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Seeing

If the thing is there, why there it is.
-- Walker Evans 

The largest ticker-tape parade ever held in New York City honored General Douglas McArthur on his return home from Korea in 1951. The Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank was there with his Leica, although you might not know it from the picture he took of the event.  It was shot from well back in the crowd along the parade route, with no particulars of the occasion beyond a bright snow shower of ticker tape cascading from the office windows above.  You can see nothing of the parade itself, only the crowd straining to see. Several women hold up open compact mirror cases, hoping to catch a glimpse of the motorcade. The photograph is beautiful.  But it is not the sort of picture that would wind up on the cover of Life magazine or on the front page of the New York Times. It captured a small moment at a large public event, yet in its own way is as enduring as anything documenting the momentousness of the occasion.

Frank emigrated from Europe as a young man and was stunned by the frenetic energy of life in postwar New York City. “Only the moment counts,” he wrote relatives back home, and the moment was what he sought to capture, often from car windows as he raced back and forth across the country taking pictures. His two-year odyssey on a Guggenheim Fellowship yielded 28,000 photographs that were distilled down to 83 images issued in a seminal volume called The Americans.  Frank was initially unable to find a U.S. publisher for his book, perhaps because he saw his adopted country in a way that natives during the Eisenhower era were not yet prepared to see themselves.  Decades later, he recalled, “One became aware of white cities, black people, no money, no hope. The noise. The violence. How brutal people were. A brutal country.”

In his work, Frank characteristically does not offer a panoramic view but a series of small yet telling moments caught on the fly. “I love to watch the most banal things,” he once said. This perhaps is the key to true seeing. While everyone else is straining to catch a glimpse of the passing parade over the heads of the crowd, you have only to keep your gaze fixed on what is directly in front of you.

“Where Have You Gone, Robert Frank?” in the New York Times (September 4, 1994)
Geoff Dyer, The Ongoing Moment

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