|Written by Leo Hsu|
Pangnirtung Harbor © Robert Frank
In 2008 the publisher Steidl began a campaign to publish Robert Frank’s complete works in both photography and film, including unpublished and seldom seen works. The Robert Frank project was organised around the 50th anniversary edition of The Americans that coincided with a show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington dedicated to the book. The offerings have included Frank’s handmade maquetes such as Peru and new books produced from existing works such as Paris. Pangnirtung, published nearly 20 years after the pictures in the book were made, was not mentioned in the original publication scheme, but it appears to be a part of the project and is a beautiful and worthy book in its own right.
In August 1992, Frank spent five days in Pangnirtung, a village on Baffin Island close to the Arctic Circle inhabited by a small Inuit community, visiting with his friend Reginald Rankin. (It’s unclear whether Rankin lives in Pangnirtung or if they went to visit another friend together.) Frank informs us that Pangnirtung is an hour’s flight from Iqaluit (formerly Frobisher Bay), and the book is very much laid out as a path. The first image of a boat resting in Pangnirtung harbour resembles a classic ethnographic scene-setting photograph. From there we follow Frank from his arrival by air to the community airport (“way in/ way out”), to observations of the landscape, to an exploration of the village buildings, the identical prefabricated houses distinguished by their window dressings. The journey ends at the village cemetery by the sea and the very end of the road (“End of Pangnirtung road system”). There are no people in the pictures and the sky is always overcast, the ground frequently misted.
A memento mori need not be sad, but this small book is. From beginning to end there are 27 pictures, interspersed with terse captions and comments. In this brief narrative the spare words and text, aided by the typography and design, collaborate to create a textured but simple story about a crossing to the end of the world, and how modest a life is in the face of time and nature, both as and after it is lived. The large format images are fine-grained and describe the barren landscape of stones, dirt and sky as a long range of muted greys. The overall effect of the work is to describe a peaceful, silent, spacious place, where the possibilities of human intervention are constrained by human mortality.
from Pangnirtung © Robert Frank
Pangnirtung articulates with Frank’s Black White and Things, the maquete that he produced in an edition of three in 1952 for Edward Steichen and his parents; he gave the third copy to the National Gallery in 1990 where it was published in 1994 alongside his Moving Out retrospective. Was the publication of Black White and Things on Frank’s mind when he visited Pangnirtung? Black White and Things is an effort to categorise photographs that he had made in Europe, the United States, and Peru according to both form and subject:
somber people and black events
quiet people and peaceful places
and the things people have come in contact with
this, I try to show in my photographs.
Where Black White and Things is a book of contrasts folded into contrasts, the blacks and whites in Pangnirtung are absorbed into fields of grey:
Prefabricated homes along the main road in Pangnirtung.
At times a decorated window – reflections inside or outside.
Stones – maybe the balance of a big sky above.
Inuit Home, Pangnirtung © Robert Frank
In Pangnirtung, contrasts are collapsed, equilibrium neutralising both tensions and momentum. Two slightly differently framed images of the same prefabricated house sit on facing pages. Two other facing images form a continuous diptych: the left image shows the community oil storage at the side of the cemetery; the image on the right takes up the landscape and brings the eye to rest on a glowing cross. The overall effect is of a journey, where the photographs exist as story-telling elements but not as testaments.
Frank’s Pangnirtung, while still and quiet, nonetheless tingles with an undercurrent of warmth and energy. Frank created this work in 1992 according to his own sensibilities and impulses, isolated (self-exiled?) from the photography art world. The work’s publication by Steidl follows a different trajectory, recuperating the work as part of a completist project for an audience that Frank, standing over the fjords of Pangnirtung, could not possibly have imagined. Happily, the trajectory of Frank’s Pangnirtung photographs intersected with Steidl’s: displaced in time, but welcome nonetheless.
Pangnirtung by Robert Frank