Robert Frank (American, born Switzerland, 1924)
Gelatin silver print; 13 x 9 1/16 in. (33 x 23 cm)
Gift of Barbara and Eugene Schwartz, 1992 (1992.5162.3)
This photograph is one of the more benign, if jarring, images in Frank's watershed book, The Americans, published in America in 1959 (the book was originally published in Paris in 1958) to an outcry of public controversy. Half of the country felt that Frank had betrayed his adopted home, and half felt his criticism was not only warranted but necessary. What is clear is that the photographs pierced the core of a country saturated with complacency and not entirely comfortable with its world persona. As it happened, the cowboy in the city was a good metaphor for America on the world stage in 1955: the country had emerged victorious from World War II, saving the world for democracy; at the same time, it had done so by unleashing the most terrifying weapon ever invented. Moreover, its egalitarian political ideals were severely undermined by a growing intolerance for racial and ideological differences, which intensified in the Cold War climate of the 1950s. The hypocrisy of such a position was perhaps most apparent to recent émigrés like Frank. While the specific antecedents of this image are a matter of interpretation, this ten-gallon-hatted, plaid-shirted, jeaned, booted, and silver-belt-buckled Tex leaning against a wire garbage can in the middle of New York are an undeniably odd sightalthough his self-absorbed preening may not be. It highlights Frank's talent for spotting camera-ready incidents that resonate far beyond the character's immediate significance.