Assignment 4- Reworked and rewritten

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 a personal reflection on a single image, the artist’s intent and what might be being communicated.

The image 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[1], 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,[2] over several years. On coming to America, Frank’s association with Edward Steichen, then the curator of Photography at MoMA[3] 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 to be 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[4] place emphasis on the occupants of the vehicle. 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 asks questions of 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 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[5] 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 symbol of the American prosperity. The hoardings caption reads: ‘Worlds highest standard of living’ and ‘there’s no way like the American way’. Frank’s subtler image, like Bourke Whites earlier work, questions the validity of Americas view of itself in the 1950s as a place of growth and prosperity. Indeed, during Eisenhower’s[6] 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 it might not be a universal experience.

But all may not be what it seems, Motorama was General Motors annual show of its latest models. It’s likely that Frank made this image at the show in March 1956[7]. Does this contextual information shift the meaning of the image, now simply a group of boys sitting in a show car?

The image is beautifully cinematic, a screen within a screen, like a still taken from a film noir movie, evocative of Hollywood’s renditions of Raymond Chandler[8] or Dashiell Hammett[9] novels and Frank is highlighting the three-young occupants and not the car.

The title too is important, although the image was taken at an event to showcase new automobiles, this may not be what Frank was revealing in this image. It is the three young people in the scene that Frank captured and like the new cars at the show they too were on display. The next generation, most likely to inherit the fruits of the American dream, already being groomed for a future far from the experience of many. The expression on the face of the principle protagonist confirming a confident assertive view of themselves. The meek might inherent the earth, but these future presidents, praetorians or philanthropists in waiting, are the generation that will inherit the best of the American dream and Frank’s image tells us that they know it.

Like Chandler and Hammet’s fictional private detectives, Marlowe and Spade, Frank and his camera are revealing a truth that might otherwise have been hidden.

Thinking about this image in the wider context of Frank’s work, it certainly provoked a range of reactions and has been used to question a nation’s view of itself, presenting an alternative view of America that chimed with the ‘Beat’ generation[10] 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 appropriated 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. Citing Frank’s work being referenced by sociologists without any use of or reference to a single image.

Barrett’s (1988) notion of the ‘external context’ of an image might also 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.’

In summary, what this single image reveals is the investigative power of Frank’s camera, his bold use of iconography, referenced to wider media of the time, notably cinema, to present to the original viewer in 50s America, three young people, who just might be charge in the future. As an outsider, Frank was uniquely placed to do this, uncontaminated by an American’s view of themself and revealing what was there in plain sight. For the contemporary viewer seeing this image ‘out of time’ it is Frank’s keen eye for the pictorial that tells a story beyond that which is contained within the 35mm frame and in doing so we are offered tangible evidence about the power of the still image to tell a story.

[1] Peter Schjeldahl, Quoted in Dawidoff (2015)

[2] Sarah Kennel (2014) describes the three components of Frank’s road trip in her lecture to the Bowdoin College

[3] MoMA is the Museum of Modern art in New York

[4] 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

[5] 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

[6] The Eisenhower Era 1952-1960- AP United states history Study Notes, found at: (Accessed March 2017)

[7] 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:

[8] Raymond Chandler 1888 – March 26, 1959American/British novelist famous for crime dramas and his character Philip Marlow, a private detective

[9] Dashiell Hammet 1894 – 1961 American author famous for stories like The Maltese Falcon and his character Sam Spade, a private detective

[10] 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:


Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida, Vintage, London

Barrett, T. (1986)  Teaching about Photography: Photographs and Contexts  Art Education, Vol. 39, No. 4. (Jul., 1986), pp. 33-36. Found at: (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: (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: (Accessed March 2017)

Dunford, T. (2011) Looking at Robert Frank’s “The Americans”- New English Review found at: (Accessed March 2017)

Dunford, T. (2012) Miss reading “On the Road” New English Review found at: (Accessed March 2017)

Frank, R. (1958)  U.S. Camera Annual 1958 , p. 115 found at: (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: (Accessed March 2017)

Kennel, S (2014) Robert Frank: Nobody’s Home, Bowdoin College Lecture found at: (Accessed March 2017)

O’Hagan, S. (2004) The Big Empty- The Guardian, found at: (Accessed March 2017)

O’Hagan, S. (2014) Robert Frank at 90- The Photographer that revealed America won’t look back. The Guardian found at: (Accessed March 2017)

Papegoerge, T. (1981) Walker Evans and Robert Frank – An Essay on Influence, found at: www. (Accessed April 2017)



Asssignment 4 – Feedback

I received feedback for assignment 4 from my tutor and as I had expected my assignment needed more work if it is to meet the brief. Whilst there were a number of positive comments about what I had written, the fact that had left a number of questions unresolved meant that the work was unresolved.

The feedback is very valuable though and I will redraft the assignment taking on board the comments my tutor made.

The full feedback can be found here: Assignment 4 Feedback J.O Tutor Report 4

In response to the feedback I sent what is set out below to my tutor:

Dear Matthew,

Many thanks for your feedback on Assignment 4. You will have read in the preparation section on my blog that I had some struggles with this assignment. I don’t have issues with writing but this type of writing is new to me and I recognise I need to work at it. I am pleased that the descriptive element of the assignment appears to have been ok, but I do see that I didn’t reach a proper conclusion and left more unanswered and unresolved. I guess defeating the object of the exercise! I think I hit a point where I just thought I needed to complete the work and submit it or I would have just kept going around in circles.

It has been a valuable exercise though, and your feedback has given me some helpful suggestions about how I might resolve some of the questions I left hanging in the submission. Your reference to Frank’s outsiders eye and the potential influence of European film noir set me thinking. There is something of the cinematic about the image and certainly film noir ‘esque’ (if I can say that!) Rather than the European tradition there is something to my eye, of the Hollywood ‘Chandler’ or ‘Hammett’ atmosphere to me in the image. Also, thinking about the image title, it does suggest something about drama. I think I became to fixed on tracking down exactly what the title meant In a literal sense) and it was this I focused on rather than what Frank might have been intending to communicate. My head works better in the empirical, but I need to begin to operate in the theoretical and the imaginative. I will use these thoughts to commit to a personal perspective that resolves the questions I posed in the essay. To compound arriving at a personal conclusion I think I also felt a bit of a block in arriving at a personal viewpoint given so many others have written so much about the meaning of Frank’s work, although I didn’t refer to that either!

I am interested in the notion of the ‘privileged flanuer’ that you refer to and will look up some of the references you made in the feedback. The idea of critique from those that remain in the mainstream with all its advantages, but critique what is around them seems a valuable area to delve further into. I did a quick search around Wilson’s ‘Outsider’ and have ordered a copy as it looked quite intriguing.

With all the above in mind I am going to redraft the essay in an attempt to come to a firmer conclusion about the image, using the permission that Frank himself gives in the quote at the end of my initial submission.

I will also look up some of the photographers whose work you have suggested that I consider further. Several are names that I am familiar with and Wearing and Crewdson are artists whose work I have blogged about in this course. Others are entirely unknown to me so I will seek them out.

I am pressing ahead with part 5 and pleased with the progress I am making. I have begun this weekend to start to plan, all be it in outline,  ideas for Assignment 5. I am keen that this is a piece of work that reflects what I have learned along the way during C&N. Many thanks again for your helpful critique, it is appreciated.

Best wishes