After leaving (staggering out of) “Looking in: Robert Frank’s The Americans” at the Met, I stood for a moment by a Rodin statue pondering the exhibition–another photography exhibition where no photography was allowed. Robert Frank’s pictures were a searing burn of visual truth made at a time when voices were silenced by blacklists and guilt by association. It took courage to make art in the ’50s, perhaps, but if you were unknown or underground enough, maybe it didn’t really matter. In the end, Frank’s dark–though beautiful–vision of America surfaced, and changed forever how we saw ourselves, and how we viewed and made photographs.
I snapped a few desultory shots of a poster directing the hordes of museum goers to the start of the exhibition. It had on it the famous photograph of a New Orleans streetcar with those unforgettable faces. And then, materializing out of the crowd, a face I knew, someone who is as fine an heir to the tumbling poetry and prose of the Beats I know, the songwriter and poet Frank Tedesso. Here’s a bit of one of his song lyrics:
it’s raining in tibet,
all of the holy men are getting wet
it’s only snowing on my street,
but my heart is melting away from me…
There’s a madman up in the attic
stompin’ the blues in his chains
he sings my songs, he wears my clothes
he answers to my name
love me because i am crazy’
as crazy as you are beautiful
love me because i know forever
runs through me and you
and these flesh and bones
de flesh and de bone
is that the holy ghost on the saxophone
sometimes a man has the need to roam
to roam from these flesh and bones
Go here to hear some of his songs.
As I wandered out of the museum, and breezed down 82nd street snapping pictures on my way to the subway, it struck me how self-conscious photography has become since the time of Robert Frank’s intuitive exploration of the country. We seem always to know where we are going and what we will find when we get there. Even serendipitous moments have a calculated predictability. Street photography has a staged quality, and staged photography has subsumed the idea of spontaneity.