Robert Frank: American Contacts at Danziger Gallery

Art Scene

Robert Frank: American Contacts at Danziger Gallery

The Americans, a documentary photography book by legendary photographer, Robert Frank, is credited with pushing the possibilities of photography books into new territory. Published in the late 1950s, its content challenged America’s prevailing image of itself as an idyllic 20th century representation of the American Dream. Instead, Frank revealed a poignant take on class, poverty and privilege in the country.

Robert Frank, Contact Sheet #65

In the exhibition, American Contacts, viewers were offered a behind the scenes look at all of the contact sheets from which the final images for The Americans were selected. Frank shot 81 rolls of black and white film, and selected 83 images. In Danziger Gallery’s presentation, 33 of the contact sheets were installed, unframed with clips and pins, and enlarged to twice the size of normal 35mm image frames. The remaining contact sheets were available for perusal on a table in the gallery’s lower level.

Robert Frank, Contact Sheet #1

Looking back from the 21st century at the images, a noticeably segregated country reveals itself. The absence of diversity may have felt quite odd to some viewers, especially inhabitants of racially and ethnically mixed cities like New York, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco and others. Several of the contact sheets documented fairs and parades where the American flag swung with pride. Patriotism, celebrated by gentlemen and ladies in top hats and fur coats, as well as in more casual settings, is well represented.


Installation View, Anders Jones

One contact sheet appeared to document an Orthodox Jewish gathering in the street; where men were perhaps reading from the Talmud. A few frames on another sheet showed a racially diverse mix of students in a classroom, perhaps early experiments in the desegregation of public schools. A handful of images showed African Americans, mostly in rural settings, although one set of frames documented what looked like a leisurely afternoon spent cruising in a convertible by African American teenagers.

Robert Frank, Contact Sheet #22

There were very few images that did not include people, but one striking frame captured an empty drive-in movie theater lot. Shot at a distance, the frame offered a beautiful panoramic of the countryside and appeared to be shot at dusk. Continuing in the vein of entertainment, movie premiers, picnics, cowboys, bikers, and what looked like a dirt-bike drag race offered interesting views into 1950s leisure culture across socioeconomic classes.

Installation View, Anders Jones

As a whole, the exhibition offered an interesting peak into moments of daily life and celebration in mid-20th century America, while simultaneously offering clues to the country’s current discord. In some ways, studying the frames of any of the contact sheets, looking at what preceded and followed each shot, and moving from one uniquely insular study of human culture to another, generated more questions than answers.