A Frank appreciation

An exhibition of work by a legendary US photographer reminds Adrian Shaughnessy just why New York, despite its fading charm, will always be his favourite city

A recent trip to New York confirmed, for me at least, that the Big Apple is still the capital city of the world. It continues to exude an awesome power that is close to unmatchable.

And yet, there are signs that the great metropolis is coming to the end of its reign as the pre-eminent global supercity. Beijing, Mumbai and Rio are breathing down its neck in the race to take the title, and despite the gleaming steel and glass towers – unexpectedly radiant in some freakishly sunny November weather – it occurred to me that many aspects of New York’s infrastructure look ramshackle. The old-fashioned bridges and the crumbly subway are signs of a city with its ancestry in the 19th century.

But I’m biased. I refuse to see New York as diminished. Its culture is in my bloodstream: the Jazz Age hip hop of Duke Ellington; the surgical precision of F Scott Fitzgerald’s prose (I defy anyone to read the descriptions of New York in The Beautiful and Damned and not feel a burning urge to walk down Fifth Avenue); 1940s film noir; Abstract Expressionism; the saturnine cool of Miles Davis; the Beats; Andy Warhol; the Velvet Underground; the sleazy glam of Studio 54; Don DeLillo; and the graphic design of Herb Lubalin, Lou Dorfsman, Paula Scher and Stefan Sagmeister. All these, and countless other aspects of NYC, have combined to form the way I see the world and to make me the person I am.

To that list I would have to add the photographs of Robert Frank. My visit coincided with a dazzling show of Frank’s pictures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show is a reappraisal of his most famous work, The Americans – the book that catapulted him to fame and which caused the post-war US, then at the height of its imperial power, to look at its dark side and to reluctantly acknowledge that not everyone shared in the greatest economic miracle the world had ever seen.

Like so many of New York’s greatest figures, Frank is an immigrant. Born in Zurich, he received a traditional Swiss photographic apprenticeship where he learned the mixing of chemicals, printing techniques, retouching and photo- and typographical montage (something that can be seen in his use of lettering, often gouged out of the emulsion of prints, in his later, more selfexpressive work).

Frank left Switzerland for the US in 1947. He worked at Harper’s Bazaar doing fashion shoots, but in 1955, with a grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, he went on an epic journey round the US. Yet instead of photographing the nation’s grandeur, he chose to shoot its poor, its rejects and its dark places. He shot lunch counters, jukeboxes and lonely faces at windows.

He shot everything with a revolutionary and egoless disregard for the conventions of framing, composition and subject matter. Few of Frank’s subjects ever seem to be aware of his presence. His pictures are often out of focus. They appear found rather than composed.

It was the vision of an outsider – a Jewish man with a foreign accent – in a nation of outsiders, and it changed the way every photographer who followed Frank has seen the world. Now aged 95 – he might just be one of the US’ greatest living artists. And as a long-time resident of Bleecker Street (although he has also lived in Nova Scotia since the 1970s), he is yet another compelling reason to love New York.

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