About two weeks ago I took a notion to write an article reviewing some photo-related books that I felt were, for one reason or another, of particular interest. Actually, the notion occured to me some time ago and I finally acted on it. I found the whole process of writing it to be even more enjoyable than I'd expected; and I can already tell that it's helped my photography. Following is an excerpt from that article. The excerpt deals with Robert Frank's book Black White and Things. I've read much of the critical literature on Frank's work . . . and found it mostly wanting. To my knowledge no one has discussed this book in quite such detail, nor approached Frank's work as a whole in quite the way I feel it warrants. So this is my attempt to rectify that - a beginning, anyway. I post it here because, of course, Frank was (is) a Leica photographer. And because I am eager to get the discussion going. The article this is excerpted from is called Berek's Dog, Seeing Rightly, and a Bottle of Scotch. The other books discussed in the article are: Darkroom (published by Ralph Gibson's Lustrum Press); Open City: Street Photography Since 1950 (National Gallery of Art / Scalo); and A History of The Photographic Lens by Rudolf Kingslake. I suppose I could shop it around to various journals; but I prefer to see it put up here on Photo.net. Since the article is too long, really, to be appropriate in a forum, I sent it a few days back to Brian Mottorshead for consideration. Brian, however, is as you might imagine a super busy guy, what with keeping this site up and all that; so I expect he could use some encouragement. If you'd like to read the balance of this article, elsewhere on this site, drop Brian a note. Meanwhile, here is the excerpt. I look forward to your comments. --------------------------------------------------------------------- Every once in awhile I dive into the deep, deep black pool of Robert Frank. And, whenever I do, I always emerge it seems with more and less than I had on entry. His Aperture monograph, Robert Frank, is a good place to get wet; but, the monograph being something of a hodgepodge lacking cohesiveness and direction Black White and Things is a far better place. Better because of its larger format and superior printing; better also because the images together form a single work. Black White and Things began, the publisher tells us, in 1952 as a spiral-bound volume put together by Frank himself, in three copies - each containing identical original prints. Frank gave one copy to Edward Steichen, one to his parents, and kept the third for himself (until 1990, when he donated it to the National Gallery of Art in Washington). For me perhaps the most interesting thing about this work is how utterly independent it seems of the era in which it was made. The photographs, fifty years after the fact, have lost none of their freshness and knifes edge vitality. Today, when, as Henri Cartier- Bresson recently said, every Tom, *X&$#**X&$#**X&$#**X&$#*, and Harry is a photographer, Frank shows in this book not how it is done, exactly, but that it can be. In his work this book in particular Frank does what Ive always had in mind for myself: make a group of images that are so definitive, there is no pressing need to make more; then, move on to something else (filmmaking in his case). Many of these images, with their impressionistic, mysterious mists and pointillist-like grain, evoke for me nothing so much as the work of Clarenc e H. White; as well as, to a lesser degree, that of Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen Photo-Secessionists all; with the difference being in part that Franks work is wholly honest and, in its own way, straightforward: stripped of all the Victorian romanticism and pretensions to retrograde art that characterized much of the earlier pictorialism (especially the Photo-Secession; White was likely least guilty of this). Not for nothing then that Frank gave a copy to Steichen. (Some of Franks images bring to mind famous paintings, as well in particular, the flâneur view of Gustave Caillebottes Paris Street; Rainy Day, and the high stylization of Seurats A Sunday on La Grande Jatte 1984 but without the bourgeois stuffing!) (I use the term bourgeois, as Vladimir Nabokov once said, in the Flaubertian sense, not the Marxian one.) The absence of romanticism and pretense here isnt the only thing that separates this work from the Pictorial photography of old. The photos of Black White and Things, like all of Franks work, were shot on the fly and are often characterized by odd angles and unusual perspectives; yet in none of them is this gratuitous or, if gratuitous, not without impact. This is impulse shooting, but impulse shooting controlled keyed-in, with exquisite sensitivity, to forms, movement, gesture, shadow, light; and to how all of these together make a palette of manifold possibilities for character, in the landscape of the perceiving, performing eye. The character conveyed is throughout the book changing sometimes haunting and heavy (a woman, somewhat wild-eyed, looking up from shrouds of shadow, the faint trace of a smile on her face); sometimes light but still haunting (the silhouette of a man, in bowler and topcoat, walking alone among mists and trees in mild shades of grey) and the resulting feeling is one of movement and dynamism. This varying, continuous tempo is key to the work as a whole and prefigures Franks move into cinema. Of interest then, as mentioned earlier, is picture selection necessarily the final key in photography, for it gives a body of work, whether one shot or many, its shape, texture, and posture in relation to the planet. Black White and Things was put together just before the period of The Americans and covers much (perhaps all) of the geography Frank had shot in: there are images from throughout Europe, South America, and the U.S. (some of which were later to appear in the latter book). In this context it is made clear, if it wasnt before, that the pictures comprising The Americans were not intended as a criticism of the U.S. in particular; and that in fact picking out a single country for concerted criticism was quite beyond Frank, or quite beneath him. Rather, in his work Frank was (inadvertently perhaps) doing the New World the favor of integrating it into the old one; of merging them together into a world of multiple facets and attributes; but with only one name, his own. (Which is the most any of us can ever do.) This is not the nihilism (Nothing is true, everything is permitted) Frank has often been accused of (wrongly, in my view). Rather, what is implied in his work is simply this: If you are true, the world is likewise. That is whats permitted. With this in mind I ask myself, what is the essential thing that makes the work of Black White and Things so compelling? Even to ask the question requires looking, looking, and looking again. And I find the answer here, in an epigram to the book: a quote from Saint-Exupery. It reads, It is only with the heart that one can see rightly What is essential is invisible to the eye By refusing to serve social issues or observe national boundaries and by managing to see with the heart (in this he remains arguably the most internationalist of photographers) Frank, rather than leveling the world, elevates the psyche to the level of (greater) self-awareness and recognition of itself in others everywhere. And that, after all, is the job of art.