or implied by their surroundings. There is a scent of Obamian optimism in Frank’s non-judgmental attitude.

Trolley -- New Orleans (1955), for instance, is and always was an E Pluribus Unum kind of work, in which white and black passengers peer from the same ribbon of windows. It isn’t so much about back-of-the-bus degradation of segregation -- which a lot of today’s young people cannot relate to anyway -- but about individuals holding their own in a multi-cultural stew.  We understand the poetry of this scene because city life duplicates it every day.

Similarly, with the black nurse and white baby of Charleston, South Carolina, 1955, the outrage of a race-, class- and economics-driven quasi-familial situation is mitigated by a tone of tenderness, resignation and comfort. The uniform and Arbus-like creepiness of the infant are a bit much, but we can’t condemn this scene. Nannies of color with Caucasian charges remain common sights, and the life bonds that often result are valid. Accept and contemplate reality, these images seem to say, and go from there. This is Frank’s own personal "race speech."

It’s difficult to fathom that The Americans caused such an uproar when first published; the photos were denigrated as depressing, a slam on America, unprofessional and technically sloppy. But the "ruthless honesty, soulful lament, and unsettling grace," as curator Greenough puts it, soon took off, influencing subsequent generations of photographers and infiltrating many other aspects of our visual culture, particularly film (Frank’s next medium) and ad art.

Seen from this side of the social, racial, economic, political and wartime upheavals that occupied America from the Beat Era to Reaganism to globalization and the Internet, these images seem full of promise -- more like an inclusive, Obamian pep talk than a display of cultural malaise. Can we become our best American selves, even as finances and the environment go haywire on top of everything else? Maybe so and maybe not. But the artist, who felt the weight of this amazing book for the rest of his career (not always happily, as a coda gallery makes clear), deserves our thanks for raising the question just when we need to hear it.

The exhibition is accompanied by the newest reprint of Frank’s famous book and a hefty, multi-essay catalogue. After Washington, it travels to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (May 16–Aug. 23) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Sept. 22–Dec. 27). 

SIDNEY LAWRENCE is an artist and writer living in Washington, D.C.