In 1946, just shortly before he immigrated to the United States, Robert Frank constructed a handmade book of photographs, titled 40 Fotos. Although he had been photographing for only five years, the book displays a remarkable mastery of a wide range of photographic styles and genres that were popular in his native Switzerland during World War II: from Bauhaus-inspired explorations of light and form to commercial studies of industrial objects and journalistic records of people on the streets. With its front cover of a photomontage of an eye seen through an open camera lens and its back cover of a closed lens, the book also reveals Frank's careful study of the tenets of contemporary Swiss graphic design, while its first photograph—of an open telephone book—wittily signals the book's intent: to serve as a compendium to show Frank's many and varied talents to prospective employers.
But the most significant aspect of 40 Fotos is the sophisticated understanding it reveals of the power of two photographs when paired together to elicit new meanings. Several page spreads join similar photographs—for example, two studies of animals in the zoo are placed on facing pages. But many more contrast similar objects seen in different situations—for example, a photograph of a flag on a street is paired with one of a flag on a mountaintop, while a photograph of two men in a boat in summer faces one of two men on a street in winter. Others contrast micro and macro views, as in a close-up study of a flower that is paired with a more distant view of mountains. Other spreads explore the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein's ideas of montage—that is, abrupt shifts between dissimilar objects to call forth new ideas and emotions. For example, a photograph made looking up at three radio tubes is placed opposite one looking up at a band on the street, while a photograph of a group of excited children faces one of an electrical component. Thus, not only do the pairings contrast changes in time—summer and winter—and sensation—hot and cold—but they address more complex ideas, such as the ways in which both sound and energy are communicated.
40 Fotos is, therefore, Frank's first exploration into the ways in which the juxtaposition of photographs or their sequence could convey meaning in a visual, nonverbal manner. He would continue to explore these ideas in other handmade books, such as Peru, 1948, Black, White, and Things, 1952, and, of course, his highly celebrated publication The Americans, 1958 and 1959.
A gift from the artist himself, 40 Fotos now joins Peru and Black, White, and Things, which Frank also gave to the National Gallery in 1990 and 1996, and makes an already stellar collection of his work even more complete, significant, and remarkable.
Robert Frank, New York; gift to NGA, 2010.