This Robert Frank photograph is one of my favorites. It was taken in London in the early 1950’s, and captures a a well-dressed man walking briskly passed a laborer as he struggles to lift a heavy sack over his shoulders. The moment is fleeting, but I think also profound in its social commentary. It defines each man in contrast to the other - affluent versus poor, professional versus laborer, leather gloves versus workman’s gloves, pressed-pants versus torn pants.
By all appearances, the businessman has achieved a level of material success that has alluded the laborer. He wears an elegant long coat and a top hat. He holds an umbrella by his side, though it is not raining. He seems to gaze away from the laborer, as though he is unaware, or wants to be unaware, of the polarized social dynamic that the photographer plainly recognizes.
What I like so much about this photograph, though, is its depth. Initially, the viewer observes the stark contrasts between both men. About all they seem to have in common is their physical proximity.
But ultimately there is an undercurrent of similarity that links the two men together. Each is a worker, in some sense. Each has a designated role to perform in society, a skill-set of some value to offer. Their particular experiences may be different, but ultimately, they are each indebted to their own needs, and therefore to the job that enables them to meet those needs. They are free men, but neither can escape the necessity of a paycheck. And so they toil in the street, or in the office, in torn pants, or in a suit. Their particular tasks are different, but their reason for doing them is the same.
At one level, this photograph serves as a social critique of 1950‘s London. But it also challenges the viewer to reach further and to recognize that despite their differences, neither man is immune to the imperatives of the human condition.