type C photograph
22.8 x 22.8 cm (image) 35.2 x 27.6 cm (sheet)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
“I speak of the things that are there, anywhere and everywhere – easily found, not easily selected and interpreted.”
Robert Frank, 1953
Every traveller knows the feelings of heightened awareness, curiosity and even amusement that can come from being in a new country. It soon becomes clear that the real signs of cultural difference generally aren’t in the officially designated public monuments but small events and ordinary objects. Life on the streets, unfamiliar habits, or distinctive building styles can be signposts to the mood and even values of a society. These vernacular ‘things’ are so embedded in the everydayness of a place that it is perhaps only the outsider or a detached and astute viewer, who recognises them.
Photography is, of course, one of the most agile and immediate ways to record the everyday. However, it is a rare talent that can take the banal and invest it with that quality of ‘something more’. For the artists in this exhibition, creatively isolating the minutiae of American culture from a stream of observation became, as photographer Lee Friedlander memorably wrote, a way of recording the ‘social landscape’. For us as viewers it is a chance both to engage with a style of documentary photography that has great immediacy and also to consider the changing terms of a society whose impact on Australia – as elsewhere – is profound.
Taking these ideas as its starting point, American Beauty features the work of a group of documentary photographers who explored the significance of the American vernacular from the 1930s to the 1970s. Robert Frank, André Kertész, José López and Luis Medina did so, essentially, from a position of ‘outsiders’ coming to America from other cultures, while locally-born Walker Evans and Lee Friedlander adopted a position of subjective detachment when viewing their own society. Ranging in tone from the critical or spiky to the playful or ironic, the photographers’ works are united by their passionate regard for how the American people express themselves in their physical universe. This is no ‘Family of Man’ humanistic view of society but, rather, an articulate and unsentimental consideration of the complex nature of American beauty that can be found in its urban landscapes.