Tucked into a corner of the National Gallery of Art’s exhibition, Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, is a remarkable photograph not included in the final edit of that iconic book. The image, Hoover Dam, Nevada, 1955, shows a tightly cropped detail of a roadside visitor center or gas station. Visually dense, one immediately registers three images within the photograph, like windows incised in the picture plane. Bundles of postcards are arranged in a column at the center of the frame and held in place by a wire rack. Perhaps it is because of the bleached registers of the Southwest afternoon light, but the surrounding details are negligible, focusing the greatest clarity on the postcards.
The scene is familiar to anyone who has piled into the family vehicle (seen here in the background) and set off across the American highway. The car’s wheels turn off the highway, crackling through the gravel and dust along the shoulder, and pull around into the fueling station. Sticky bodies peel off the seat covers and get out for a stretch, tendons flexing and chins raised to catch any available breeze. Perhaps one walks inside to find a Coke or ice cream bar, or walks around the back of the small building, really just a large shack, to find a toilet. If this way station is anywhere near those constellations of the American road trip—national parks, casinos, roller coasters, in-laws—then there will surely be those selfsame postcard racks, totems to the vernacular picturesque. So we buy postcards, polite missives to those left at home or cheap souvenirs to be filed away in closets or cornered in scrapbooks.
The Robert Frank photograph in question was taken on the road trip that provided the source material for The Americans. Funded by a Guggenheim fellowship, Frank piled his wife Mary and their young children Pablo and Andrea into the car like so many other pater familias, and wove their way clockwise around the continental United States. Like other photographs taken on this trip, Hoover Dam, Nevada, 1955 visually arranges information in a way that leads to an often disturbing revelation. Reading the postcards top to bottom, the images move from the Grand Canyon to Hoover Dam to a mushroom cloud. With deft economy these quotations suggest pristine landscape, nature harnessed by man, and finally nature destroyed. It’s an stunning indictment of human progress and a portrait of a world gone wrong.
And stunned I was. My jaw dropped seeing this image for the first time a few weeks ago. It fell even lower when I read the inscription on the print, which is on loan from the Yale University Art Gallery. In Frank’s hand it says, “For Pablo—Remembering the trip to California 1956 – Hoover Dam Nev.”* This photograph encapsulates the personal, familial nature of the trip, and the way a picture’s content can be read through the photographer’s biography. Pablo suffered from schizophrenia and died in a hospital in 1994. Much of Frank’s later work, especially in films like Home Improvement, confronts the psychological trauma of dealing with Pablo’s mental illness and the death of his daughter Andrea in a 1974 plane crash. I remember reading somewhere the dialogue from one of these films in which Robert admonishes Pablo for always seeing the worst in world, for his insistence on darkness and depression. Why then would he have chosen this photograph to give to Pablo? I imagine that in this gift the father acknowledges the demons of the son, and recognizes them as his own.
*It is interesting to note that Yale and the National Gallery date the photograph as 1955, while Frank’s inscription says 1956.
Exhibition schedule: National Gallery of Art, January 18–April 26, 2009; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 16–August 23, 2009; Metropolitan Museum of Art, September 22–December 27, 2009