First Thursday: Robert Frank's Books and Films

By Emily Albertson

For January’s First Thursday, I headed over to Blue Sky Gallery for a highly anticipated lecture by Gerhard Steidl before the opening of the Robert Frank retrospective “Books and Films.” I expected a larger group of people than normal at this lecture; this is a retrospective featuring the “Father of street photography” after all and Gerhard Steidl is regarded by many as the best printer in the world. In my naivety however, I did not expect to be barely able to get into the building. It wasn’t a matter of finding a chair, it was a matter of being able to hear the lecture at all while being stuck next to the front door.

After a few minutes of unsuccessfully straining my ears to capture a faint word from Steidl across the room, I decided to cut my losses and check out the exhibition instead (Luckily, Blue Sky posted a live video of the lecture on their facebook page).

So how do you display the work of a photographer whose career spans several decades and thousands upon thousands of photographs? It’s pretty impossible actually, since majority of Frank’s original silver gelatin prints are not on public display because they are so fragile. The galleries and museums that do hold his work only lend them to others under strict conditions and tied to extreme insurance costs, so Steidl took an alternative and more accessible approach.

Images from his incredible body of work, including his famous series “The Americans,” were printed on sheets of newsprint while large reproductions of Frank’s contact sheets are hung on one of the walls. His photobooks, all printed by Steidl, hang from string attached to the ceiling, giving the audience a new way to interact with them. Series titles and quotes by Frank are painted in bold black letters from the top of the ceiling to the bottom, giving personality to what otherwise could have been a very serious and classic exhibition.

In the back room, Frank’s films and videos are projected on the walls alongside sheets of reprinted polaroids. It’s refreshing to see his video work; it is often overshadowed by his photography, but it encompasses an entire decade of his artmaking. After the publication of “The Americans” 1959, Frank concentrated on filmmaking throughout the 1960s.

What was different about this exhibition compared others shown at Blue Sky was how interactive and personal it was. Being able to look through and feel every uniquely-printed book while they swayed, seeing Robert Frank’s scribbled writing on his polaroids and his red pencil marks all over his contact sheets; it felt like you really could get a sense of how Frank thinks and works. You might have seen Robert Frank’s a thousand times over in photography classes and texts, but this exhibition is a new way to learn about the legendary photographer.

Along with being accessible and inexpensive, this exhibition is also physically temporary; at the end of the show, Blue Sky will be hosting a destruction party where dancers and viewers will tear down the prints and destroy them.

You can see “Books and Films” through February 25th.


Related Readings 

Read The New Yorker profile on Gerhard Steidl here.

Read The New York Times Magazine profile on Robert Frank here.


You can also watch a few of Robert Frank’s films and films about him at the NW Film Center with their month long “Robert Frank: Frank Perspectives” series. See their schedule and learn more about the screenings here. 

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