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The Photography of Robert Frank and Nan Goldin

By Jeffrey Lee

JULY 27, 1998:  The progress of photojournalism from galley to gallery (and from newsprint to coffee-table book) mirrors the history of the camera itself, an invention that was around for 70 years before museum-goers realized art could be made with it. Beginning with the WPA and Magnum photographers of the Depression and World War II, reportage photography's road to acceptance as art was even more arduous than that of "pure" photographers like Paul Strand or Edward Weston, whose farmhouses and bell peppers of the '30s already showed a kinship with Modernist painting. It wasn't until the '60s that newspaper pictures began to look at home under gallery lighting.

It's impossible to imagine postwar photography without Robert Frank, and I think the same can be said about Nan Goldin's influence on photography since the '70s. These two artists, so different in personality, style and intent, have more in common than you might think. Looking at the two new releases from Scalo Publishing, the 40th-anniversary reissue of Frank's The Americans and Goldin's new work in Ten Years After, is like watching the recent history of photojournalism unfold.

Both books are about movement: albums of restless pictures in which people and things rarely alight. Even Frank's lunch-counter loiterers and Goldin's disheveled couples, smoking in bed, seem ready to exit the frame. Both photographers are masters of the jostled angle and the expressive blur of people walking, gesturing or of things seen from the window of a moving car. And both collections, with their different approaches, grapple with the connection of reportage to self-expression. The lines of influence are diffuse, but I think it's fair to say that without a Frank there wouldn't be a Goldin.

Nan Goldin has taken some critical blows since her 1996 Whitney retrospective. It's easy to see why her pictures are attacked for their "narcissism." She has called her late-'70s sequence, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, "the diary I let everyone read," and that's what she's continued to do for 20 years. But the flipside of her relentless focus on her own life as subject matter is her intimate concern with lives that intersect with hers. If Goldin appeared in front of the camera again and again in Ballad, she has gradually receded, through later books like The Other Side and Tokyo Love, to an exclusive position behind it.

The pictures in Ten Years After--two visits to Naples, 10 years apart--are of friends: Cookie Mueller, Gregory Corso and assorted old friends in 1986, new friends (and a handsome new lover) in 1996. All show Goldin's candor and sympathy. And there are a couple of striking Italian landscapes, travel-poster spreads in garish Cibachrome colors. In them, you begin to see Goldin shifting her weight from self-inspection toward a frank look at the world around her.

Robert Frank moves in the opposite direction. His people tend to be anonymous, not so much individuals as examples--cowboy, waitress--and you see each one only once. But like Goldin's, his portraits are intimate, engaged. Frank is not a disinterested observer; his interest is evident in every frame. A photographer like Walker Evans does everything he can to exclude himself from the picture he's taking. Frank doesn't. Cumulatively, The Americans is as much about the photographer's sensibility as it is about folks sitting in diners or hurrying along sidewalks.

Maybe that's why Barbershop through screen door--McClellanville, South Carolina occupies a page almost exactly in the middle of Frank's book. A mesh of shadows and sunlight, the photo shows the shop's interior overlaid with doublings and reflections that make it hard to tell what's outside and what's in. (The picture seems to have been taken through both screen and glass.) But the unoccupied barber's chair, a little askew against a shelf of tonics and lotions, is framed by an unspecific shape that--if you look closely--resolves into the reflection of Robert Frank, holding his camera up to the door. It's the closest thing to a self-portrait in the book.

Scalo's design is stylish and the reproductions do equally well by Nan Goldin's deep, saturated colors and Robert Frank's gently modulated black-and-white. Ten Years After is Scalo's fourth Nan Goldin publication, and The Americans is part of the German publisher's ongoing project of reissuing all the books published during Frank's 40-year career. (Ten Years After: paper, $24.95; The Americans: cloth, $34.95)

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