(40) The American Fifties
“Today’s HOSOP meeting starts with news of Robert Frank’s death.” Mr. Bento said with a low voice, lifting up his spectacles and gently soothing his eyes with two fingers, he tried to recall something. “I remember seeing recent photographs of him taken by a Canadian photographer. Was it last May, no, it was the May before last May, during Toronto’s Contact Photo Festival. They were taken at Mabou on Cape Breton Island, pictures of Frank inside and around his home, he seemed to be well at ease. One could feel the good rapport between them.”
“Robert Frank, you mean the photographer who got famous for the book The Americans?” asked Wandy. “I saw this book long time ago, maybe 20 years ago.”
“You’re right Wandy.” said George. “Speaking of which, do you have that book in the third floor library? It gave me an impression that there’s a good collection of photo monographs up there.” Just at this moment Chai and Mrs. Bento entered the room, both carrying a tray seated with bowls. “Red bean soup everyone!” Mrs. Bento said with a cheerful voice. “Cooked with organic red beans, age-old dried orange peel and sweetened with rock sugar. By the way, this is my niece Chai. She is working on a project in Toronto and will be staying with us for a while. Chai, this is uncle George, Aunt Wandy, Uncle Yoji and Uncle Bill.” They lay the bowls down carefully on the table and provided spoons for the guests.
“The Americans was first published in the late 50s, and has since been republished many times. I don’t go up to the library very much and wouldn’t know if there’s a copy.” Mr. Bento turned to Chai, “You have been working up there recently, have you seen Robert Frank’s The Americans?”
Chai thought for a while and said, “Yes, it’s a very famous book. I have not seen it upstairs…but I saw some other books by Robert Frank: The Lines of My Hand and hmm…the postcard book…what’s the name…ah yes, it is Thank you. And I’ve also found a few other books relating to that period which are quite interesting: The Family of Man, Walker Evans and also…Limelight.”
“The Family of Man?” asked Yoji. “You mean the legendary photo exhibition at MoMA way back, I think, around the 50’s? I would really like to look at the book!”
“Geez, you know what, I can’t believe it seems like yesterday that I saw this exhibition at MoMA, my first trip to New York!” proclaimed Bill, who is the oldest member of HOSOP. “More than 60 years! So is it the original catalogue of the show, or a recent reprint?”
“Oh, I didn’t really look into the details, but my impression is it did look a bit old.” Chai passed Mrs. Bento a quick look and pleaded, “Aunty can I go upstairs and bring the book down? It sounds like an important book and could be worthwhile sharing.” Mrs. Bento nodded, finishing the rest of her red bean soup with a gulp and said, “Certainly. Let me go with you.”
The two ladies returned minutes later with a pile of books. One of them was The Family of Man. The publication was designed like a magazine. They passed it around and examining it with great interest. For sure the catalogue was printed in 1955, published on the occasion of the exhibition with the same name. The spine of the book appeared a bit beat-up, its edges worn-out, pages turned yellow and slightly shaken. An image of a Peruvian Piper adorned the cover, backing up with the graphic of multiple coloured quadrilateral forms - a Mid-Century modern design popular at that time. Beneath the image stood the title The Family of Man in bigger types, following by texts in smaller size: The Greatest Photographic Exhibition of
All Time - 503 pictures from 68 countries - curated by Edward Steichen for The Museum of Modern Art. Prologue by Carl Sandburg. An old, stained and faded $4.95 price sticker was still stuck on the upper right corner of the book. They turned the pages with extreme care, lest they came off like breeze. In fact some pages had already broken free.