The term segregation, it can be defined as “the separation or isolation of a race, class, or ethnic group by enforced or voluntary residence in a restricted area, by barriers to social intercourse, by separate educational facilities, or by other discriminatory means” (Merriam-Webster). It was the major issue in the 1950s, where African Americans fought against racial discrimination, where the struggle against racism was the mainstream of American life. The Trolley Car by Robert Franks in 1955 is the piece of art work that I have chosen to discuss and explore.
Robert Frank was born in 1924 in Switzerland and was raised in a Jewish household, until he moved to New York in 1947. His move to New York was the start of his journey which he photographed the car, where people viewed him as “unAmerican”.
This social issue that Frank was responding to is social degradation, resulting from the racial segregation at this time in the 1950s. In the photograph, it shows a trolley car with open windows.
In the front of the bus, towards the left, it shows a older white woman, and young white children. On the other half of the trolley car towards the back of it, it shows a colored man and older woman. This picture was shot just a few weeks before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in Montgomery, Alabama. Frank was simply just shooting images of a parade going on down the street, when he recognized the trolley car, and took a photograph before it disappeared.
Frank had plenty of personal experience with an issue as him and his family broke away from Hitler’s ideological war, he had the ultimate path that blind racial intolerance followed. Therefore, he felt a duty to highlight moments like these, where segregation was relevant. At the time, the audience responded to this artwork extremely negatively, as he was viewed as “anti-American”. These photographs were published five years after he became a United States citizen. Being from Switzerland in itself, and not being a citizen of the United States, he received lots of cruelty regarding that he did not know what was going on in the world, as he had been living in another country for the beginning of his lifetime.
Although, he was extremely aware of segregation, even if it was not in the United States, because he experienced it in Switzerland. As written on The Art Story, “Frank saw himself however in the role of a contemporary flâneur, recording modern life while going unseen and un-noticed and commenting indeed that he often ‘felt like a detective or a spy’. In this image, Frank managed to encapsulate, through the blank emotions of ‘unremarkable’ people, a nation caught up in the frictions between post war American optimism and the realities of race relations and working-class life” (The Art Story). This shows his purpose behind taking this photo, how race and the working class life were just normal people, like everyone else, but no one else realized that or saw that. This was the artists way of showing how the racial groups were so separated, to inform everyone on this issue. Also, as stated in an article, “The policy of compelling racial groups to live apart from each other — going to separate schools, the use of separate social facilities, etc., was perfectly captured symbolically by Frank’s sharp lens as he walked up to that trolley and pointed his Leica at this perfect site of institutionalized Southern racism” (Appel). As you look along the photograph, it shows a white man, white woman, white children, black man, and then black woman, whoa re all isolated from one another and ranked by birthright. One can view this as a hierarchy.
The light above the white man all the way to the left, creates an illusion. The light above him creates the illusion over his head increasing the untouchability he had. Then, the expressions of the colored, are viewed as an uninvited outsider, someone who is unwelcome. The medium of this photograph is a gelatin silver print. This print is usually made with the black and white process which consists of three layers: paper, baryta, and gelatin (Art Institute Chicago). The paper is what serves as the base, with the baryta layer sitting on top, and the gelatin layer is made up of silver compounds which form the image. Back in the 1950s, it was unusual for someone to speak up on such a matter, to ever dare question the laws of inequality, was unheard of. Robert Frank did notice something was wrong, just before Rosa Parks decided to take a stand. This photograph was essential in the 1950s because it reflected a social issue, and had extreme meaning in the 1950s. Now, times have changed and this issue is not as present today as it was, although, some would disagree and say that racial segregation is still prevalent. Many things have changed, no different bathrooms, different school systems, etc.The world has evolved to become a much more diverse and welcoming place than when this photograph was taken, and many are thankful for that.