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"The Robert Frank Coloring Book" (1983) is a collection of line drawings based on The Americans by Robert Frank, with added notes on the themes and connections of the original work.
Goodbye Robert Frank
I had seen some Frank images from The Americans in Photo I and Photo II classes in the mid seventies, but had not bought the explanation by my instructors of why these were so important, especially since most of the talk dealt with formal issues. I remember one comment, however, made by an instructor, which held that the image of the black woman holding a white baby in her arms (13) was a "Presentation," an art history category used to classify Madonna and Child images from the renaissance.
Only after an instructor mentioned off hand that Frank was born in Switzerland, and had come to the United States as an adult, did the sense of the images suddenly click into place: I was looking at the US through European eyes of the fifties. But it was the sort of understanding which I had to keep to myself, for I doubted if anyone born and raised in the USA would have the slightest inkling of what that point of view was like.
I would have continued to do so, but for an article published by John Brumfield in 1980 in Afterimage, titled "The Americans and the Americans." Astoundingly I saw Brumfield recast the book as a morality play, with a set of characters defined by allegory and personifications. I just couldn't disagree more. Not only because it took the photographs from being about real people to defining them as gears in a grand (and antiquated) metaphor, but because there was a much simpler solution at hand.
When I found myself wagging my finger at Brumfield as I was falling asleep each night, I decided to start writing something. It took nearly a year to draft a response which went to prove that Brumfield had failed to understand where Frank was coming from, and to recommend we take the book at face value rather than as a allegorical social document.
I spent all together too much time writing and researching, and I must admit that I am not a researcher. My contacts were often as mundane as talking to fellow workers at the office I worked at, and to a minister who had studied beat literature before turning to the ministry.
I made lists of the images, detailed with titles and content, and such things as the format and whether they had been taken indoors or out. This last, in fact, convinced me that the images occupied a rigid order in the book, although this should have been obvious from the publication history.
I tracked a first edition copy (Les Americans, Paris, 1958) to the Photography Department at the Art Institute of Chicago, and they were kind enough to xerox the original French text of writings and literary sources by Alain Bosquet. I had the text translated by a crew of volunteers, most of which fell short of their assigned tasks, except my mother, who plodded on through most of the text without recourse to a French-English dictionary. She simply translated questionable words into Dutch, and from there into English.
The results were astounding, for it made concrete the concept of "transliteration," especially when it came to the preamble to the constitution. Her translation constituted an entirely new document, and became the text of a new book, self published in an edition of about 6, known as Less American.
To illustrate Less American in the manner of Frank's original, I ripped apart a Sunday Chicago Tribune and collate the available news paper images into a contemporary version of the photographs from The Americans.
To caption the images, I decided to make very small line drawings of Frank's photographs, and started by making tracings of all the images in The Americans. When Kees saw me at work he said, "Oh, a coloring book!" Oh yes, I thought, a Robert Frank Coloring Book. This is what is presented below.
If I made a case for what The Americans was not, I did not demonstrate what it was until another four years later (and another two articles). At some point, more than a year into the original project, friends recommended I send off the 90,000 words or so which had been typed, retyped, cut and pasted onto 200 sheets of paper.
I wasn't really ready yet, for I needed to answer the question, "What is the organization of The Americans which makes it seem so cohesive?" But I consented, and contacted the Visual Studies workshop, who publish Afterimage, through Alex Sweetman, who put me in touch with the editor, Catherine Lord.
I won't tell of the two months of editing by phone and fax machines. I learned to write some; dropped all that "that" and "those" words, and stated looking very closely at the sense of sentences.
Afterimage published the retort to Brumfield's article two years after the first had appeared, as "Robert Frank's America," and headlined it on the front cover as, "a polemic view," a clear statement of staff disbelief at Afterimage. But luck had been with me, for the various people who had read and proofed the document had been divided neatly into two groups, those who agreed with my premise, and those who did not. All those who agreed were foreign born. Editor-in-chief Catherine Lord was too.
The Robert Frank Coloring Book was published as an edition of 56 in offset and xerox while at the School of The Art institute of Chicago. A subsequent edition of 60 was prepared later. Mostly they have dribbled out of here slowly, with orders from strange places like Germany. I charge $10 or $15. After all, they are only xerox pages. But I have also seen a copy go for $45 at an auction at the School of the Art Institute in 1984. [Added note: In December 2007, a dealer in photographic books in Chicago offers The Robert Frank Coloring Book for $950.00.]
The last call came from the National Gallery in Washington, at a time they were preparing a retrospective of Frank's work in 1994. They wanted to use them as party favors for the writers of essays for the two inch thick catalog. I supplied them with some of the few remaining copies at a reasonable price (boy, are those guys stingy), if they consented to also list the Coloring book in the bibliography. They did, and as a result I have more entries in the bibliography than anyone else. Wanna see?
- Cook, Jno. "Robert Frank's America" Afterimage 9:8 (March 1982), 9-14. See [here].
- Cook, Jno. The Robert Frank Coloring Book School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1983.
- Cook, Jno. "Photography: Robert Frank's Parody" Nit and Wit: Chicago's Arts Magazine 6:3 (May/June 1984) 40-43
- Cook, Jno. "Robert Frank: Dissecting the American Image" Exposure 24:1 (Spring 1986) 31-41. See [here].
And what they missed:
- Less American a transliteration of Alain Bosquet's text to Robert Frank's Les Americains (1957), text by G. v.d. Meer, images, xerox, 1982
- "Robert Frank y La Fotografia," in Robert Frank, Fotografias/Films 1948/1984 Salla Parpallo, Valencia, Spain, March 1985
- "The Robert Frank Coloring Book" Creative Camera (reprint) November 1989
on the following pages:
"the original title"
[my added notes]
"Parade - Hoboken, New Jersey"
[1: City Mothers (mouth 1) kiss]
"City Fathers - Hoboken, New Jersey"
[2: City Fathers (mouth 2) kiss]
"Political Rally - Chicago"
[3: The mouth: Demagogue in democracy -fist-]
(Leslie Baier suggests: an infant in a temper tantrum)
"Funeral - St. Helena, South Carolina"
[4: Country blacks (mouth 4)]
"Rodeo - Detroit"
[5: Country whites (mouth 5) (cigar 1)]
[6: Second political sequence:
Recruit enroute (mouth 6) (cigar 2) (stripes)]
"Navy Recruiting Station, Post Office - Butte, Montana"
[7: Recru de fatigue (stars and stripes)]
"En route from New York to Washington, Club Car"
[8: Male enroute (stars) (listening 1)]
"Movie premiere - Hollywood"
[9: Listening 2: etre aux ecoutes (star)]
"Candy store - New York City"
[10: Listening 3 (to the stars)]
"Motorama - Los Angelos"
[11: Listening 4 ("...with heater and radio") (as stars?)]
"New York City"
[12: Stars: Acting, presentation]
"Charleston, South Carolina"
[13: "Presentation" (the colored face behind)]
"Ranch market - Hollywood"
[14: The colored face behind: presents (waiting)]
[15: They're waiting too (another face behind) -fist-]
"Yom Kippur - East River, New York City"
[16: Holyday: bringing sins to the river (stars) behind 3]
"Fourth of July - Jay, New York"
[17: (bringing 2) Holiday (stars and stripes) behind 4]
"Trolley - New Orleans"
[18: Coming 3: Going, separated (stripes, barre) behind 5]
I asked Alex Sweetman, "What are those things in the top window panes?"
He replied, "They are Minor White photographs."
"Canal Street - New Orleans"
[19: Destiny 1: Arrival, presse (rush hour)]
"Rooming house - Bunker Hill, Los Angelos"
[20: Destiny 2: Retirement ( pension) first boards]
"Yale Commencement - New Haven Green, New Haven, Connecticut"
[21: Destiny 3: passed up (2nd bored) -fist-]
"Cafe - Beaufort, South Carolina"
[22: Awareness 1 (life sequence: infant) 3rd boards]
"Georgetown, South Carolina"
[23: Awareness 2: What women pay attention to
(Life sequence: child) (last boards]
"Bar - Las Vegas, Nevada"
[24: Awareness 3: What men pay attention to
(life sequence: man)]
I sent Frank a copy, with a note saying, "You can do it,"
and three crayons, one black, one gray, one white.
"Hotel lobby - Miami Beach"
[25: (life sequence: old age) city scape]
Frank sent back a photo print (the Tuba),
folded and marked up in ball point.
I stapled it to the wall.
"View from hotel window - Butte, Montana"
[26: Inspection: The nothing-scape (life sequence: curtains)
in the print series]
"Metropolitan Life Insurance Building - New York City"
[27: In the print series: life insurance (stand)]
"Jehovah's Witness - Los Angelos"
[28: In the print series: afterlife insurance (stand)]
"Bar - Gallup, New Mexico"
[29: The standoff, cowboys]
"US 30 between Oglala and North Platte, Nebraska"
[30: The last stand, indians]
"Casino - Elko Nevada"
[31: getting it: greed]
"US 91, leaving Blackfoot, Idaho"
[32: Getting there (Kerouac) starts the highway series (sit)]
"St. Petersburg, Florida"
[33: Getting there: arrived (passed by)]
"Covered car - Long Beach, California"
[34: Getting there: (disposition of the car)]
"Car accident - US 66, between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona"
[35: Getting there: (disposition of the driver) (sit to lie)]
"US 285, New Mexico"
[36: Stars and stripes landscape (disposition of the highway)]
"Bar - Detroit"
[37: Stars and stripes landscape (not on the job)
(bottles 1, seats 1, stripes 2, fish 1)]
"Barber shop through screen window - McClellenville, South Carolina"
[38: Reflection: Not on the job (gone fishing) bottles 2, etc ]
"Backyard - Venice West, California"
[39: Not on the job 3, bottles 3, stripes 4, seats 3]
"Newburgh, New York"
[40: Not on the job 4: reflections 3 (4? 5?), seats 4]
"Luncheonette - Butte, Montana"
[41: (Not) on the job 5: the election game (seats 5)]
"Santa Fe, NEw Mexico"
[42: Out, on, out, on, spend to save]
"Bar - New York City"
[43: On out, the expressionist plea: get me out of here (Sweetman)]
"Elevator - Miami Beach"
[44: Out on ... "What's her number?" (Kerouac)]
"Restaurant - US 1 leaving Columbia, South Carolina"
[45: On, out]
"Drive-in movie - Detroit"
[46: Out; what's on?]
"Mississippi River, Baton Rouge, Louisiana"
[47: The salvation interlude 1: John at the Jordan (Baptism)]
"St. Francis, gas station, and City Hall - Los Angelos"
[48: Salvation 2: Francis at the plaza (Faith), the call to assembly]
"Crosses at scene of highway accident - US 91, Idaho"
[49: Salvation 3: Christ at Calvary (Redemption) (first assembly)]
"Assembly line - Detroit"
[50: Assembly 2: attending machines (a line)]
"Convention hall - Chicago"
[51: Assembly 3: attending the Machine (a line)]
"Men's room, railway station - Memphis, Tennessee"
[52: Assembly 4: attendant and inattention]
"Cocktail party - New York City"
[53: Assembly 5: attending cocktails (more inattention)]
"Salt Lake City, Utah"
[54: Assembly 6: attending art education (after Walker Evans)]
"Beaufort, South Carolina"
[55: The product of art: beauty (in Beaufort)]
And NB, the only smile in the book!
"Funeral - St. Helena, South Carolina"
[56: Beauty 2: decoration (dead man series 1)]
"Chinese cemetery - San Fransisco"
[57: Decoration 2: the name tag (dead 2)]
If you imagine sound added, as Frank once said, "coming out of the photographs," then the quiet which pervades the last few will be broken soon. Imagine here a comment on Edward Steichen's brother in law, Carl Sandburg, who wrote the introduction to The Family of Man -- the fog rolling in on cat's feet.
"Political rally - Chicago"
[58: Name tag 2: mindless (headlessness) in public places
Insert loud sounds here, like raspberries -- this is the logical center of the book, and sums up Frank's attitude in 1956 towards the USA.
"Store window - Washington, DC"
[59: Mindlessness (headless) in politics]
"Television studio - Burbank, California"
[60: Mindlessness in media]
[61: The mindless citizen: following directions (go right)]
"Bank - Houston, Texas"
[62: Work after hours (virtue): seat surplus]
"Factory - Detroit"
[63: Rest during work (vice): no seats]
"Department store - Lincoln, Nebraska"
[64: Another vice: aberrant positions]
"Rodeo - New York City"
[65: Another vice: Dodge city pickup]
"Movie premiere - Hollywood"
[66: Virtue: adoration]
"Charity Ball - New York City"
[67: Virtue: Charity balling (food 1)]
"Cafeteria - San Fransisco"
[68: The charity recipient (food 2)]
"Drug store - Detroit"
[69: Food 3: America whipped:
"You can't have your cake and eat it too"]
It was initially easier to find French concordances than English.
It took a while before I caught this one; then I rolled on the floor, laughing.
"Coffee shop, railway station - Indianapolis"
[70: Introducing the vindication: First turnaround (food 4)]
[71: Second turnaround, the young advance, etc (couples, etc)]
[72: Turaround 3: Lone black tree in a white landscape,
starts the "trees like people" series]
"Belle Isle, Detroit"
[Prelude to meeting 1: woman with boy on arm (fertile tree)]
"Public park - Cleveland, Ohio"
[74: Prelude 2: man with girl on arm (sleeping tree)]
"Courthouse square - Elizabethville, North Carolina"
[75: Prelude 3: Her (old gnarly tree, etc)]
"Picnic ground - Glendale, California"
[76: Prelude 4: Him (bent tree)]
"Belle Isle, Detroit"
[77: Prelude 5: On a collision course 1]
[78: Prelude 6: Collision course 2]
[79: The collision: somebody died]
This winds up a series of images which talk to each other in pairs. The question remains, "What is the sin." Frank answers presently. Compare this (as with the couples in the previous set) with the windup of The Family of Man.
"Public park - Ann Arbor, Michigan"
[80: The sin is lust (park, parked, parking)]
"City Hall - Reno, Nevada"
[81: Lust 2: legal (She's up front) (hydraulic model in background)]
[82: Lust 3: extralegal (She's behind)]
"US 90, en route to Del Rio, Texas"
[83: Walking into the Light]
It is actually Mary Frank and the children, with their daughter turned away. The bizarre angle, and the headlight bothered me for a long time. One day I suddenly realized that "Walking into the light" would be a simple title -- a pun on Eugene Smith's much touted photograph which closes Steigen's book, and the cap to the question of a source structure for The Americans. Smith's official title was "Walk into Paradise Garden," but most New York photographers, out of sheer desperation for having seen it published and described endlessly by Smith, called it, "Shooting into the light," or "Walking into the light," which is the exposure condition.
There has been an edition of The Americans every ten years. After Frank's daughter died in a plane crash in Central America, three frames, which include the previous photograph, were added to the book.
Copyright © 1983 Jno Cook, Aesthetic Investigation, and others.
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