Robert Frank’s spectators
I opened a classic book tonight, The Americans by Robert Frank (1958). A friend left it here with couple other books before Christmas. I went downstairs to search for it. I was left with Robert Frank’s spectators.
In page 37 a young girl working in a cafe or a similar place, is staring towards an unseen space at the left. It could be anywhere in America in the 1950s, when Frank went on the roads with his camera – in fact, the book does not provide any caption for this photo.
Above her head we can see the advertising signs for the shop products. They speak almost louder than her. ‘Steak sandwich’ reads one sign at the far left, and another one just straight in front of us offers ‘jumbo size hot dog’ with big letters – bigger and better than ever, it adds.
And between the signs a seasonal plaque with Santa Claus and Merry Christmas wishes. He is smiling, he seems to know what he is doing, she is not. But their faces echo each other.
I remembered that we just had all those semi-religious western holidays at the turn of the year, accompanied with the usual consumerist noise and emptiness. I think I was a child, about after ten, when first got disappointed by the empty promise of those holidays. A repetitive hedonistic apotheosis, and far too much myth over the capitalist dream of hapiness, the invented needs, which inevitably faded away any personal meaning and importance over the years. Yet, someone always would come these days trying to offer me descriptions of all their wonderful recent shopping. Why, I don’t know. But I stare at their excitement trying to guess, is it real?
Robert Frank captured the commodified transformation of the banal into spectacle. And as Derrick Price argues in his essay Surveyors and Surveyed (2004) , “the people in these photographs are not constituted as ‘poor’ or ‘workers’ or, indeed, as any particular kind of social being. They exist as spectators, gazing out at some invisible scene: other people, the road ahead, a movie screen, a parade going by. In these closed, watchful faces we can read no significant facts, and if we have a sense of ‘being there’, it is as a witness to nothing of any great importance.”
In page 53, a photograph of a Cafe in Beaufort, South Carolina (above). Jack Kerouac writes in the introduction of The Americans that “after seeing these pictures you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin.”
Robert Frank’s approach paved the way and moved along new understandings of documentary photography, away from its traditional ties with major social events and facts, following political situations or causes (see for example our previous post about Margaret Bourke-White). Its subject-matter could now be what interests or fascinates the photographer. The new and expanded field of exploration could now penetrate the commonplace life and deal with subjectivities, identities and personal meanings. A jukebox could equally be sad or sadder than a coffin.