Architecture

Two Photographers, Two Journeys and One Year Unite in MFAH's Robert Frank/Todd Webb Exhibit

"Joe, Abiquiu"
"Joe, Abiquiu" Photo by Todd Webb/© Todd Webb Archive
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"Rodeo, New York City"
Photo by Robert Frank/© The June Leaf and Robert Frank Foundation
In 1955, Robert Frank and Todd Webb were not only two of the most famous photographers in New York, but the entire country.

And it was in that year both Frank and Webb got the good news that they would be each receiving a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation to take their still cameras across the United States for a documentary project (both were also renewed for the next year).

In their scenic search for the Soul of America, Webb would produce 10,000 negatives and Frank twice that amount. But their later photographic fortunes couldn’t have differed more.

Three years later, Frank would use his images to come out with The Americans, one of the most important and influential photography books in the history of the art form. It would make him even more famous and help pave his way into documentary filmmaking.

Webb (1905-2000) would—through a bad business deal two decades later—lose possession of his images and many more which were then never publicized and left to gather dust. Until they were almost miraculously rediscovered in 2016.

But the fruits of both men’s midcentury trek—and a handful of others shots—are celebrated equally (down to the number of photos each have represented: 50) in the upcoming exhibit Robert Frank and Todd Webb: Across America, 1955. It runs October 8-\ through January 7 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and marks the first time that the two shutterbugs works’ have been displayed side-by-side.

The MFAH and Frank (1924-2019) had already established a “very long and very close” relationship, according to Lisa Volpe, Curator of Photography. That stretched back to his connections to Anne Tucker, the Museum’s founding Curator of Photography. One of her first purchases from Frank himself was a complete set of photos from The Americans.

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Lisa Volpe, MFAH Curator of Photography
Photo by Todd Spoth
Frank was also so impressed with an exhibit Tucker curated, that the MFAH became the distributor for all his film work, and he gifted the institution all his personal photographs. Volpe notes that only the then-limitations of Tucker as a sort of One-Woman Band kept the MFAH from getting his archives as well.

“That shows you what esteem that Robert held the Museum in. He really loved it here and appreciated it,” she says. Adding that when she came aboard and was doing research on photographer Georgia O’Keeffe, she discovered that Webb was her mentor. Which led to the current exhibit taking shape.

“I wanted to see what we could learn about both photographers and the time period, and how it could broaden this story a little bit more,” she offers.

Volpe and the show’s catalog make a strong argument that while each man’s journey focused on the present, their overall creative pulls were very much in opposite directions.

Frank, age 30, took a car for his journey and was focused on how the present could dictate and give a preview of the future. Webb, nearly a generation older at 49, chose to travel by foot, bike, and boat and explored how the country’s past affected the present.

“That comes from their applications they wrote for [the Guggenheim]. They both had ideas about America that turned out not to be correct as they moved through the country,” Volpe says.
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"Garden City, KS"
Photo by Todd Webb/© Todd Webb Archive
“Webb was actually more famous at the time and had tried out a whole bunch of careers before he found his way to photography. For Frank, he was determined to make his way with his art or give it up. It was legacy versus everything that’s new. And that was reflected in their personalities and what they photographed.”

Both men found common ground on some of the subjects and locations for their photos, which lean on places like bars, storefronts, rodeos, graveyards, public parks, and social and political gatherings. There are lean cowboys, wide-eyed children, mothers, and retail store patrons.
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"Bar, Las Vegas, Nevada"
Photo by Robert Frank/© The June Leaf and Robert Frank Foundation
Frank even spent some time in Houston, though only one image, Bank, Houston, Texas is in the exhibition.

It’s a vertical shot of a typical early Mad Men-era financial office. In the forefront, a dark wooden desk is strewn with paperwork while a a businessman’s hat sits on one behind it. There are four empty identical leather desk chairs and at the very back, a middle-aged, suited-up executive is on the phone with a pen in his hand, sitting behind his nameplate.
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"Santa Fe, New Mexico"
Photo by Robert Frank/© The June Leaf and Robert Frank Foundation
Volpe was curious to determine the exact location of the now-defunct bank, so she reached out to a local architectural forum for help in identification. She was also able to include more photos taken from different angles at the same session as visual aids. And her online brain trust came up with the answer: It was Texas National Bank at 1300 Main, which had just opened when Frank came calling.

So, all that interested the great Robert Frank in H-Town was…the somewhat bland office of a bank?

“It’s not the only photo he took in Houston, but it’s the one he chose for the catalog!” Volpe laughs.

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"Wrecked Car Lot, Stoystown, PA"
Photo by Todd Webb/© Todd Webb Archive
As to what she thinks that both men would be looking for in America if they took their trek today instead of nearly 70 years ago, she takes some time to really think about her answer.

“That’s a fantastic question! I don’t think very much would be different outside of the cars and clothing. What becomes apparent is that they were influenced by American icons and ideology: flags and parades and all these things are supposed to articulate American freedom,” she says.

“But as they traveled, they kind of realized it was such a squishy term. Who’s really free? And who gets to participate in that? Those are the critiques they had when they traveled. And sadly, not much has changed. There are many of the same social, cultural, and economic differences that get patched up or glossed over by these vague ideas of American freedoms.”

Asked if she could, say, permanently borrow a work by each man for her own living room, Volpe puts her self-described “Photo Nerd” hat on.

“We all know The Americans and those images are so vivid in my head. So, I’m tempted to choose the quintessential Frank works like the trolley or the nurse holding the baby. But I think I’ve come to appreciate other aspects of his approach, that’s what this exhibition has taught me. So, I would pick something from his softer side.”

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"New York City"
Photo by Robert Frank/© The June Leaf and Robert Frank Foundation
She describes a photo of a young woman in New York wearing a leopard print coat. Frank photographed her through a window, the two catching eyes just as the shutter clicks, capturing a halo of light around her head.

“It’s this incredible moment of two people seeing each other and connecting, even though they’ll never speak or see each other again. It shows Frank’s compassion and love and empathy for people,” she says.

For Webb, she’d pick his shot of a young boy working on a riverboat and smoking. “It makes him seem so adult, but his look is very vulnerable in the moment. It showed how much these photographers cared.”

Finally, we live in an age where any 12-year-old can take a crummy picture but digitally manipulate it into a visual masterpiece with PhotoShop. Or people are just constantly taking and viewing photos every day with their phones so that any “Wow Factor” has worn off. So, what does Volpe think about the State of Art Photography in 2023, and how it differs from the era of Frank and Webb’s journey?

“I think it actually makes it easier to distinguish what’s good,” she sums up. “The cream rises to the top, it really does. We see so many photos every day and understand the world through photography. But we know when something is new and unique or touches you very deeply. Something you don’t just scroll by and forget.”

Robert Frank and Todd Webb: Across America, 1955 runs October 8-January 7 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in the Millennium Gallery at the Audrey Jones Beck Building, 5601 Main. For information, call 713-639-3700 or visit MFAH.org. $12-$19. Children 12 and under and military personnel with ID free.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero