On Exhibit: Robert Frank's unvarnished Americans | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Exhibit: Robert Frank's unvarnished Americans 

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Back in the American dream days of 1955, a young Swiss immigrant named Robert Frank took a used Ford and a Leica and the proceeds of a Guggenheim fellowship and set off on a two-year trip down the wild highways of this country. He took a lot of photographs and made a book out of them which was published in 1959 with an introduction by Jack Kerouac. The book was called The American and a lot of people didn't like it.

It wasn't neat, dressed-up Sunday best and smiling, wasn't white-bread-vanilla, didn't follow the rules for "good" photography or acceptable subject matter. Robert Frank's pictures were spontaneous black and whites snapped furious-fast at the pace of life, with no time and no stomach for technique, just aiming hard and straight and deep for the real things he saw.

And what he saw: the people no one else was looking at--the invisible people, the blacks and Mexicans and Indians and neglected young and forgotten old and poor white from the mountains, all eating and sleeping and hustling and making their way in this great country as best they could.

Starting out in New York City Frank covered much of the country, shooting 800 rolls of film, some of it right here in Chicago, where he caught our cigar-smoking politicians (sleazy, greedy Chicago) wheeling and dealing and laying hands on--stroking, patting, bringing their man 'round.

He photographed a coffee shop in Indianapolis and a men's room in Memphis and a bunch of hot-blooded kids in bathing suits making out in a park in Ann Arbor--all bare legs on blankets, their cars two-toned, chrome-mouthed monsters parked in a herd around them. He got those lighted glass cases with the pies and doughnuts in the restaurants, the little round fans humming on top, and the glow of the jukeboxes, and a picture of leather chairs in a Houston bank that are emblems for that city today as they were then--gleaming leather chairs, decadent and empty. He got the factory workers in Detroit and the Miami Beach matron and streets and starlets and macho men out west (feet planted apart, hands in pockets, saying love me, love me though they dont know it). And everywhere, the Stars and Stripes us looking at ourselves right through them to remind us of who we are.

A lot of people got tense over these pictures. Editors of Popular Photography, for example, said the book was tawdry, sick propaganda and constituted an attack on the United States. But from the beginning it had a following among hep young photographers who knew Frank had the real thing and wanted to learn from him, and over the years, it has gained recognition as an important, even seminal work. When Columbia College was looking to establish a starting point for its collection of contemporary photography, the publication date of The American was chosen. Now the college's Museum of Contemporary Photography is holding an exhibit of the 83 prints from The American and you can go right in and have a look at them for yourself.

The Museum of Contemporary Photography itself is as open, free, and welcoming as any old beatnik or hipster could wish--no fees to pay when you come in, just a friendly book to sign at the door (if it pleases you) and three quiet, putty-colored galleries. Upstairs, the permanent collection of more than 2,600 prints is kept in a cold room they call the vault, the black and whites at 60 degrees, the color prints 20 degrees colder in two white Kenmore refrigerators with simulated wood handles (someone did a study and determined this is the absolute best way to store them).

The museum will host a reception Wednesday evening, January 11 (black tie optional), from 5 to 7 in honor of the 150th anniversary of the invention of photography and the museum's recent accreditation by the American Association of Museums. The reception is free and open to the public. The museum is located at Columbia College, 600 S. Michigan, and is open to the public without charge, Monday through Friday from 10 AM to 5 PM, and Saturday from noon to 5 PM. "The Americans" will continue through February 1.

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