Looking at America

Our view: Fifty years ago, Robert Frank photographed an America that couldn't imagine electing a black president

his pictures of jukeboxes and flags recall how far the nation has come

January 19, 2009

A black nanny holding a porcelain-skinned infant patiently awaits her mistress' return outside a store in Charleston, S.C. Her stoic expression suggests the stranger snapping pictures, like the child in her arms, is one more burden to be endured.

Robert Frank captured this poignant image in the late 1950s while traveling around the country. The Swiss-born photographer later included it in his book The Americans, which appeared exactly 50 years ago and is now the subject of a major exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

The America that Mr. Frank photographed was in many ways a very different country from the one that Barack Obama will govern. Certainly it was less tolerant and more inured to the casual racism that existed in many parts of the country. Yet the themes Mr. Frank explored - race, religion, politics, the media, cars, consumer culture and the changing American landscape - remain at the core of our national identity.

Before setting out, Mr. Frank wrote that his goal was to reveal something of "the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere." But the photographs he brought back - pictures of flags and jukeboxes, cowboys and movie stars, drive-ins and TV sets - shocked his contemporaries because, despite the apparent ordinariness of their subjects, they so clearly showed how far short the nation had fallen from its democratic promise. In subsequent decades, however, the nation grappled with equal rights and Wall Street greed, venal politicians and gas-guzzling automobiles, the role of religion in public life and the private search for meaning. We are still trying to achieve a more perfect union at a time when the Cold War has been replaced by the war on terror, rising unemployment again threatens America's prosperity and the government is preparing to take the largest role in the country's economic affairs since World War II.

Yet what Mr. Frank saw more clearly than the critics who called his pictures pessimistic and unpatriotic was the enormous potential among ordinary people to create a more just human compact out of a deeply flawed society. He didn't photograph maids and factory workers and elevator operators to ridicule them but to celebrate the virtues that made them agents of their own destinies. And the eventual successes of the civil rights and women's movements, the growth of an environmental lobby and the movement for gay rights have all largely born out his vision.

Today, the Frank photographs of America at mid-century recall how much has changed since then as well as what has remained constant. Tomorrow, when the first black president of the United States is sworn into office, Americans will take another momentous step in our ongoing democratic experiment.

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