Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York, New York
Purchased by Akron Art Museum, 1985
2015: "Proof" 4/30/15 - 10/25/15, Arnstein Galleries, Akron Art Museum
1997 - 1998: "A 75th Anniversary Celebration of the Collection" 11/15/97 - 1/11/98, Akron Art Museum
1995: "Feelings & Facts: The Changing Role of Documentary Photography" 6/17/95 - 8/27/95, Akron Art Museum
1985 - 1986: "Robert Frank and American Politics" 11/8/85 - 1/5/86, Akron Art Museum
20 x 16 in., matt
Signed "Chicago 1956" LL; "Robert Frank" LR
upside down poster of Kennedy in empty seats with the text "Our Choice" printed on it.
Collection of the Akron Art Museum
"Life here is very different," Robert Frank wrote his parents soon after his arrival in the United States in 1947.1 Having been involved in conventional photographic documentation in his native Switzerland, Frank must have been hugely unprepared for the diverse cultural scene he experienced on his first photojournalistic assignments in the United States. By 1955, however, when a Guggenheim grant made possible a more focused project involving "a spontaneous record of a man seeing this country for the first time," he was comfortable enough to intuitively react to and capture the chaotic and volatile elements in post-World War II American culture.2 The images, made with a Leica camera, were published in 1958 in France and a year later in the United States as The Americans.3 The book, which was meant to be seen as one person's view of American social culture, evoked an outcry from those who felt that its focus on alienated, lonely people, graceless buildings, and barren landscape presented a distressing and untrue picture of life in this country.
Frank found the American political process to be an especially engaging aspect of his odyssey to understand his adopted country. At the suggestion of a magazine editor but without a specific assignment, Frank covered the 1956 Democratic convention.4 He went on to photograph the inauguration in January 1957 of President Eisenhower and Vice-President Nixon, producing a series of images of American political activities and conventions. Many at the time held these events to be the mark of the nation's most significant democratic right, but in Frank's work they are revealed as bombastic and empty charades, full of sound but not of much significance. Chicago, one of twenty-three works by Frank owned by the museum, is a particularly ironic work that resonates on several levels.5 The empty seats, distant crowd, and upside-down poster may suggest that John F. Kennedy's failure to win the nomination at the 1956 convention was no great cause for regret. However, in light of his subsequent election to the presidency, his assassination in 1963, the aura of glamour surrounding his administration, and the later revelations about him, the image has taken on added meaning over the years.
Other works by Frank also have gained new meaning as time passed, as if the photographer somehow could foresee the cultural topography of the future. The photographer's trips through the American South, for example, resulted in images that subtly but unmistakably signaled the problematic relationships between African Americans and whites—relationships that a few years later were to erupt into civil disturbance. Similarly, his focus on road travel and the icons of popular culture foreshadowed the explosion of artistic and popular interest in these aspects of American life in succeeding decades.
Following the publication of The Americans, Frank's involvement in still photography waned and for some ten years he was engaged in making films. Later, he returned to photography, combining portions of individual still images and motion picture film in collage compositions. He believed this would better express his sense of life's flux than would single straight images. Whatever means Frank has used, however, his aim always has been to capture a bit of the truth, even though truth, in his words, is "a bit like a slippery fish escaping from your hands."6
- Naomi Rosenblum, 2001
1. Greenough, 26.
2. From Robert Frank’s Guggenheim application, quoted in Sarah Greenough, “Fragments That Make a Whole: Meaning in Photographic Sequences,” in Greenough, 110.
3. Chicago, 1956, one of more than 20,000 frames Frank shot on his Guggenheim-funded travels, is not reproduced in The Americans.
4. Amy M. Schiffman, “Robert Frank: Politics as Unusual,” American Photographer 13 (November 1984): 52–57.
5. Chicago is one of sixteen Frank photographs about politics in the collection of the Akron Art Museum (others have different subjects). The group consists of ten photographs from 1955-56 and six images of the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.