As touched on in Johannes’ previous posts (Discovering/Uncovering the Magic and Difficulties and Successes), there is one part of the photographic process that is often forgotten or undervalued.  The exercise of picking out the images from a shoot which together create a coherent narrative in a photographic series is an ability every photographer must develop.

Robert Frank (yes him again, but a certain kind of photography wouldn’t be the same without him) over the two years he spent documenting America’s social strata of the 50’s took a staggering 28,000 photos.

Of those 28,000 only 83 photos made it into The Americans, a total of 0.2964285% of all the shots taken. It is at this point that I start to wonder, feeling a little bewildered at the skills this task might require. Where and how to start? What kind of methodology is used to accomplish the sorting and selection of the photos? Is there a predetermined layout of ideas and intentions or does the narrative come together once the pictures are captured and processed?

Proof Sheet, The Americans. Robert Frank

According to Hegel’s law of “not yet”, art (as understood aesthetically) does not yet contain the true and proper self. Similarly Christoph Menke states “Art is an act of making that escapes the subject because it is incapable of knowing and asserting itself.” If we accept such ideas and expand them to the art of photography, then the simple act of choosing a subject, framing it and releasing the shutter can’t be considered the end of our input into the art. It is the selection and editing of the work after its creation which completes it.

Proof Sheet, The Americans. Robert Frank

On this basis, does a picture when considered as a stand alone entity express nothing more than a  flat representation? Is it only when a series of photographs have been encapsulated  to make statement that we can talk about it as art and meaningful?

Frank doesn’t help us much here; he never gave exhaustive answers or explanations on his approach. Though he does tell us that when an artist completes a work, “he is finished with it. He should make no explanations.” This perhaps indicates that it was up to the artist to decide when the work becomes art.

We also know that he wanted to express his opinions on America and not simply bear  witness to the surroundings. Further to this, Frank wanted to create rhythm. Rhythm based on the presence and absence of people, rhythm based on the all encompassing American flag, rhythm based on empty hotel rooms, TV sets, jukeboxes and elevators.

Parade - Hoboken, New Jersey. Robert Frank

In the book Looking In Robert Frank’s The Americans he suggests that he had no preset ideas for the topic of each section, but instead let the themes grow out of the act of linking the photographs together. The whole process for Frank  was more intuitive than planned.

This returns us to Christoph Menke, in his essay The Power of Judgement – A Debate on Aesthetic Critique, he asserts that “the aesthetic doing is not knowable because it is not self‐conscious.” Menke clearly argues that all aesthetic pursuits come not from concious action, but from the intuitive sub-conscious, as in Frank’s process for The Americans.

It is well recognised that The Americans is a masterpiece of photographic art from one its finest. The most famous and less known art critics, journalists and photography lecturers alike have praised, analyzed, questioned and ripped the book to pieces since its release.  We possibly know everything that can be known about it, but we will probably never crack the code of its making. How can somebody go through the ordeal of selecting 83 images out of 28,000 shots and still be sane? How can somebody make such a profound work and yet  make it look so simple and easy?

Perhaps Federico Fellini has the answer, when discussing the lightness of mind in an adult creative working context he tells us;
”Bisogna avere la serietà dei bambini quando giocano”
“We need to have the seriousness of children when they play”.

For further reading:
The Power of Judgement/A Debate on Aesthetic Critique (Sternberg Press   ISBN978-­‐1-­‐934105-­‐08-­‐5)
Looking In Robert Frank’s The  Americans (Edited by Sarah Greenough, National Gallery of Art, Steidl, distributed  by  Thames  &  Hudson)