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Robert Frank and his Frankly American Photographs

The Zurich-born Swiss Jewish photographer Robert Frank, 84, is being celebrated in two New York exhibits, Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans which runs from September 22 to January 3, 2010 at the Metropolitan Museum as well as a smaller show at the Robert Mann Gallery in Chelsea.

Marking the 50th anniversary of the publication of “The Americans” (1959), Frank’s influential book of photographs, the Met show, which was previously seen at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, and the San Francisco Museum, is the occasion for a monumental, meticulously researched catalogue, “Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans – Expanded Edition” ( National Gallery/Steidl Editions). The catalogue notes that wartime Zurich had “several Hitler youth and pro-Nazi groups” and Frank is quoted that as he grew up there, antisemitism was “an organic part of life.” Even now Frank still vividly recalls hearing Hitler on the radio, “threatening — cursing the Jews. It’s forever in your mind — like a smell, the voice of that man – of Göring, of Goebbels.”

When Frank arrived in New York after the war, he was able to empathize with minority communities in his photos, whether Allen Ginsberg and his Beat associates, a trio of effeminate Hispanic men with plucked eyebrows, snapped in New York in 1955, or one of the rare explicitly Jewish images in “Looking In,” “Yom Kippur – East River, New York City, 1954.” In this somber back view of a group of religious Jews, extra vivacity is added by the profile of a little boy wearing a kippah, gazing dewy-eyed at the landscape.

As explained in an NPR interview in February, Frank’s The Americans was originally seen as coarse and gloomy; it is now revered as a classic. The new catalogue makes the intriguing case that American Jewish colleagues like the still-underrated photographer Louis Faurer influenced Frank to abandon Swiss-style technical perfection in photography and aim instead for gritty emotionality.

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