This photo by Robert Frank, entitled American Flag (1957), depicts two women overlooking a parade in Hoboken, New Jersey, with the bottom of an American flag blocking one’s face, and obscuring the other’s. In Mitchell’s formulation, an image wants what it lacks: accordingly, Frank presents us with a complex narrative. As we see in American Flag, or, at least, in its onlookers, there is not an unimpeded view of a face offered.
I’ve studied some of Frank’s work before, and this particular photo comes from his The Americans series, which was (and still is) a critical dissection of American life and culture. It’d be easy for me to simply say, then, that American Flag is a commentary functioning very much in this same vein.
However, I believe this same commentary can be inferred without any prior exposure to Frank’s work. The implication from these unimpeded faces, particularly as an American flag causes such impediment, conveys a sense of marginalization. I believe this issue of marginalization is also inferred by the disposition of both women, as well as their clothing, and the shadowy aura that pervades the image.
These women, at least in the photo, literally lack a face, and thus lack a “voice.” And the thing that literally is causing this facelessness is the American flag. This disempowerment is also supplemented if we contextually frame this photo. Taken in the late 1950s, its two subjects, both women, faced a social construct that actively perpetuated their disempowerment, in senses social, political, and economic. As American Flag implies, this social construct was American society itself.
Therefore, I would say that this image wants a “voice,” as it is this voice that it lacks.