Robert Frank in 'U. S. Camera'

Phillips’ 13 July New York Photographs auction features four iconic images reproduced in 'U. S. Camera Annual 1958.'

Phillips’ 13 July New York Photographs auction features four iconic images reproduced in 'U. S. Camera Annual 1958.'

Robert Frank Newburgh, New York, 1955. Estimate: $60,000-80,000. 
Photographs, New York. 

Robert Frank’s photographs of America, made over the course of several cross-country car trips and funded by a series of Guggenheim grants between 1955 and 1956, show the contradictions and complexities of the nation during that decade. Frank’s full selection of 83 images was first published in Paris in 1958 and shortly thereafter in America as The Americans. Highly controversial at the time, The Americans has become one of the most important and influential photographic books of the 20th century. Predating the publication of The Americans was a portfolio of Frank’s images published within the pages of the 1958 U. S. Camera Annual. With a preface by Robert Frank’s mentor and champion Walker Evans, and a statement by Frank himself, the 33 images constitute a declaration of purpose and serve as an overture to the masterwork yet to come. Phillips is pleased to offer four photographs featured in the Annual’s portfolio in our 13 July auction, granting an opportunity to reflect upon the importance of this early publication of Frank’s work.

1958 U. S. Camera Annual. 

It’s important to acknowledge that in the 1950s Robert Frank had yet to achieve any measure of status in the pantheon of great photographers. He made his living, like most photographers, through a blend of editorial and commercial work and pursued his personal work on his own time. Guggenheim grants, earned with the support of two great eminences in the photography world, Edward Steichen and Walker Evans, allowed Frank freedom to travel and to capture on film a vision of the country that was unsettling to some and revelatory to others.

Above all, I know that life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference. Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love. 
– Robert Frank

1958 U. S. Camera Annual featuring works by Robert Frank. 

U. S. Camera magazine was a publication geared toward both professional and serious amateur photographers. It was popular, prestigious, and ultimately conservative in its pictorial approach, with an emphasis on equipment and technique. U. S. Camera produced an Annual each year, a yearbook that summed up the achievements in the field. The fact that Robert Frank, whose work was temperamentally and aesthetically at odds with the magazine’s usual fare, was selected for the Annual owes much to the clear-eyed vision of the magazine’s editor Thomas J. Maloney who wrote that “Frank is a fine photographer, perhaps because of his philosophy. To it he adds an eye that knows what is effective and reaches a climax in picture after picture that mounts to a penetrating whole.”

Robert Frank U.S. 285, New Mexico, 1956. Estimate: $30,000-50,000. 

One of the four photographs in Phillips’ 13 July auction is Frank’s iconic road image, U. S. 285, New Mexico [Lot 128]. In his introduction, Walker Evans writes, “In this picture, instantly you find the continent. The whole page is haunted with American scale and space.” Indeed, the photograph is of-a-piece with On the Road, the seminal 1957 novel of youthful American wanderlust by Jack Kerouac, who also wrote the introduction to The Americans.

Newburgh, New York [Lot 87] shows Frank’s interest in the many subcultures burgeoning in postwar America, in this case biker culture. Later photographers, filmmakers, and authors – Richard Prince, Kenneth Anger, Danny Lyon, and Hunter S. Thompson among them – would also explore this world, but Frank’s treatment predates them all.

Robert Frank Rodeo - New York City, 1954. Estimate: $30,000-50,000. 

Frank explored, and in some instances exploded, American archetypes, as in Rodeo - New York City [Lot 56], in which a classic American cowboy strikes a laconic pose and lights up a cigarette while leaning against a trash bin on a busy Manhattan street.

Robert Frank Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1955. Estimate: $15,000-25,000. 

Frank’s quietly tender photograph of a young couple on the street, Chattanooga, Tennessee [Lot 68] rounds out our quartet of images from the Annual. It is one of the few images in which he used a telephoto lens to blur the figures in the background. The couple stands out against the amorphous urban backdrop, alone but together.

Seen nearly 65 years after their making, the Robert Frank images presented in U. S. Camera Annual 1958, and the four photographs from this selection on-offer in our 13 July auction, retain all their descriptive and aesthetic rigor, their relevance and power undiminished by the passing years.