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“Robert Frank: London/Wales”

At the Corcoran Gallery of Art to July 14

“Both Sides of the Street:

Celebrating the Corcoran’s

Photography Collection”

At the Corcoran Gallery of Art to July 28

There is no question that Robert Frank is a pivotal figure in modern photography. In 1958, a Paris-based publisher released Les Americains, a book of nearly 100 black-and-white photographs the Swiss-born New Yorker had taken during a Guggenheim Foundation-sponsored trek across the United States in 1955 and 1956. Ironically—and despite a strongly positive response in Europe—the book had trouble finding an

American publisher.

When Grove Press finally published the book as The Americans in 1959, many U.S. critics howled. In the words of photographic historian Beaumont Newhall, Frank “had deliberately chosen the sordid, the neglected and the forlorn to represent this country.” But Frank’s Beat-inspired artistic vision—characterized by its mood of alienation, jarring juxtapositons, and disregard for conventional composition—was merely ahead of its time. Within a few years, The Americans had become arguably the most influential work of photography in the second half of the 20th century.

This is the backstory to a pair of exhibitions now showing at the Corcoran Gallery of Art: “Robert Frank: London/Wales” and “Both Sides of the Street: Celebrating the Corcoran’s Photography Collection.” “London/Wales” features almost 90 images made by Frank during lengthy visits to London and Caerau, Wales, between 1951 and 1953. In London, Frank concentrated on documenting the city’s wealthy bankers; in Wales, he chronicled the men who did the exhausting and grimy work of coal mining. “Both Sides of the Street,” meanwhile, is designed to put Frank’s work into historical context through a sampling of what other photographers were producing both before and after The Americans.

Corcoran curator Philip Brookman—whose close relationship to Frank, now 78 and living in Nova Scotia, made the exhibition possible—touts “London/Wales” as a turning point for Frank, maintaining that these two projects “set the stage” for The Americans. That much is undeniably true. But though it is a pleasure to view dozens of smartly made and largely unexhibited photographs by an artist as important as Frank—and though these images can certainly be appreciated by newcomers to Frank’s oeuvre—viewers ought not get carried away about the photographs’ significance.

Four-and-a-half decades after the publication of The Americans, it’s clear that the creative power of “London/Wales” derives less from what it pictures—or even how it pictures it—than from the restless energy one senses welling up within an artist on the verge of a true masterpiece. Though images from The Americans are almost nonexistent on the Corcoran’s walls, they haunt these transitional works like the Ghost of Robert Frank Future.

Both substantively and stylistically, Frank’s images of bankers and miners seem a generation—or more—older than they actually are. The miners practice their trade in a town with few if any modern trappings. They bathe in tin wash buckets and light their cigarettes with blasts of flame from a blowtorch. Their town’s grime is so all-encompassing that eyeballs and lips are the only light tones in these dusky portraits. Even the sheep in Wales, Ben James (1953) are covered with a sooty gray film.

In London, the pace of life is faster: Buses zoom through roundabouts and men strut importantly on their way to the office. But Frank’s subjects wear anachronistic top hats and use fussy walking sticks to navigate streets that, in their own way, are almost as frozen in time as Caerau’s. Frank’s London is populated by white-gloved chauffeurs, antique-looking sedans, and coal haulers. Artistically, too, Frank’s grainy black-and-white prints seem backward-looking, differing greatly from the snappy, ultrasharp images produced a decade or two earlier by such progressive modernists as Edward Weston and Ansel Adams.

Equally important, Frank mostly portrays his subjects with uncharacteristic forthrightness. His rich Londoners were usually shot from a distance, and often without the subjects’ knowledge; they drip with antipathy to upper-class arrogance. Frank’s photographs from Wales, by contrast, exude genuine empathy for the downtrodden, prematurely aged miners he encountered. It’s an approach reminiscent of WPA photographs of migrant workers and drought-plagued farmers, and it seems to have little to do with the wide-ranging, unsparing irony that made The Americans so controversial in the Eisenhower-era United States.

Such factors might be an argument for categorizing the images in “London/Wales” as been-there, done-that photography. After all, Bill Brandt, one of the photographers Frank visited during his stints overseas, had spent the better part of the ’30s doing similar documentary work in industrial-era Britain, mostly in the same grainy black-and-white tones that Frank would later use. And Frank’s images of urban youngsters in London call to mind the earlier work of such U.S. photographers as Ben Shahn and Helen Levitt.

Still, it would be a mistake to write off “London/Wales” as just another recapitulation of early-20th-century documentary photography. In London (1951-1952), a bulldog on a chain leash snarls at the photographer as a half-dozen other men—including the dog’s unseen master—stare in the opposite direction, their backs to the camera. In City of London (1952), two men in raincoats and bowlers stride past each other on a sidewalk, caught at the precise moment when their arms appear to lock, turning them into flesh-and-blood paper dolls. And in London (1952-1953), a man calmly heaves a double bass up a flight of stairs—the kind of off-kilter Sisyphean tableau that would have fit right in next to the famous tuba-headed man Frank would capture for The Americans.

Other images also point clearly toward the gimlet-eyed approach that animates Frank’s later work. A photograph of distracted London commuters on a bus presages a composition that Frank used to more successful effect for The Americans’ Trolley—New Orleans. The headless torso of a trinket vendor in London (1951-1952)—caused by cropping, not by murder—introduces a motif that recurs in The Americans. And the spare but junk-strewn wasteland of London (1951-1952) is merely the flip side of the absurdly overgrown, junk-strewn wasteland pictured in Backyard—Venice West, California, another image from Frank’s later project.

The pre-1958 photographs in “Both Sides of the Street” make even more thematic connections—and prove an important point: that the edgy vibe we now associate with Frank actually existed long before The Americans. The exhibition unearths a Lisette Model image of an odd-looking man waving a flag, a Weegee photograph of a hyperkinetic crowd of kids, a boldly geometric Roy DeCarava composition that features a youngster walking along a starkly lit sidewalk, an Andre Kertesz pairing of a light bulb and a crucifix, and a cheeky photo by Mark Markov-Grinberg in which an enormous sculpted hand appears to be plucking a Soviet star right off the top of a building. Each of these images is imbued with the piercing insight and wit we associate with Frank. Frank’s main—and not insubstantial—contribution to the history of photography, “Both Sides” reveals, was to sustain those qualities over an entire book.

If Frank wasn’t the first conceptual photographer, he was definitely in the vanguard—an artist who used a medium long employed to communicate modest narratives to create a kaleidoscopic collection of far-flung but thematically coherent moments. The techniques he practiced on a small scale in Wales and London fully blossomed when he applied them to something larger: the moods and mores of a 3,000-mile-wide nation. This opened the door to countless future projects of concept-driven documentary photography—represented in “Both Sides” with works ranging from William Eggleston’s meditations on the everyday South to Lewis Baltz’s “new” Western landscapes.

Yet perhaps the most enlightening feature of these exhibitions is the inclusion in “London/Wales” of a small number of Frank’s contact sheets. One chronicles the series of images the artist captured on a foggy street corner with a gaggle of girls. Frame by frame, Frank hovers around his subjects looking for the perfect composition. After a half-dozen attempts, he finds it: a vehicle pulling toward the camera, its rear door open, seemingly spewing out a girl who skips away in the opposite direction. And only one of the two similar images taken fractions of a second apart captures precisely the right sense of motion and balance required to make it a gorgeous (and discomfiting) visual experience. Seeing these contact sheets is almost as good as watching Frank in action, and it dramatizes the elusive combination of luck and skill required to take a great documentary photograph.

Given how well-known The Americans is, it’s understandable that the Corcoran didn’t include more than a couple of that book’s images in “London/Wales.” Whether by design or not, Brookman’s decision also avoids overshadowing a minor body of work with a much greater project. But even if rescuing Frank’s London and Wales photographs from obscurity hasn’t unveiled a masterpiece, it has invaluably illuminated the creative process that led to one. CP