Robert Frank’s fine flatulent black joke on American politics can be read as either farce or anguished protest. It is possible that Frank himself was not sure which he meant. In 1956, he was still a relative newcomer to the United States, and his basic reaction might well have been one of dumb amazement as he investigated the gaudy insanities and strangely touching contradictions of American culture. A similar shock has been experienced by many others who have been suddenly transplanted as adults to this exotic soil. A few artists and intellectuals have even managed to turn the experience to their creative advantage, if their direction had not yet been too firmly set, as though a new country might be a substitute for being born again.
It is tempting to believe that Frank’s emergence in the fifties as a photographer of profound originality was a measure of his success in meeting on artistic grounds the very difficult challenge of a radically new culture. It is in any case undeniable that his work underwent a remarkable change during these years. His earlier, European work had been in comparison almost luxurious: graphically rich, poetically elliptical, tender in spirit, half painterly in surface. By the time of Adlai Stevenson’s second campaign these suggestions of homage to known artistic virtues had vanished; Frank’s work had become dry, lean, and transparent. He had forged a new style: a weapon that was as clean and functional and American as a double-bitted ax.
The subject matter of Frank’s pictures was not in itself shocking. Everyone knew about chromium and plastic luncheonettes, and tailfins and jukeboxes and motels and motorcycles and the rest of it. But no one had accepted without condescension these facts as the basis for a coherent iconography for our time
Frank postulated that one might with profit take seriously what the people took seriously. His proposition worked because of the force and penetration of his vision. The photograph reproduced here is a perfect specimen of what was at the time a new genus of picture. The human situation described is not merely faceless, but mindless. From the fine shiny sousaphone rises a comic strip balloon that pronounces once more the virtue of ritual patriotism. On either side of the tuba-player stand his fellows, as anonymous and as dependable as he. It is somehow proper — funnier, sadder, and truer — that the occasion should have been an Adlai Stevenson rally.