Book review by Douglas Stockdale •
After purchasing Robert Frank’s PARIS, published by Steidl in 2008, I have been hesitating to publish my book review. Part of my procrastination was purchasing a copy of Frank’s The Americans, published by Steidl as part of their “Robert Frank Project”, as a baseline for comparison. I am happy that I did buy The Americans, as it does make the design changes for Frank’s PARIS more apparent in how it reflects the changes in how a book’s narrative can evolve over time.
As background, PARIS is a re-edit of Frank’s prior work from photographs made between 1949 and 1952 when he bounced between Europe (mostly Paris) and United States (mostly NYC). Two other recently conceived bookworks that Steidl has recently published of Frank’s early photographs are London/Wales and Peru, both of which I have not seen.
For me, it was of great interest to see the photographs that Frank was prior to creating The Americans. My biggest concern is that the body of work is edited some 50+ years after the fact with all of the historical baggage and layered with current book design thinking. If we were to step back in time, perhaps we could understand what the context that Frank was developing prior to The Americans. But we can not, so we need to see what Frank has extracted now from this early body of work.
The re-published The Americans, in which Frank has a voice in the design, has a contemporary 2008 book design. Unlike The Americans, every photograph in PARIS bleeds off the page, with the implication that the photograph has captured only a part of reality. I am not a big fan of photographs being printed across the gutter with the resulting loss of content tucked into a tight book binding (and the inclusion of my finger to keep the pages open). We get a glimpse of the potential and not the whole story. The alternative reading is that similar to the full bleeds, the photograph is meant to provide the entire visual story and the missing content buried in the binding creates a visual mystery.
Together enough of the pieces of the various photographs within this book provides evidence of Frank’s wit and keen observation, even with my limited knowledge of the French language, his vision that provided the delightful essence of The Americans. The book does provide a broader insight into how Frank’s photography was developing at the time, with images of people on public transport or the juxtaposition of an older woman and a contrasting sign, themes we will see later in The Americans. There are more atmospheric images in PARIS, dealing with figures in the hazy fog, adding a different context of mystery, which we do not see as much of in his later work.
If you want to have a great book about Robert Frank in your photographic book collection, I highly recommend you purchase The Americans, and maybe consider purchasing PARIS as well.
PARIS, Robert Frank
Robert Frank, 1924 – 2019, Born Switzerland, had resided New York City and Mabou, Nova Scotia.
Publisher: Steidl Publishers, Gottingen, Germany, 2008.
Essay; Robert Frank in conversation with Ute Eskidsen
Hardcover with dust jacket, sewn binding, printed by Steidl, Gottingen
Designed by Sarah Winter and Gerhard Steidl