Robert Frank & Burying the Subject

Anyone who aspires to move beyond simply owning a camera and desires to become a photographer typically seeks an application of art or craft that will differentiate his or her images from mere “snapshots.”  One of the fundamental premises of “good” photography that is preached in all classrooms, formal or informal, is that a photographer will use techniques to direct the attention of the viewer.  Such techniques can include the use of controlled focus, leading lines, negative space, the rule of thirds, selective lighting, lighting for separation, or any number of other techniques that guide the viewer’s eyes to a specific location in the frame.  Budding photographers often make the most obvious strides when they forsake the “cluttered,” centered compositions with universal focus of their former efforts and assume responsibility for identifying the specific object of their attentions within a scene.  Most of the technical tools that are the topic of interest to the average photographer relate to this pursuit of subject identification.  As photographers progress from dilettantes and neophytes to more experienced artists or professionals, they frequently begin to associate identification (and typically isolation) of the subject as synonymous with quality. 

However, immediate identification of a subject within a scene is not a requirement for effective imagery, and a failure to consider approaches that integrate the subject more fully in the context of an image will remove some very useful techniques from a photographer’s toolkit.  Photographers who devoutly pursue subject isolation as their holy grail frequently lapse into simplistic “one note” imagery with only single-content and heavy-handed manipulation of the viewer’s attention.   Images in which a single piece of content is promiscuously thrust forward clothed in eye-catching technique are frequently not the images with which viewers develop long-term relationships.  However, an image that “plays hard to get” with the viewer, under the right circumstances, can both generate an enticing sense of mystery and provoke a greater feeling of accomplishment as the viewer successfully interprets the image.    These more challenging images are also by their complex nature more open to multiple interpretations, which will sustain many revisitations and reconsiderations.

A deliberate effort to obscure the main subject of an image can be a very effective method of creating more complex intellectual or emotional experiences for the viewers of a photograph.  “Burying” the subject can allow a viewer to develop an interpretation of the image before he observes the most crucial piece of information, and upon perceiving the subject he is then forced to reevaluate the rest of the image in this new light.  One master of this approach is Robert Frank, in whose images are frequently hidden crucial pieces of information that ultimately transform our perception of the subject matter.

Robert Frank was born in Zurich, Switzerland, but immigrated to the United States in 1947.  One thing that is important to remember in the evaluation of his images is that he commenced his photographic training in a highly formal Swiss commercial photography world, and initially secured work in the US shooting fashion photography for Harper’s Bazaar.  Robert Frank is sometimes criticized for camera technique that deviates from standard practices, but it is important to recognize that those of his images that lack sharp focus, traditionally correct exposure, or level horizons are not presented as such out of an ignorance or inability on the part of Frank to execute “proper” technique. 

In 1955, Frank began his eponymous work “The Americans” under a Guggenheim fellowship to document his view of American culture and society.  While initially reviled by critics as both unpatriotic and devoid of technical merits, the work has gone on to become universally acknowledged as one of the preeminent monographs in the history of the medium.  With his immigrant’s perspective, Frank acutely perceived that beneath the polished veneer of post-war America in the 50’s, tensions bubbled that included racial injustice, inequality of women in society, the place and perception of homosexuality in the culture, and the fundamental accommodation of the public to becoming a consumerist nation.  With the benefit of hindsight, most can now recognize that this profound examination of American culture in the 50’s is not unpatriotic in its desire to elucidate the issues festering beneath the surface at the time.

Image from Robert Frank's The Americans

Image from Robert Frank's The Americans

The style of photography demonstrated in The Americans de-prioritizes purely technical photographic manipulations in favor of careful organization of content. Plate 19, entitled “Canal Street,” (see above) is a perfect example of using a deliberately obfuscated subject in order to heighten the complexity of the image and create a richer overall experience for the viewer. At first glance, this image reads as a fairly straightforward lateral view of a busy sidewalk. There are a number of people in the image, most focused primarily straight ahead as they mingle in opposing directions. The image seems fairly benign and quotidian upon initial examination. However, any careful viewer will ultimately stumble upon the only individual in the image who is directly engaged with the camera. On the left of the frame, there is a caucasian man whose face is diagonally obscured by the man in front of him, but who is clearly eyeing the camera with what could variously be interpreted as apprehension, suspicion, or even anger. Regardless of how one interprets this man’s expression, it introduces a layer of tension into the scene that was previously absent. This forces us to reconsider the remaining people in the scene in a new light: now they are unaware (or deliberately ignoring) this new conflict in the frame. As we examine the rest of the scene, we may also see on the opposing side of the frame that an African American woman in the crowd whose face is obscured in almost an identical pattern to the upset man, visually connecting these two subjects. It also appears that she may be looking straight at him: the only one in the crowd who is aware of him and the new tension in the scene. Combined with the preceding plate (the famous Trolley shot, also taken in New Orleans, where the African Americans sit at the rear of the trolley), this image is highly suggestive of the racial tensions bubbling beneath the superficial crust of the American 50‘s. This image serves as an excellent example of the fact that an obscured subject can be a very effective means of layering interest in a photograph, because it makes the viewer dig deeper into an image, and it can also prompt a reevaluation of the more obvious subject matter once the real subject is discovered.

In a contemporary age where attention spans are measured in seconds and kilobytes, and where the rich texture of human experience is typically sacrificed on the altar of convenience, most photographers are unable or unwilling to consider the idea of forcing their viewers to work harder and to gamble that a work of less profligate charms will retain their interest long enough for its subtler qualities to reveal themselves. However, a thoughtful and calculated organization of worthwhile content will ultimately retain its value and interest much longer than a technique-driven image in which a thoughtful examination of content is secondary.