“A picture is worth a thousand words”
Write an essay of 1,000 words on an image of your choice.
The image can be anything you like, from a famous art photograph to a family snapshot, but please make sure that your chosen image has scope for you to make a rigorous and critical analysis.
Copyright Robert Frank
Motorama – Los Angeles – Robert Frank
This essay interprets a single image, reflects on its meaning and places it in a wider artistic, historical and political context. It also presents personal reflection about a single image and the artist’s intent.
The image that is the focus of this essay is Robert Frank’s: ‘Motorama – Los Angeles’, taken from ‘The Americans’ published in 1958.
Frank, a Swiss born photographer needs little introduction, ‘The Americans’ makes a major contribution to photography’s cannon, described by Peter Schjeldahl, art critic of The New Yorker as: ‘‘one of the basic American masterpieces of any medium.’’
‘The Americans’ was the product of a road trip in three parts, over several years. On coming to America Frank’s association with Edward Steichen, then the curator of Photography at MoMA and with photographer Walker Evans led him to successfully secure a Guggenheim grant to fund the project.
Motorama – Los Angeles at first glance might appear one of the less iconic images in ‘The Americans’. The image denotes a dark scene that on closer inspection reveals the illuminated interior of a car seen thorough its windscreen. Cars and people framed through windows are recurring tropes in Frank’s work. This image isolates the windscreen in a sea of darkness, hints of chrome in the highlights imply an expensive automobile at night. The image alone reveals little about the cars location. The framing and printing place emphasis on the car’s occupants. All are children, but one stands out in particular, his face half lit, half in shadow stares directly out at the viewer. It is this face, self-assured and assertive in its expression, flanked by the two others, both staring at this protagonist, as if seeking approval or waiting for instruction that creates what Barthes (1979) would describe as the punctum: ‘that accident which pricks or bruises me’. The interplay of the expressions of the car’s occupants raises questions to the viewer about the relationships of the occupants. The absence of adults and the unknown location present additional questions to consider.
The occupants, protected in a steel and glass sanctuary from the surrounding darkness and all that connotes, could be an allegory about wealth, class, race and division. The car as a symbol of prosperity is not new. Two decades earlier, Margaret Bourke White’s image of African Americans queuing for aid in front of a hoarding depicting a white happy family through the windscreen of their car, anchors it as a symbol of American prosperity. The hoardings captions read: ‘World’s highest standard of living’ and ‘there’s no way like the American way’. Frank’s subtler image, like Bourke Whites earlier work, raises questions about the validity of Americas view of itself in the 1950s as a place of growth and prosperity. Indeed, during Eisenhower’s two terms of presidency the administration only balanced the budget on three occasions. Frank’s image doesn’t refute that Americans have wealth and happiness, but rather that this is not universal or evenly spread.
But all may not be what it seems, Motorama was GMs annual show of its latest models. It’s likely that Frank made this image at the show in March 1956. Does this contextual information shift the meaning of the image, now simply a group of boys sitting in a show car? Does it change what is connoted? Connotations are subjective and they may still be valid, but it raises questions about precisely what Frank was communicating in this work.
Frank’s work certainly provoked a range of reactions and has been used to question a nation’s view of its self, presenting an alternative view of America that chimed with the ‘Beat’ generation who’s literature and poetry also challenged the assumptions about the American dream. As Jobey (2009) states:
“Frank’s book was condemned almost unanimously when it was first published, but for decades now it has been recognised as a work that identified a cultural shift in America; that showed the country back to itself, and more clearly than most of its inhabitants cared to acknowledge.”
However, Dunford (2011) presents an argument for Frank’s work being hijacked by commentators wanting to make political arguments about America in the 1950s. In doing so Dunford suggests they have robbed it of its aesthetic and iconographic content. He cites Frank’s work being referenced by sociologists without any use of or reference to an image at all.
Barret’s (1988) notion of the ‘external context’ of an image might help understand where Frank’s work has been located and how the connotations present in ‘The Americans’ have become a tool for political and or sociological critique, as he suggests: the meaning of any photograph is dependent on the context in which it appears.
What a single image can connote and how widely varying interpretations can be drawn suggests the viewer ultimately constructs their own meaning in spite of the rich and varied commentary available about Frank’s work and its meaning. It is perhaps through Frank’s own words that the best insight is gained into the meaning and purpose of this image and his wider work. Writing in the U.S. Camera Annual (1958) Frank says:
“My photographs are not planned or composed in advance and I do not anticipate that the on-looker will share my viewpoint. However, I feel that if my photograph leaves an image on his mind—something has been accomplished.”
Frank’s view of different facets of American life has certainly left an image in people minds, it might not however be the one he envisioned himself and in conclusion we might ask the question, does that matter?
(1000 words –excluding quotes)
 Peter Schjeldahl, Quoted in Dawidoff (2015)
 Sarah Kennel (2014) describes the three components of Frank’s road trip in her lecture to the Bowdoin College
 In researching this essay 8 distinct versions of the image were found with differing crops and varying degrees of darkness and light in the prints
 Bourke White’s image was part of an assignment looking at the impact of the 1937 flood of the Great Ohio River in Kentucky that displaced many residents. Source: Cosgrove 2014
 The Eisenhower Era 1952-1960- AP United states history Study Notes, found at: ww.apstudynotes.org/us-history/outlines/chapter-38-the-eisenhower-era-1952-1960/ (Accessed March 2017)
 Motorama was only held once in Los Angeles during the period Frank was working on The Americans. Frank started his road trip in July 1955, too late for the only other time Motorama was in LA Source 1- Kennell (2014) Source 2- GM Archive found at: https://history.gmheritagecenter.com/wiki/index.php/1956_Motorama:_Design_for_Dreaming
 Beat Generation writers and artists such as Karouac, (who wrote the introduction to The Americans) Ginsberg and Burroughs questioned materialism, wealth and the inclusivity and equality in American society Source: http://www.online-literature.com/periods/beat.php
Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida, Vintage Classics-Random House, London
Barrett, T. (1986) Teaching about Photography: Photographs and Contexts Art Education, Vol. 39, No. 4. (Jul., 1986), pp. 33-36. Found at: http://www.terrybarrettosu.com/pdfs/Barrett%20(1986)%20Photographs%20&%20Contexts.pdf (Accessed March 2017)
Campany, D. (2014) The Open Road- Photography & the American Road Trip, Aperture, London
Cosgrove, B. (2014) Behind the Picture-The American Way and the flood of ’37, found at: www.time.com/3879426/the-american-way-photos-from-the-great-ohio-river-flood-of-1937/ (Accessed March 2017)
Dawidoff, N. (2015) The man who saw America-Looking back with Robert Frank, the most influential photographer alive, New York Times Magazine found at: www.nytimes.com/2015/07/05/magazine/robert-franks-america.html?_r=0 (Accessed March 2017)
Dunford, T. (2011) Looking at Robert Frank’s “The Americans”- New English Review found at: http://www.newenglishreview.org/custpage.cfm/frm/90393/sec_id/90393 (Accessed March 2017)
Dunford, T. (2012) Miss reading “On the Road” New English Review found at: http://www.newenglishreview.org/Terry_Dunford/Misreading_%22On_the_Road%22/ (Accessed March 2017)
Frank, R. (1958) U.S. Camera Annual 1958 , p. 115 found at: www.americansuburbx.com/2012/07/robert-frank-a-statement-1958.html (Accessed March 2017)
Frank, R. (1959) The Americans, Stieidl (2008 Reprint), Gottingen
Howarth, S. (Ed.) (2005) Singular Images-Essays on Remarkable
Photographs, Tate Publishing, London
Jobey, L. (2009) Photographer Robert Frank: holding a mirror up to America, The Guardian, found at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/jan/29/robert-frank-america-photography (Accessed March 2017)
Kennel, S (2014) Robert Frank: Nobody’s Home, Bowdoin College Lecture found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rfEhCoWcvrc (Accessed March 2017)
O’Hagan, S. (2004) The Big Empty- The Guardian, found at: www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2004/oct/24/photography (Accessed March 2017)
O’Hagan, S. (2014) Robert Frank at 90- The Photographer that revealed America won’t look back. The Guardian found at: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/nov/07/robert-frank-americans-photography-influence-shadows (Accessed March 2017)
Papegoerge, T. (1981) Walker Evans and Robert Frank – An Essay on Influence, found at: www. americansuburbx.com/2010/07/theory-walker-evans-and-robert-frank.html (Accessed April 2017)
Reflection and Self EvaluationAs noted in my preparation entry on my blog, I struggled with this assignment and needed additional time to complete it. This was in a large part due to spending too much time overthinking the whole exercise. I have learned something from this though through the difficulties I experiences. Sometimes you just need to produce a piece of work, ‘warts and all’ and just submit it, there is always scope to redraft based upon feedback. In this instance, I managed to create a significant block for myself by over thinking and worrying too much about my essay. I will try not to make this mistake again!
Demonstration of technical and Visual Skills: I used my knowledge and Frank and his work to undertake further research in the preparation of the essay. My references demonstrate a genuine engagement with the assignment and I have tried to make good use of primary and secondary sources in constructing the essay. I have used learning from earlier activity in this course and in Expressing Your Vision to produce a coherent response to the challenge of the assignment.
Quality of Outcome: The essay meets the core requirement of the assignment but would benefit from critique and view in order to make a more robust response to the question. I see my submission as being partially complete.
Demonstration of creativity: This is a hard criterion in the context of an essay although I have used a range of sources and reflections on franks work to produce this essay. I think the range of material demonstrate an attempt to produce a worthy response to the assignment all be it an in complete one at this stage. I await tutorial critique in order to refine what I have produced at this stage
Context: In the context of this section of the course and the requirements in the essay remit I feel I have started to respond to the question. I feel that the issues raised and the position I have taken in this work demonstrate an appropriate engagement with this section of the Context and Narrative course, I have more to do though to not only refine this essay but also to develop my writing around art. I need also to be more succinct, I really struggled with the 1000 word limit, which I recognise is part of the challenge in effective writing about art
Summary: I have had a good stab at this assignment but I am dissatisfied with what I have produced. I have set myself the task of reading more about ‘writing about art’ in order to try and overcome the barriers I experienced in this assignment.