Queue for Robert Frank's Lecture at the NGA, March 26, 2009 - photo by Michelle Andonian
On Thursday afternoon, I, along with over 800 others, ended up in the nation’s capitol for a rare program with photographer Robert Frank and the National Gallery’s curator of photographs, Sarah Greenough. Frank rarely makes public appearances, so it was an opportunity to listen and learn first hand about his photographic work, which currently is the subject of the fine exhibition Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans. While discussing several iconic images from his oeuvre, Frank humbly remarked, “It was a very good day for photography.”
Outside the NGA - photo by Michelle Andonian, 2009
In their hour-long conversation, Greenough and Frank discussed his photography, influences (Bill Brandt and Walker Evans in particular), his love of America, and, most notably for me, a 1955 trip to Detroit to photograph what Frank referred to as “God’s Factory” – the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Michigan. For Frank, the automobile was an important part of the American dream, and he saw it everywhere. He thought it would be a good idea to see the place where cars were made and photographed at the factory for two or three days. It was difficult but worth it. The images were used in a number of his publications over the years including The Americans.
In March 2010, the DIA will open an exhibition of Robert’s Detroit work from 1955. It will be the first time these photographs will be on view to the public and an opportunity to see Detroit and the famous Ford factory the way Robert Frank experienced it at mid century.
Detroit has fallen on more than its share of strange times in recent months, but the museum was bustling this past week with the Norman Rockwell exhibition drawing over 10,000 visitors in its first week and the DIA’s theater filled on Tuesday for an evening program with South African artist William Kentridge. All this good energy has been a boost for staff here at the DIA, who have spent the last few weeks trying to regroup from a recent restructuring here at the museum.
As the news gets grimmer and grimmer, and the city maintains a high, but not exactly desirable profile in the media, keeping your chin up here in the Motor City seems to be nothing short of a challenge.
I recently heard from New York-based photographer Bruce Gilden who stopped by the museum for lunch last Friday. He wanted to tell me about his recent series on foreclosures in America and found Detroit to be one of the most unusual of American cities – with entire neighborhoods nearly abandoned.
As someone who grew up on Detroit’s east side in the late 1960s and 1970s, the thought of my old neighborhood turning into a ghost town was not entirely unbelievable, until last night when I saw Detroit artist Mitch Cope on CNN talking to Wes Anderson about buying up homes in Detroit. It is part of Cope’s and his wife’s, the architect Gina Reichert, mission to stage a long-term social art experiment here in the city. Photos and conceptual statements are at his website – mitchcope.com. It’s not a story unfamiliar to us locals, as artist Tyree Guyton began his Heidelberg Project in 1986 to clean up another Detroit neighborhood. Is the city on its way to becoming a “vast, enormous canvas” as one NYTimes writer noted recently? I think so.
Migrant Mother, 1936, by Dorothea Lange
Although the DIA announced last week a 20% reduction in full and part-time staff, I will be staying on in my usual role as associate curator to work out an ongoing schedule of exhibitions in the Albert and Peggy de Salle Gallery of Photography. Over the next two years, the department of prints, drawings and photographs will offer a slightly reduced schedule of six rather than the usual 12 exhibitions from our permanent collection. It’s all part of an effort to scale back operations a bit, but still provide a meaningful museum experience for our visitors.
Of these six exhibitions, three photography exhibitions are in development, the first which will open this September with works surveying the first 100 years of photography. Rare 19th-century prints, pictorialist and modernist works, along with a section devoted to the documentary tradition, will feature many classic images from the history of photography and individuals including Alfred Steiglitz, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Edward Weston, and Julia Margaret Cameron among others. Art may be the best reprieve in tough times like these, so stay tuned for upcoming exhibition dates, programs and maybe even a few surprises.
Broken Stained Glass Window, Wielkie Oczy, 2001, by Jeffrey Gusky (copyright Jeffrey Gusky)
As part of our previously scheduled program of exhibitions, the museum will open Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky, which is traveling from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. It will be on view beginning April 19, 2009. I’ll be posting on this exhibition again in the upcoming weeks.