- The Washington Times - Friday, May 9, 2003

Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank searched out the poor and marginal during his long career. “The Americans,” the revolutionary 1958 book that made his reputation, conveyed a dispirited, edgy Jack Kerouac-and-Allen

Ginsburg kind of 1950s America.

Publication of the 83-photo book, a view of the United States that most didn’t want seen, was one of the pivotal events of post-World War II photography. It drastically changed the art of photography in both subject and style. Mr. Frank showed cigar-chewing politicians, sexy cross-dressers and down-at-the-heels funeral directors. Mr. Frank used drifting, almost colliding, images to show a disjointed world, one that looked nothing like the American dream.

But then, neither did Mr. Frank’s.

Born into a wealthy Jewish family in Zurich in 1924, Mr. Frank was just 15 when war broke out in Europe. Although he only felt, and didn’t encounter, the long shadow of Hitler, the experience determined his life’s work.

He became a photographer in New York to escape the strictures of his family and Switzerland. Mr. Frank was passionate about using photography to show the downtrodden and defeated. He used the camera almost as a weapon. Whether he knew it or not, he was contradicting Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum, “The medium is the message.” For Mr. Frank, the message was the medium. For him, idea and image became one.

When he traveled to Europe in the early 1950s with his wife, Mary, and baby son, Pablo, the photographer was searching for the seeds of the artistic vocabulary that would blossom later with “The Americans.” Mr. Frank first focused on the top-hatted bankers of London, symbols of the former British Empire. He also traveled to the Welsh mining towns of Maesteg and Caerau to shoot the gritty coal miners and their families.

In richly toned black-and-white images, he juxtaposed the rich and poor. They provided just the tension for which he had been looking. Some 90 images from the two series form the insightful exhibit “Robert Frank: London/Wales” that opens today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

A black-suited London banker with the ubiquitous English umbrella strides purposefully over a crosswalk to inaugurate the show.

Another walks toward a bus, arms folded in back, hands holding a newspaper and cane. Still another, this one jowly and looking burdened despite his elegant dress, walks directly toward the viewer.

All three act as parts of geometric grids. The fast-moving banker leans to form a right forward diagonal angle, while the white crosswalk runs counter as a left back diagonal. So crisp is the man’s form that the legs of his crisply tailored suit could be the open blades of a scissors.

Mr. Frank was looking back to his photographic training in Switzerland with these portraits. Bauhaus teachers such as Laslo Moholy-Nagy and Alexander Rodchenko had transformed design, and especially photography, in the 1920s. They preached a spareness and geometricizing clearly evident in Mr. Frank’s banker series.

Like the best Bauhaus-inspired photographers of the time, he was dividing his pictures into grids bisected by angles. The banker who walks toward us fronts a building running diagonally to the back of the photo, while another structure also plummets to the rear in Mr. Frank’s dramatic use of vanishing-point perspective.

“Teachings at the time balanced this stringent approach with a more softened and humanistic one,” says exhibit curator Philip Brookman, citing the way Mr. Frank softened the spareness by creating a haunting atmosphere. Light and dark fog envelop the figures. A pale light faintly illuminates some of the scenes.

One grayed image shows a banker striding past the outstretched branches of a tree in winter. Perhaps Japanese in inspiration, the tree becomes a flat, intriguing design with anthropomorphic implications.

While Mr. Frank honed his technical and expressive skills in this series, he also was looking out for the underdog. A particularly moving photo shows an impeccably dressed man, eyes averted, walking near a street curb where a worker struggles with a heavy load.

Mr. Frank photographed in London during the winter of 1951-52, then left England to work on the Continent, but he returned in March 1953 to chronicle life in the Welsh village of Caerau, built around the mines of the Caerau Colliery. He focused on one man, 53-year-old Ben James, who had worked the mines since he was 14. His wife’s father had died in the same coal pit in which Mr. James labored 1,200 feet underground, shoring roof beams with timbers. Mr. Frank said Richard Llewelyn’s poignant 1939 novel “How Green Was My Valley” inspired him. It described the industrial despoliation of the Welsh landscape.

In London, the photographer acted as an observer. In Wales, he participated energetically in village life. He briefly stayed with a family in Caerau with Mary and Pablo.

Mr. Frank followed the miners through their largely miserable days, an experience that brought new emotionalism and expressiveness to his work. The photos almost explode. Bodies seem to melt into other bodies, faces often meld and merge.

If possible, the series “Wales, 1953” is even darker than the London one. The photographer shows Mr. James lighting a cigarette with a lighted splinter of wood. The rest of the room is dark except for light reflected on what appears to be a curtain.

Mr. Frank shot miners in underground rail trolleys, emerging from the darkness of the mine to the grayness of polluted air, and lining up docilely for paychecks. In one image, the photographer moved in close to shoot a sooty man with frightened eyes and cowering stance — a masterful portrait of the quintessential exploited worker.

Mr. Brookman performs a valuable service for Robert Frank fans with this thoughtful exhibition. The curator shows two distinct styles in the photographer’s early career, styles that ultimately led to what would be his signature style in “The Americans,” but valuable as this is, it’s almost like showing Pablo Picasso’s blue and rose period paintings without showing their trajectory to the cubist ones. The National Gallery of Art traced this complete evolution almost a decade ago in the much larger retrospective “Robert Frank: Moving Out.”

That exhibit, also curated by Mr. Brookman, captured the unremitting anguish of Mr. Frank’s work and life. While he photographed the have-nots of his time, he also communicated the excruciating sadness of his own life. He was divorced from his wife, Pablo, was in and out of mental institutions, and his daughter, Andrea, died in a plane crash when she was 20.

Mr. Brookman does include such archival materials as copies of “The Americans,” but if he had added just one gallery placing this exhibit’s work in the larger context of Mr. Frank’s seminal oeuvre or simply included the National Gallery exhibit catalog at key junctures, it would have considerably deepened viewers’ understanding.

WHAT: “Robert Frank: London/Wales”

WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, New York Avenue at 17th Street NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Tuesday, until 9 p.m. Thursday, through July 14

TICKETS: $5 adults, $8 family, $3 seniors and member guests, $1 students with valid IDs.

PHONE: 202/639-1700

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