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“Godfrey Frankel:

Contact Prints, 1943-1948″

At Hemphill Fine Arts to May 17

Godfrey Frankel, a Washington-based photographer who died eight years ago at age 82, had a habit of coming up with ideas that were ahead of their time. In his adopted city, the former Clevelandite is best known for the documentary photographs he took in Southwest D.C. during the early ’40s. While working as a nightclub columnist for the Washington Daily News, Frankel haunted the streets and alleys of the predominantly African-American neighborhood, which at the time was widely considered nothing more than a crime-ridden slum. Frankel, however, sensed a more complex reality. Southwest had lots of dilapidated housing, but, as the many photographs Frankel took there demonstrate, it also boasted a genuine community.

Over the past 18 years, Frankel’s work—primarily his images of Southwest—has been shown in no fewer than nine solo exhibitions in Washington. But few viewers have been exposed to another of his iconoclastic efforts: a series of documentary photographs he took in New York between 1943 and 1948. Two years before his death, Frankel told an interviewer from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art that he considered these pieces to be his most important; a decade later, an exhibition at Georgetown’s Hemphill Fine Arts finally gives them the attention they deserve.

Unlike Frankel’s efforts to document Southwest, which are celebrated for their substance, the 28 images on display at Hemphill are notable more for their style. Though these works ably document the sights of a now-bygone New York, other photographers—most notably Berenice Abbott and Ben Shahn—had already captured a similar milieu of storefronts, front stoops, and ball-playing children before Frankel arrived in the city. What sets Frankel’s work apart is a simple but bold bit of artistic inspiration.

Frankel’s idea was to print his images small. When he was ready to make a print, he didn’t enlarge the image at all, but made contact prints from his camera’s 2-and-a-quarter-inch-square negatives. Following this course produced a highly detailed photograph squeezed into a tiny square. More often than not, Frankel cropped his images to make them tinier still.

It cannot be overstated how radical a step this was. Photographers regularly make contact sheets—that is, unenlarged positive prints of negatives they have taken. But few artists have considered such sheets to be anything more than a tool for winnowing down a day’s work for later printing. Contact sheets made by such photographers as Garry Winogrand and W. Eugene Smith have, after the artists’ deaths, graced museum walls as part of major retrospectives. But the decision to display such artifacts stemmed from curatorial efforts to explicate the artistic mind at work, not because the artists deemed their contact sheets to be finished works of art in and of themselves.

Frankel, by contrast, clearly intended his tiny prints to be objets d’art. Not only did he print, crop, and frame them individually, he urged others to follow his example. In the November 1948 issue of Popular Photography, the artist wrote that amateur photographers should reject “the stereotyped rules of photography” and instead experiment with small, unenlarged contact prints. “The essential thing,” Frankel wrote, “is the detail itself, and the ability of the photographer to extract it. After some practice with the small print, you will notice a new gem-like quality not found in big enlargements.”

It seems odd that few—if any—photographers in the relentlessly experimental 20th century followed Frankel’s lead, because the works at Hemphill surely qualify as gemlike. A fine case in point is the show’s very first image, Man on Staircase (1947). The photograph shows a rear view of a man racing up a set of stairs, emerging from a dark subway into the bright open air. His quick pace makes his outline appear slightly blurred, and the sinuous lines of his body contrast with a handrail that seems to slice diagonally through his body, giving the image plenty of visual interest. But the photograph’s most striking feature is one that’s very easy to overlook: a wall of brightly lit tiles that create a perfect and nearly glowing white grid in the background.

As impressive as Frankel’s composition is, its drama would be diminished if the photograph were larger. Photographs as small as this one demand intimacy: The viewer has to get right up to them, so close that his nose brushes the glass and his breath steams the surface. From such a short distance away, the eyes focus and refocus as they move across the tiny space, peering at details rendered on so small a scale it seems amazing they were captured by the camera at all. For a viewer lost in this little universe, apprehending the simple contrasts among the running man’s shadow, the rising staircase, and the gridded background is a sort of revelation. When these elements resolve themselves, the image becomes almost magical.

This quality is evident in other pieces, as well, including New York, Lower East Side (1947), which captures three boys playing in the street. The image mirrors—consciously, perhaps—Shahn’s famous 1939 painting Handball, which was based on a photograph Shahn took at a playground not far from where Frankel made his piece. But whereas Shahn’s painting and photograph emphasize the planar forms of an intersecting handball wall and an unmarked blacktop, Frankel’s image is alive with detail: signs, architectural detailing, fire escapes, peeling paint, even a stack of cans in a grocery-store window. Much like Eadweard Muybridge’s animal-motion studies and the early zoetrope images they inspired, Frankel’s depictions of seemingly banal events take on a special intensity because they force us to see things in a way we’re unaccustomed to.

Even in simpler compositions, Frankel packs a surprising visual complexity into a small space. In New York, Taxi and Clotheslines (1947), a receding row of clotheslines hung between two buildings provides the viewer with an unexpected sense of depth. Shadows, 3rd Avenue Elevated (1947) and Bicycle and Chalk Drawing, New York (1947) play artfully with the layering of geometrical forms on the flat blacktop of the street—the former with the slightly curving shadow of an overhead rail line, the latter with an aerial perspective on a bicycling child who follows a hand-drawn chalk line as it spirals into a targetlike X.

But Frankel’s finest image is probably Boy at the Hydrant, Water Play, Lower Eastside, N.Y.C. (1947). It depicts a boy crouching near an open fire hydrant; the water forms a distinct cross shape, almost obscuring a crouching figure in the distance with a translucent veil. Like the best work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the photograph eloquently captures the balletic visuals of a split-second composition. Yet unlike Cartier-Bresson’s photographs, Boy at the Hydrant is a mere 2 inches square. When an image is writ so small, the basic act of looking becomes a challenge: On first glance, the viewer takes in the whole of the composition, but he actually sees very little of it.

The difference between large and small prints is, at root, an illusion. Objectively, the size difference ought not matter as much as it does, because the same visual information is presented either way. In Frankel’s case, however, it becomes a sleight of hand—and one successful enough to change good photographs into great ones. CP