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Robert Frank’s Empathetic Photographs At the Metropolitan Museum

Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans

Through January 3, 2010

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, N.Y.C.



In a 2008 photograph by Spencer Platt (Getty Images), a pedestrian wearing a red hooded sweatshirt and jeans and carrying a backpack walks down a rundown Detroit street. Behind him, graffiti covers the red and white brick buildings. Scrawled on one wall in enormous thick black letters, which are much larger than the figure, is the word “Help.” In thinner lettering, partially obscured by the other graffiti inscription, someone has written: “It don’t exist,” presumably responding pessimistically to the call for help.


Platt’s photo can be seen as potentially optimistic – the pedestrian is in motion, and as it’s impossible to know where he is headed, one might speculate his walk might represent progress – but a pessimistic reading of the image seems more appropriate. The photograph appeared on Minnesota Public Radio’s website in November 2008, during the same week that representatives from Chrysler, Ford and General Motors traveled to Washington to seek government money to stave off bankruptcy. The shabby street and the pedestrian are stand-ins for Detroit’s catastrophic economic woes.



Trolley-New Orleans, 1955.” Gelatin silver print. 21.9 x 33.2 cm (8 5/8 x 13 1/16 in.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Purchase, Ann Tenenbaum and

Thomas H. Lee Gift, 2005 (2005.100.454)



If MPR had looked to its archives, it could have conveyed a similar effect with a photograph from the mid-1950s. Robert Frank was such a visionary photographer that images from his “The Americans” series, in which he drove all over the country in his Ford in 1955 and 1956 and took thousands of pictures, could populate many of the news stories filed in the past two-and-a-half years on the financial crisis – particularly his photographs from New Orleans and Detroit.


Born to a Jewish family in Switzerland in 1924, Frank was a young man when, funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship, he drove 10,000 miles through 30 states and took more than 27,000 photographs of blue collar Americans. Frank was an outsider looking in at America with fresh eyes – and “Looking In” is a very appropriate title for the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit of Frank’s work – as being Jewish contributed to his being an outsider.



Parade-Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955.” Gelatin silver print. 21.3 x 32.4 cm (8 3/8 x 12 3/4 in.). Private collection, San Francisco



Although it is tough to spot blatant Jewish content in Frank’s photographs, his faith was a very important and very unfortunate part of the process of creating the photographs. Police officers in McGehee, Ark., arrested Frank on November 7, 1955, for driving a car “heavily loaded with suitcases, trunks and a number of cameras” that bore New York plates, and for being “shabbily” dressed and clearly a “foreigner.” An officer explained that one of the police’s mandates was to “watch out for any persons illegally in this country possibly being in the employ of some unfriendly foreign power and the possibility of Communist affiliations.” Frank had also been arrested previously in Detroit.


Frank’s Jewish identity (he was asked why he, as a Jew, returned to Europe after World War II) and his children’s “foreign” names (Pablo and Andrea) also came up in the hours of questioning, according to several of the essays in the Metropolitan Museum catalog. This ethnic and religious profiling made quite an impression on Frank, who said it gave him extra “compassion for the people of the street.” “But they did far more than that,” writes Sarah Greenough in the catalog, “they amplified his anger, sharpened his eye, and transformed his previous affinity for those on the margins of society into an almost visceral engagement with them. They also made him fearless.”


Yom Kippur – East River, New York City, 1954



Frank’s “Yom Kippur – East River, New York City, 1954″ is the only image in “The Americans” to depict obviously Jewish subjects (though a textiles shop bearing the name Rudolph Levy in “The Fruit Peddler, Early Afternoon, 1951″ could also include an implied Jewish subject). In “Yom Kippur,” Frank photographed a group of Jews standing outside overlooking the East River. The men wear hats, and it is hard to count how many people are actually depicted (five men and one child might be a good guess), as the group blends together and appears to be a single organism. Across the river, a bridge can be discerned through the fog.


The Metropolitan museum catalog makes a big point of mentioning that the men look away from the camera (the boy is seen in profile). A review in the Forward by Benjamin Ivry calls the boy’s gaze “dewy-eyed,” while Eric Herschthal, writing for the New York Jewish Week, notes that “you could not argue easily that Frank was shunning his own flock,” even though Frank rarely photographed Jews, since they would not have been prominent in the many places he stopped on his trip.



U.S. 285, New Mexico, 1955.” Gelatin silver print. 33.7 x 21.9 cm (13 1/4 x 8 5/8 in.)

Mark Kelman, New York.



But neither writer nor the catalog to the Metropolitan Museum show asks what the Jewish men and boys are doing on the High Holidays, standing beside the river. A lone comment on the Forward’s website asks, “Isn’t it more likely that the people in this photograph have gone to the river to celebrate Tashlikh (casting bread into the river) on Rosh Ha’Shana?” I agree completely with the Richard who posted that comment. The photograph is probably incorrectly labeled, and should read Rosh Ha’shana. The men are clearing symbolically casting their sins in the river, and rather than turning their backs on the viewer out of arrogance, humility, shame, self-preservation or any other such emotion, they are no doubt specifically facing the water as they cast the bread into the water.


The notion of New York Jews casting their bread-sins in the water could have carried particular significance to Frank, who immigrated to America and who was arrested and persecuted for being a foreigner and a Jew. Just a bread-sin’s throw away from the location of the tashlich stands the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island, a very important symbol of Jews and immigrants. The Jewish men and boys reciting the prayers stand firmly on New York (and thus American) soil, but they can be viewed as turning their backs on New York and looking out on the water – perhaps symbolically looking back to Europe.


It might not be too speculative to consider their “sins” not only their literal deviations from the Torah law, but also the same “sins” for which Frank was harassed so many times on his photographic voyage – the misdeed of being different and Other. If Frank said the persecution he felt as a foreigner and a Jew helped him better sympathize with working Americans throughout the country, perhaps the ritual depicted in “Yom Kippur – East River, New York City, 1954″ might be the greatest microcosm for considering the entire series of “The Americans.”


Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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