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|| News Item: Posted 2009-05-26

Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans at SFMOMA
By Paul Myers, Brooks Institute

Photo by Paul Michael Myers

Photo by Paul Michael Myers

How often do you walk into a cathedral and wonder aloud about stealing the stages of the cross off the walls?

For me, not since I was in 6th grade and then again, today.

I went to church today and I sinned. I went to mass in St. Robert's Cathedral at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and prayed for the courage and strength to steal those photos off the wall.

Please rise.

All praise St. Robert.

All praise!

Repent! We have all sinned as photographers and the patron saint of documentary photography is our only hope. Penance is possible, if you get down on your knees at the entrance of SFMOMA, crawl up to the third floor reciting the holy chants of the f/stops and shutter speeds, stopping on full stops to praise the light and…

Upon your arrival in the inner sanctum, lie prostrate in front of each revelation, each sacred artifact on the walls and pray for your mortal soul.

"Every type of street photography is on these walls. Incredible," said photo editor Jim Merithew. "I am going downstairs and selling this little black box for three bucks. I'll even throw in a roll of film."

Trading your Leica for a cup of coffee in the rooftop café because you are unworthy of looking through the viewfinder in the presence of these, our sacred texts, is testimony to the awe-inspiring power of being in the presence of The Americans.

Powerful images. No where to hide. The book up on the wall for everyone to see.

Merithew and Russell Yip even devised a scheme to steal the photos, each taking a different photo and running towards a different exit. There is no way they can get all of us, right? One of us will get out and enjoy it for everyone who ever saw. This is the brotherly devotion that the Gospel according to St. Robert inspires.

And we are believers.

Photo by
And then we all kicked ourselves for selling our extra copies of The Book, gave each other sloppy man hugs and silently went on our paths. We promised to be better people, to take care of the elderly and love children, to carefully collect bugs and spiders found in our homes and ever so gently release them into the wild to be devoured by other creatures rather than stomped where they lie. Warm and fuzzy.

And this all began with a simple call from AP photographer Jeff Chiu. "Dude, there is a Robert Frank exhibit at SFMOMA. I am still here, you should come up sometime before it is taken down next month"

"I will be there in 45 minutes."

"I will wait, I am having a cup of coffee…." And then he kept talking over and over about the prints on the walls and I began to wonder just what I was about to see.

And, I still was not prepared for St. Robert's sermon. Seeing each of those prints, I began to really understand St. Robert's influence on everyone who picks up a camera. His is our common sense, his way of seeing informs our way of seeing, our way of understanding ourselves as American photographers.

Indeed, the notes on the wall say that his favorite photo in the book is of a couple looking at him in a park in San Francisco. The caption says. This is what it is like being a photographer, when someone notices you are taking a picture and looks at you as if to say, "You bastard…"

Please rise and make photos as a sign of peace in the world.

Ours is a love story with humanity. Ours is a love story with the everyday, with reality, with the possibilities of life and death.


(Paul Myers is a faculty member of the Visual Journalism Program at Brooks Institute in Ventura, CA. Prior to his arrival at Brooks, Myers worked for a variety of publications including newspapers in Freeport, IL and Marysville, CA.)

Related Links:
Paul's member page
Book: Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans, Expanded Edition

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