Robert Frank Flamingo

Robert Frank

IN THE FIRST two photographs of Robert Frank's triptych Mabou, 1994, a black bird gazes downward, then flaps away, its black feathers standing in crisp contrast to the white background. But on the third image on the next page, it becomes obvious why the bird looks so desiccated: It's dead and hanging from a string. Any hint of movement was an illusion, captured and created with Frank's single-reflex lens.

Frank reached prominence almost 40 years ago with his book The Americans, shot in a swift cross-country trip. It was in Frank's pensive shots of Americans gazing into the distance that he argued that memories are best represented by those photos that embody the unremarkable moments; that life contains as much dreaming and imagining as it contains doing; that history sighs as much as it gasps.

Flamingo, a book published on the occasion of Frank winning the Hasselblad Award, reviews Frank's oeuvre and sees him turning his aesthetic of evocation inward. In his recent work, he combines multiple images in a single composition, and as his photos become more intimate, physically drawing the viewer in with short depth-of-field and soft focus, they also become more distanced through the use of multiple frames. In Yellow Flower, New York City, 1992, hazy shots of a flowerbox bookend pictures of a typed manuscript. In Tokyo, Hokkaido, April 1994, the photographer's hand enters a frame, observed by two women who gaze out from the page. Frank further complicates the task of reading the photograph by introducing words, etching on negatives and scrawling on prints with markers.

At times Frank seems unprepared for how letters demand an entirely different kind of (re)cognition from the viewer, but in other works the risk pays off. In Mabou, December 1984, the bleeding ink splashes that spell out "I love you," "I hate you," and "Mother nature" mimic the work's dripping icicles and pockets of snow, creating a cold, haunting space that hints at isolation, mania, and perhaps fear. Although his photos are now more constructed than journalistic, Frank still explores the force of memory with an engaging, perceptive eye: That his work has moved away from his vérité preoccupations makes it no less gripping. Seeing the strings does nothing to dispel the illusion.

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