“You got eyes.” This was the message that Jack Kerouac, the undisputed master of the beat generation (and author of the book “On the Road”) wrote in his introduction for the book of Robert Frank, the masterpiece entitled “The Americans.” This book has revolutionized the way we do photography, and represents a milestone in the history of the reportage. Here, I dedicate my personal tribute to this great photographer.
In the 1950s, two great street photography books were published. The first was the famous “Image a la Sauvette” (also known as “The Decisive Moment” in the English version) by Henri Cartier Bresson, published in the 1952. We know very well the ability of the great French photographer in capturing unique moments “on the fly,” as well as his great attention to composition. In the same decade, another master, the Swiss photographer Robert Frank made a two-year trip traversing 48 states in the USA. He shot more than 750 film rolls while traveling on a second hand car with his wife and two children. He selected 83 photos, published in his famous book “The Americans”, in 1958 (French editions). The English language edition was published one year later, and was enriched with the introduction by Jack Kerouac.
Much has been written about the random nature of these photos, often taken suddenly without an exact focusing and sometimes with a wrong exposure. However, the “Lomographic” character of these photos was mistakenly mythologized. Their force is not due to the blurrines, presence of grain or wrong greyscale tones, but instead they are important because they show the “other side” of the American way of life.
In the decade following the Second World War, the official image of the United States conveyed a sense of irreducible enthusiasm, richness, and opulence, together with a great pride of the ruling class. All this vanishes the moment one views the photographic sequences in the Frank’s book.
These images, sad and melancholy, show people which never seem to get fully comfortable with their environment; sometimes, there’s a sense of loneliness and loss on their faces.
While Cartier Bresson argues that a good photo is a joint operation of the brain, heart, and eyes, and believes that photography is able to find the harmony hidden in the things themselves in this way, Robert does not believe in a universal principle underlying the world. Therefore, he opts for a series of free and random visual sequences, as with daily life. The lack of rational explanation for events and human existence itself brought him closer to the philosophy of the beat generation. For Frank, the reality that surrounds us is not made of decisive moments but rather, of uncertain moments.
Moreover, the work of Robert Frank (as those of his predecessor and admirer Walker Evans) represents a new opportunity for the street photography, separating it from the tradition of the photo-journalistic reportage to put it in symbiosis with the poetry of the other visual arts.
How could I pay homage with my photos taken in Europe, especially in Italy, where the landscape and the way of life is completely different from that of America?
To do this I chose some photos where people seem to move quickly, in hurried comings and goings, or appear in solitary waiting sitting on the steps or on the base of some sculpture. I represented the loss of significance of places and famous monuments (the guy that shows his luxury car in front of the monument to the fallen of wars, or the car parked in front of the bust of a famous Italian Father of the Nation), weary mom pushing a stroller, a guy who comes out in front of an austere priest in the procession of Good Friday, two boys in swimsuit in a sunny piazza French, a solitary ice cream seller, a girl who made some stretching while waiting her audition for the television show X-factor, a man eating his ice cream hidden in the shadows searching for a little refreshment on a very hot summer day, and so on.
I close this article with an emblematic photos of the “consumerism” way of life of our times. During the Feast of the Epiphany, a sea of crowd rushes to grab the thousands of gifts provided by the municipality of Como, my hometown. All anxiously waiting, but who knows what the poor dog was thinking?
You got eyes, dear Robert, and you opened my eyes with your wonderful book!
Salute to the Masters is a series dedicated to great photographers that I like. Before this regular contributor series I posted other tributes for Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, Stephen Shore, Gabriele Basilico, J.H. Lartigue and Gianni Berengo Gardin. I especially love street photography and urban architectural photography.