Exploring His Kodachrome Dreams
CFA’s Stephen A. Frank has new show at Sherman Gallery
Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, in the 1950s, Stephen A. Frank dreamed of hitching rides on the Pennsylvania Railroad trains that thundered past his kitchen window, bound either for Philadelphia and New York or for St. Louis. He imagined himself transported to the national parks and monuments whose photos he had seen in magazines.
“National Geographic, Life, Look, and The Saturday Evening Post were my windows to the world,” recalls Frank, a College of Fine Arts School of Visual Arts master lecturer. But Frank’s parents, owners of a liquor–gourmet food store, had neither the time nor the means to travel. “I grew up with what I call the Jewish work ethic, the retail work ethic,” he says. “There was no time for vacations. There was only time for work.” The closest Frank got to realizing his wanderlust were occasional trips with his family to nearby Vandalia Airport, where they’d watch TWA propeller planes take off. “I longed to be one of the silhouetted figures in those tiny windows going to places I could only dream of, but longed to see,” he says.
After graduating with a degree in photography from Ohio University in the late ’60s, Frank moved East to study at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he earned a master’s degree. He then moved to Boston and began teaching at BU in 1974. But he says he never had the time—or the money—to see the sites he had dreamed of as a boy. “I was always so jealous of everyone who had traveled,” he says. “Any place you had been and I hadn’t, I was jealous of you being there.”
That all changed four years ago when the photography instructor was promoted to master lecturer, a move that gave him the means to travel. He started mapping out trips to the West. Over the past three years, Frank estimates, he’s traveled more than 10,000 miles, taking photographs at dozens of national parks and historic sites. His first trip, to Denver, took him to Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, Crazy Horse, Devils Tower, Pike’s Peak, and Royal Gorge Bridge and Park.
“It was just miraculous that I’d actually been able to accomplish this—see it in my head and carry it out, make a plan, do all the things necessary to make it happen,” Frank says of that first trip.
The following year brought Frank to Salt Lake City, the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone National Park, and Jackson Hole, Wyo. And this past summer came a third trip west, this time to the Arches, Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Canyonlands National Parks, Monument Valley, Moab, and most important, his personal favorite—the Grand Canyon.
“No photo has ever done it justice,” says Frank, still awestruck by the experience. “It’s more special than you could ever imagine. The silence is the thing you notice first.”
Frank has also made numerous trips to Maine over the past several years, capturing Acadia National Park and the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory in all kinds of light and weather.
Now, some three dozen images culled from Frank’s travels are on view in a new show at the Sherman Gallery. Titled Stephen A. Frank: Exploring My Kodachrome Dreams, the exhibition conveys the majesty—and the whimsy—he encountered in his travels. While he took pictures everywhere he went, Frank was choosy about what he included in the show. Images “needed to have a quality of light, a sense of gesture, and a sense of composition” to make the cut, he says.
He was often surprised by what he discovered when he returned home from his trips. In reviewing the images he’d captured, he says, he found that “it’s not always the vision you had. Sometimes you think it’s going to be really good and it’s eh, and sometimes there’s one image you didn’t even know about and you go, oh, my God, there’s something special about that one. I love the process.”
Despite the fact that he was trained in, and teaches, black-and-white photography, all of this show’s photographs are in color. Frank says that shooting in color has the advantage of giving viewers a heightened sense of reality. “I love the juiciness of it.”
Many of the images in the show convey the grandeur of the country’s national parks, especially a series titled Moonrise—taken at Yellowstone, Zion, and Arches National Parks. These are among the very few pictures in the exhibition that are pure landscapes. Most of Frank’s photos include people. In some, like Rider Being Sworn In to Carry the Mail, the people are central to the image. But in many, like Moonrise over South Window, taken at Arches National Park, the viewer has to study the picture before finding a lone figure who appears to blend into the magnificent rock formation. The same is true in another arresting image, Corbet’s Cabin, taken at Rendezvous Peak in Jackson Hole. The viewer’s eye is drawn first to a building nearly buried by snow. Only after staring at the image for a period of time does the eye discern a man in the distance, a dark speck against the dazzling white landscape.
“I think photographs with people in them are more interesting than photographs without people in them,” says Frank. “One of the DNAs of a photograph is gesture, a little human gesture, a little something going on.”
Viewers will also notice a kind of sly wit behind many of the images. In Rodeo Royalty: Emily, Kortney and Keslie, Canyonlands PRCA Rodeo and Rodeo Clown, Canyonlands PRCA Rodeo, Old Spanish Trail Arena, he captures in the kind of honky-tonk atmosphere of rodeo arenas “the humor of the craziness of life.” But these photographs never poke fun at their subjects. Frank treats the people he records with genuine warmth.
“Stephen’s images are simultaneously direct and subtle,” says School of Visual Arts exhibitions manager Lynne Cooney (GRS’08,’15). “His work is documentary in tone, but there is always something subtly percolating underneath, which in Stephen’s case is a wry sense of humor.”
Asked if he has a favorite photograph from the show, Frank pauses for a moment, then points to Midway Geyser Basin, showing a single man, silhouetted against a billowing geyser at Yellowstone in nearly monochromatic tones. While the man in the photo isn’t Frank, the image serves as a self-portrait. “I’d always dreamt of going to Yellowstone and seeing all those things you’ve heard about,” he says, “and there I am. I’m really there. It’s like every photograph in the show is a picture of me.”
Frank is planning two more trips west: one next summer to photograph Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks, and another to Death Valley. After that, he intends to publish a book of the best images from all his travels.
The photographer says that finally getting to explore his Kodachrome dreams has proven surprisingly empowering.
“I’m free now to dream my own dreams,” he says, “and be able to carry them out.”
Stephen A. Frank: Exploring My Kodachrome Dreams is on view at the Sherman Gallery, 775 Commonwealth Ave., through Sunday, December 16; hours: Tuesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m.; phone: 617-358-0295; admission is free. An opening reception will take place tonight, Thursday, November 15, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Sherman Gallery.4 Comments