Monday, April 11, 2011

Frank's View

I've been looking at Broken Manual online recently. I'm not sure what to make of it. It's definitely more conceptual than Soth's first two books, both of which are personal favorites. Yes, Sleeping By the Mississippi and Niagara were also conceived as thematic projects, but the magic of those books is they're also collections of great individual photos. You can take any single photo from either book and it stands up on its own, or it can play with others.

In Broken Manual, which tells a loose narrative of caves and hermits, the photos rely more on their neighbors. Many of them depend on being in the book and I don't think they would be successful as single photos.

I've been wondering about this photo in particular.

Frank's View, 2008, from Broken Manual by Alec Soth

I don't know what the story was, if Soth just happened to find himself in Butte and shot the thing from memory, or if he made a special trip and asked for that particular hotel room. Whatever the case, he either wound up one floor lower than Frank, or (more likely) the pipe in the middle ground was extended. Here's how it looked fifty-two years earlier.

Butte, Montana, 1956, Robert Frank

Frank focused on the distant town. Soth on the curtains. What I like about Frank's photo is that it's so banal. A window looking onto rooftops in a small mining town? What is that saying? By Geoff Dyer's reckoning the photo's only purpose is "to confirm that the view, partly hindered by net curtains, doesn't merit a second glance." In fact if you accept the silly premise that banal equals boring, this photo would probably be Exhibit A putting photography on a downward spiral.

I think the photograph itself proves that theory wrong. It's so banal that, in Dyer's words, "it demands that we return to it again and again." And indeed it's been surprisingly influential.

I'm guessing that Andrew Hetherington's hotel room series was at least partly inspired by Frank. What could be more banal than a series of nondescript hotel views? Yet I have to admit I find them strangely fascinating. They're almost as depersonalized as Google Streetview photos, but instead of being shot by a robot they're tracking someone's daily life. Another night, another town, the life of a working pro.

View from Room 315, April 10, 2011, Andrew Hetherington

Peter Marlow's hotel rooms feel a bit more precious. Rather than purely documenting, he uses the rooms as sets for compositional exercises. It's another night, another town, yet the squinted eye never turns off. These photos would never be confused with Streetview.

Cornwall, Falmouth, England, 2009, Peter Malow

Some folks have paid homage to Frank more directly. David Lee Guss's photo could have been shot from the same hotel, though the view is so altered it's hard to be sure.

Coda, Photography homage, Robert Frank, hotel window, Butte, MT, 1979, David Lee Guss

Even coloring books have gotten in on the action.

from The Robert Frank Coloring Book, 1983 Jno Cook

Yes, Frank's photo has had a nice long life of rebirths. The Broken Manual reprise is only the most recent.

It turns out Robert Frank made his image looking east from a middle floor of the Hotel Finlen on East Broadway Street in Butte. In this contemporary view of the Finlen by George Keith, you can see the large pipe that appears in both Frank's and Soth's photos. I've outlined the window where I think the photo was made.

Photo by George Keith, 2007, Wikicommons

Here's a top view of Butte today courtesy of Google, with Frank's view superimposed.

Here's a shot looking down Broadway posted on Flickr by New Tait. I can't tell if it's a colorized photograph or some other type of image, but it seems to be roughly contemporary with Frank's image. The white billboard in the lower right of this image can be seen on the far left edge of Frank's photo.

And here's a modern ground level view looking east down Broadway in Butte courtesy of Google Streetview.

You can easily visit this spot on your own in Streetview and walk up and down the street and do 360s and take in the view in all directions. It makes you wonder if Frank were shooting The Americans today, would be even bother documenting Butte? Would a list of Google Streetview coordinates serve the same purpose?

Alec Soth would probably say no. Otherwise why else would Soth make this photo?

Nome, Alaska, 2006, from Broken Manual, by Alec Soth

It's shot in Nome but it might as well be Butte or Reno or Pocatello or main street in any other small western outpost. Trucks, electric lines, an architecture based on functionality. Banality. I think this is what Frank was trying to show too in 1956. Another day, another town in the life of a traveling photographer.

You can look up the Nome address in Streetview but all you'll find is raw information. The photo won't tell a story. It won't stand on its own. Without a lot of curation and editing Streetview is just Streetview. Another day, another town in the life of a nontraveling nonphotographer.

For me Nome, Alaska describes a lot on its own, but it also leans heavily for meaning, like an old friend, on its the immediate neighbor in the book, Frank's View.


Anonymous said...

"It makes you wonder if Frank were alive today, would be even bother documenting Butte?"

Robert Frank is dead?

RobertB said...

I think rumours of Robert Frank's demise are thankfully "Greatly exaggerated."

Blake Andrews said...

Oops, got ahead of myself. Text altered now. A toast to Mr. Frank!

Stan B. said...

Somehow, I keep looking for the grassy knoll...

Marilyn Andrews said...

I see you've already encountered Geoff
Dyer. It's getting harder and harder to discover something that you haven't already discovered.

Ben said...

This is probably off the subject as most of my posts are, but you know how sometimes you blow by an image in a book for years maybe and don't really appreciate it and then you see the original print and it pops? Maybe that only happens to me but it has happened a number of times. I never really looked at this image until I saw the (an?) original print at the Met a few years ago. Admittedly, I'm a formalist so don't know what the picture says but it is a stunning photograph as an arrangement of blacks and greys. Very emotional. Very nostalgic.

Ben said...

...and VERY lonely. Maybe that's what it's "about."

Anonymous said...

Great post. Not sure Franck and Soth have the same purpose of exposing "banality" though.

John Gomez said...

I think you can see the direct influence of the "View of Easton Pennsylvania, 1936" by Walker Evans in American Photographs. Which Robert Frank was known to carry around in his travels while making the Americans.

Blake Andrews said...

Yes, that photo was probably an influence though it doesn't show any window, so lacks the frame-within-a-frame sense of self consciousness. But both shots are very deadpan.