Rodeo - New York City, 1954 / Photograph © Robert Frank, from The Americans
Robert Frank’s America is a tough America. Of all the people depicted in the 83 photographs comprising Frank’s The Americans, only a few smile. Most people have empty expressions while they gaze into a bleak future. They are neither dreaming nor pondering. The small number of those devoted to evading a dreary fate either grimace or scowl. They are defiant.
Despite the diversity of Frank’s subjects—old or young, rich or poor, beautiful or ugly, rural or urban, gay or straight, black or white—all represent the stars and stripes. And what are Americans seeking? Freedom, presumably. Their austere posture is aimed at a life that promises more than it delivers. Frank travels across America trying to capture the moment when the naivety of each individual cracks and a flood of hard sadness comes gushing through.
Since the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit of Frank’s photography is arranged to unfold in a specific order, the initial photograph sets the tone. It is entitled Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey, but we see no parade, no joy, no celebration, no destination. All we see is a brick building with two people looking out of their respective windows. The woman in the left window is partly obscured by the shade of a lowered blind, while the face of the person in the right window is completely covered by an American flag attached to a pole and flapping in the wind. It’s eerie: There is something ominous about an American flag—a widely recognized symbol of freedom—erasing the existence of an individual.