“I went to Peru to satisfy my own nature, to be free to work for myself,” Robert Frank would later say. “I didn’t think of what would be the correct thing to do, I did what I felt good doing.” In 1948, after moving to New York where he found work as a commercial photographer at Harper’s Bazaar, for star art director Alexey Brodovitch, and before the prolific decade in which he photographed throughout Europe and America and produced The Americans, Frank, then 23, spent six months travelling through South America. On his return, he edited his images from Peru into a maquette. He gave one copy to Brodovitch and another to his mother as a birthday present. Steidl recently released this maquette as a clothbound book, along with Paris, a collection of Frank’s photographs of that city made in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Both books are strong and are published as part of Steidl’s “Robert Frank Project” which seeks to present a definitive collection of his work to date, including work that has not been seen before.
Peru consists of 18 pairings of images plus a closer, and the dust jacket images reprinted inside. The paired images speak to one another compositionally, thematically, and figuratively; as a group, the pictures impart a feeling of peaceful calm and describe a bright, ordered society in harmony with both natural and constructed landscapes. Apart from the title and publishing data, there are no words in Peru at all.
Where Peru is a presentation of the book that Frank assembled 60 years ago, Paris is a new edit of old photographs, pictures made in Paris after Frank had lived in New York. Where Peru is a focused portrait of light and silence (and where The Americans is a jangling portrait of the diverse contradictions of American culture), Paris is an ode to the contradictions of cities that make urban life vital. Although the pictures in this book span seasons and move between day and night, and suburbs and city, the overall rhythm of the book is fluid. The sequencing of the 80 images in Paris is credited to both Frank and Ute Eskildsen, Steidl’s adviser on the Frank Project. A transcript of a conversation between the two indicates that these images show Frank’s response to the “Old World” after having been in the “New World”, and that looking at pictures of Paris at a distance of 60 years imbues them with a “sentimental quality”. The editing is accordingly gentle and sometimes playful, and both edit and pictures have a soft, dreamlike quality.
Peru and Paris both contribute to a better understanding of Frank’s photography leading up to The Americans. We see the way he works motifs throughout an essay: hats are a strong visual motif throughout Peru, as chairs would be in Paris, and cars in The Americans. In Peru we see the use of the landscape as metaphor, including roads and railways stretching away into the distance. Most importantly, we see how his feelings about a place inform the ways that he studies that place.
But these two books also deserve attention as part of the ongoing conversation that Frank has had with his own work and his life for more than 30 years. Since the 1970s, Frank has created a great deal of intensely personal mixed media work that incorporates his earlier prints. If Peru is a time capsule unearthed, Paris is a story told in the present about the past. It is a new intervention by an artist whose work has often had a complicated relationship with his own past and experiences.