Robert Frank (born 1924) was the first photographer to make the city of Detroit along with Ford workers and the assembly line a serious subject for the camera and the basis for his groundbreaking work in America in 1955. The photographs are representative of how he, a young European man, found Americans living and working at mid-century. Fascinated by our culture, but also critical of what he saw and experienced, Frank looked under the surface of American life and pushed the aesthetic boundaries of the medium unlike anyone before him.
The automobile, in particular, was something he saw everywhere in the U.S., and one of his foremost priorities when considering subjects for his book The Americans was to come to Detroit to “do the story on the factory” as he told me in a 2001 interview. Select images from his travels to the Motor City and elsewhere were preserved in this legendary book and numerous other Detroit photographs appeared in his other publications as well including The Lines of My Hand (1972) and Flowers Is (1985). These images and other unknown, rare photographs are the subject of Detroit Experiences: Robert Frank Photographs 1955 opening today at the DIA.
Last fall, I spent the better part of an afternoon over in Dearborn, Michigan, at the site once referred to by photographer Robert Frank as “God’s factory.” It’s known to us locals as the Rouge (the Ford Motor Company River Rouge plant). Back in the 1950s when Frank traveled there, Ford was at the height of production, and the Rouge was a major tourist destination for people from all over the world.
On the official Rouge tour today you can spend about two hours soaking up car culture while viewing vintage automobiles and historical film footage of the old factory and its assembly lines. The entire complex can be seen from an observation deck as well as workers and assembly line production from an overhead catwalk in the adjacent Dearborn Assembly Plant. The assembly line was up and running when I was there, and the guide mentioned that two shifts a day were producing about 1,100 Ford F150 trucks daily. It was an encouraging sight.
But the Rouge today is a far cry from what Robert Frank saw when he was here in ’55. Now, modernized manufacturing and environmental incentives have brought state-of-the art technology to the complex and the worker’s daily routines along with honey bees, acres of sunflowers, indigenous plant life, and 454,000 square feet of sedum implanted on the factory’s thriving green roof. So, about the closest we can get in the present to the factory’s glorious and gritty past is what Frank has found there and photographed over 50 years ago.
A few years ago and through the good graces of Ford employee Don Russell (who managed the installation of the largest green roof in the world at the Rouge in 2003), I spent some time touring the buildings where Frank photographed. Visitors can no longer see them on the current public tour (original tours of the plant began right after it opened in 1927 and continued through the early 1980s with access into the original complex). Frank photographed in the B Building where motor assembly took place and in final assembly areas of the plant where the Ford Fairlane and its V-8 engine were made, but these old production sites and their Albert Kahn-designed buildings were demolished in recent years.
This exhibition has been in development for many years, and my research goes back to the early 1990s when I first discovered the material at the DIA while working as an intern in the department of prints, drawings and photographs. I studied Frank’s work in-depth at his archive in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where I found about 50 proof sheets from his trip to the Motor City. Detroit was a boom town, and the Ford factory was at the height of production with around 60,000 employees who could build one car per minute.
A large gift of Frank’s Detroit photographs came into the collection in the 1980s, and in subsequent years additional works were purchased. These acquisitions have contributed to DIA’s establishment of a rare and remarkable body of work by this legendary and influential artist. Many prints are unique, and even though select photographs have been on view over the years, this is the first time all of the work can be seen in a single exhibition. Over sixty photographs will be on view in the special exhibition galleries near Rivera court (the de Salle Gallery of Photography will be temporarily closed but reopen with an exhibition of Andre Kertesz’s work in the late fall).
Detroit Experiences: Robert Frank Photographs, 1955, will be on view through July 3, 2010. Check back here or at the DIA’s website for announcements regarding upcoming special programs related to the exhibition.