The 83 photos in Robert Frank’s landmark book The Americans, published in the U.S. in 1959, have become icons in the history of photojournalism. But before he landed the Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to travel across the country, Frank had already captured penetrating observations of post-war America. A new show at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, “Robert Frank in America,” reexamines work from Frank’s early career. Guest-curated by Peter Galassi, former photography curator for New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, the exhibition features 131 photos, many of which had been forgotten. The images in the exhibition illuminate the development of Frank’s techniques and the themes that preoccupied him throughout the Fifties and Sixties. As Galassi has noted, “The full range of the work shows just how Frank turned the vocabulary of magazine photojournalism on its head and used it to speak in a personal, poetic voice.”
Galassi pulled images for the show from a collection given to the museum by a Stanford alum, Bowen H. McCoy, and his colleague Raymond B. Gary. Many of them had never been captioned or dated (either by the photographer or by scholars of his work), so Galassi compared them to contact sheets in the archive of the National Gallery of Art in Washington to figure out where and when they were shot. After selecting images for the exhibition, Galassi chose to group them into visual themes to show how Frank returned to the same subjects over and over: isolated figures, racial tension, religious symbols, the automobile, the media. The catalogue for the exhibition, to be published in association with Steidl, includes all 131 photos in the show as well as an essay by Galassi about the evolution of Frank’s work from his arrival in the States in 1947 into the early Sixties. The exhibition and catalogue explore the mind of a restless creative spirit as he took stock of both his adopted country and his medium. —Holly Stuart Hughes
“Robert Frank in America,” at Cantor Arts Center in Stanford, CA, opens today, September 10, and runs through January 5, 2015.