This Saturday I went to see the long-awaited Robert Frank show at the Met. Frank's seminal book The Americans is one of a handful of photography books that I know so well, having looked at it so many times over the years. The show, entitled "Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans" was nonetheless revelatory. Included are letters written from the road from Frank to Walker Evans, one of which giving a detailed account of his arrest in McGehee, Arkansas. There was also a beautiful little book that Frank had put together for his first wife Mary, in which tiny prints of scenes of Paris were interspersed with his own writing. In the dedication, Frank quoted St-Exupéry from Le Petit Prince: "L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux, on ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur."
To me, this is power behind Robert Frank's work. The images have an emotional potency that seems to come directly from his heart. In one of the most personal and touching photos, which he put at the end of the book, is an image of his wife Mary and son Pablo, eyes half-closed, looking exhausted in the car by the side of an empty desolate road. By photographing them from outside the car, Frank seems to acknowledge his separateness from them and the demands he makes on his family in the pursuit of his art.
His work after The Americans, made in Nova Scotia where he lives part of the year, is even more directly personal and unflinchingly raw.
Sick of Goodbys, Mabou, 1978
In the words of Jack Kerouac, who wrote the introduction to The Americans (the writer's first and second drafts are included in the show), "Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world."
Having filled my head with Robert Frank, I found myself looking at the pictures of another photographer, Robert Polidori, whose work is poised at the other end of the spectrum. Taken with a large format custom-designed camera, Polidori's photographs, from the crumbling grandeur of Havana to the destruction of war and flood to the immaculate preservation of Versailles, are celebrated for their seemingly dispassionate details. As Polidori stated in his book After the Flood , his acclaimed series of images of the aftermath of Katrina, "When images are soft, they just remain evocative, or in your imagination. You get a mood, and it remains on the emotional level. The viewer has to put more of him or herself into it. When there is more detail, it's like that old expression : There's no fiction stranger than reality. Reality will compose the most extreme paradoxes and contradictions and adjacencies, which can't be understood." So no grainy, black & white, moody shots for Polidori. Instead, every detail – whether it's a crumbling ceiling or a wall marked with bullet holes – is vividly present.
Senora Faxas Residence #1, Miramar, Havana, 1997
Disdainful of the title "architectural photographer," he calls himself a "habitat photographer," claiming, "I'm interested in the way people use buildings, how society transforms them, even over time." Being a very cerebral and erudite photographer, Polidori often references Old Master paintings in his work. This image of Versailles, for example, clearly alludes to the work of Vermeer and other 17th-Century Dutch painters.
Ancien Réchauffoir, rdc, corps central, Château de Versailles, 1985
In another of my favorite photograph, the walls of a building in Beirut, destroyed by war, recall one of the most beautiful and spiritual works of art, Fra Angelico's The Annunciation, a fresco in the Convent of San Marco in Florence.
Samir Geagea Headquarters #4, Rue de Damas, Beirut, Lebannon, 1994
Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, 1438-1445
But Polidori's work is not an empty exercise in recreating great works of art. What his work shows, more than anything else, is man's impulse to build and to destroy, almost in equal measure. While Robert Frank shows us how to look with our hearts, Polidori demands us to look with our minds.