Robert Frank: London/Wales
“War is over; the heroic French population reaffirms superiority. Love, Paris, and Flowers…but London was black, white, and gray, the elegance, the style, all present in front of always changing fog. Then I met a man from Wales talking about the Miners and I had read How Green Was My Valley. This became my only try to make a ‘Story.’”
— Robert Frank
This is a war story of a different kind, of the aftermath. It takes place in nineteen fifty-one, fifty-two, fifty-three, when coal was still hauled down the mountain railway to heat the cities and fuel the fires of a post-war industrial economy. The skies are solid gray from fog and smoke; a miner returns home from work underground as a banker emerges from the dense snowy air, walking the street with agility and purpose. These British bankers and miners lead obverse lives, facing each other across the gallery walls but treading very different paths. Who are these people of the London streets and Welsh valleys, the financiers and colliery workers? What is their relationship to the past and to each other? Robert Frank’s photographs locate them in the context of their environment, and in doing this he suggests a social narrative that connects these people of the city and the country in 1950s Britain.
For more than fifty years, Robert Frank has repeatedly broken the rules of photography and filmmaking to expand their expressive potential. Best known for his seminal book The Americans, first published in 1958, and his experimental, elegiac filmPull My Daisy, made in 1959, he has pioneered a revolutionary approach to photography and filmmaking that combines autobiography, poetry, and emotion with the logic of gritty realism.The Americanswas like a mirror reflecting 1950s America through European eyes. His revelation that the best way to tell a story was searching, imperfect, and free of rhetoric became a model for future artists struggling to understand the ambiguities of their society. However, Frank’s creative voice, which came to fruition in The Americans, had evolved through years of experimentation and practice.
Born in Zurich, Switzerland in 1924, Frank immigrated to the United States in 1947, following World War II. His art was transformed by this experience. In New York he worked on fashion and editorial projects but his goal was to become independent, an artist able to pursue his own vision without relying on picture magazines such as Life for work. Between 1949 and 1953, before he photographed The Americans, Frank traveled back to Europe twice, on extended trips to France, Switzerland, Great Britain, Spain, and Italy. During his visits to London and Wales he developed an increasingly unique style derived from and responding to both European and American aesthetic and philosophical traditions.
Comparing the images in this exhibition, we discover focused juxtapositions of opposites: money and work, rich and poor, stagnation and change, alienation and redemption. Here Frank rendered a unique tension between these opposing groups of images, referencing the geopolitical differences and social polarization within Britain at that time. Between London and the Welsh mining village of Caerau, he forged a more complex story than he had previously told, one that is truly subjective in form. It brings together his personal views on these different societies and avoids reciting journalistic facts about them. Each project informs the other to offer a broader, more nuanced view of social conditions in relation to the subjects’ interior lives. Together, the images inLondon/Walesadd up to something more, approaching an authenticity that is not evident in single pictures or separate stories. Robert Frank’s photographs of London and Wales document a small corner of history, but they also set forth the struggle and spirit that defines the character of a place and its people. His expressive combination of chronicle and testament opens a doorway through which to view that spirit.
Robert Frank: London/Wales was organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. The exhibition is supported by: the Women’s Committee of the Corcoran Gallery of Art; PRO HELVETIA, the Arts Council of Switzerland; Jeanne and Otto Ruesch; the Swiss American Cultural Exchange Council; and The President's Exhibition Fund.