Robert Frank hardly needs another obituary. His status is unquestionable, his place in the canon of photography pivotal; we can fairly divide the medium into the periods before and after his influence made itself felt. But like anything else, the operation of such a consensus tends to limit what we might yet be able to say about Frank’s work, especially given the restless, actually quite disconnected trajectory of his career. This is, after all, an artist who abandoned his primary medium at the height of his powers and took up another, following his creative impulses no matter the cost. The established critical understanding of Frank’s work will inevitably shift in the wake of his recent death, but the gravitational pull of the mythology that surrounds him is still profound, and a genuine effort to re-think what we know about Frank requires questioning not only his particular output, but also many of the fundamental assumptions that we take for granted about photography and its history. This is something that Frank himself was surely aware of. Having already made one era-defining masterpiece with his book The Americans, the remainder of his working life finds him locked in a determined, if only intermittently successful struggle to break free from what he had already done. What I want to consider here are some of the ways in which Frank grappled with his own artistic legacy and the limitations of his chosen medium, raising questions that become especially pressing for the later part of his career.
Bringing together a selection of ‘curated’ out-takes from his celebrated series Uncommon Places, the 2017 publication of Stephen Shore’s Selected Works 1973 – 1981 was another high-point in a bumper year for the artist, just in advance of a career-spanning retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, complete with its own substantial catalogue.[i] Indeed, the question this book might well provoke is whether or not it was even necessary, given the amount of exposure Shore has received to date, and the plaudits he has already garnered, in the course of a long and profoundly influential working-life. We hardly need still more proof of how a handful of largely old, largely white men – along with a very few women – dominate the institutional narratives around photography, and so, the ways in which its history is understood. In light of that, and also of the fact that Shore’s Uncommon Places has already occasioned at least two books and been included in an untold number of compilations, what might there be left to say about the work? Of course, there is no doubt now about its status; Shore’s influence can be felt everywhere in contemporary photography, if only expressed as a preference for certain subjects and photographic methodologies. In fact, the series has become a kind of ‘Rosetta Stone,’ making comprehensible so much of what followed in its wake. There is also, inevitably, if perhaps unfairly, a suspicion of barrel-scraping about such collections drawing on otherwise familiar work.