Despite the flurry of furry fascination signaling the start of my work on the Rabbit Raiser badge, I’ve lingered wrapping up one final requirement for completing the Photography badge:
Know about our foremost American photographers and become familiar with their work. Study the development of photography.
From day one, the Year Of The Scout project rekindled my love for the public library, so I started digging into this requirement at the beginning of August with a boatload of books about 20th century American photographers stacked on my dining room table. I read about some favorites (Diane Arbus, Dorothea Lange, Richard Avedon, Cindy Sherman, Man Ray, Ansel Adams, Herb Ritts, Robert Mapplethorpe), but decided to laser in on Robert Frank, someone whose work documenting mid-century Americans was intriguing, but fairly unknown to me.
My plan was simple – I’d hop down to the Museum of Contemporary Art after work (free admission on Thursday nights!) and soak in some selections from his series The Americans; I would then be completely and totally inspired and would share those feelings with you through the World’s Most Amazing Blog Post.
After spending nearly an hour trapped inside a horrendous vortex of freeway sludge, I parked at a ridiculously expensive meter and speed-walked to the museum with forty-five minutes of prime viewing left before closing time. I spent approximately three of those minutes blazing through several galleries until I came upon a wall filled with black-and-white photographs of prisoners. Despite my anxiety about having enough time to marinate in Frank’s works, I stopped for a quick glance.
The quick glance turned into a long, hard look. The photos were by Danny Lyon, and they’re part of his 1971 book Conversations With The Dead. To create these arresting images, he spent just over a year documenting life in Texas prisons, and the images I saw in that room were unflinching and bare. Where Dorothea Lange focused on the struggles of rural folks during the Depression and Frank shot from the perspective of an emigrant trying to understand American culture in the mid-50s, Lyon was firmly entrenched in the unrest of the 60s, where race and freedom, especially in the context of the prisons, was a lightning bolt constantly striking across the country.
After a few passes across the wall of images, I broke the trance and headed off again in search of Robert Frank – but as I later wrote in my notebook: “BUST! Palpable disappointment.” Translation? MoCA is under renovation, so the bulk of the museum – including the photography wing featuring Robbie and friends – is completely shuttered.
With a deep sigh, I sulked off towards my favorite Little Tokyo izakaya for some comfort food. En route, I saw a sign for The Redwood – once I spotted the skull and crossbones, I knew I’d stumbled across the famed pirate-themed dive bar, and went inside for a quick dose of cheep and cheerful.
No Doubt’s “Underneath It All” skanked quietly in the background while the suit-and-tie crowd cackled, buoyed by an ever-flowing river of watered-down whiskey. For some reason, the whole evening changed in that instant. It reminded me of New York – of delicious uncertainty, the simplicity of wandering, the beauty of just going with the flow.
Suddenly, I wasn’t too bummed out about missing the Robert Franks at MoCA – instead, I realized that I found the Danny Lyons. So with a tip of the plastic tumbler, I saluted the fates and walked back into the night, more alive than I was only an hour before.
Top photo: Eddie Cat Halen, by Shawnté Salabert
Other photos: Danny Lyon, from the Prison Series, from Jackson Fine Art