The Histograms by Sherwin Rivera Tibayan



At some point it began to matter to me how I thought about Robert Frank’s The Americans. To be sure, the book had for some time served as a reference for me, a kind of Strunk & White for photography with its 83 black and white pictures arguing for the medium’s active voice. Here was a book that I felt I knew quite well: once in a while as a series of intelligent and jarring non-fictions rhythmically sequenced, sometimes as the record of circumnavigations involving the open road and closed-off peoples, always as the body of work to confront for those who wanted a turn at taking the American picture.



I’ve always liked the way that he let the process of photography reduce—even abandon altogether—the dimensions of the country. Most immediately in space and time, in the costumed bodies of people caught on a bus, but also in the feel and color of things: warm headlights and hand-painted signs, the smell of motorcycle parts and the babel of cocktail chatter. I loved how these reductions came to support the form and legibility of each picture, the way that reflected light took shape on pieces of film in the 1950s. This helped me to think about the flattened and tuned-out and hidden, to try and reconstruct what at first looked like despair or mean irony and see, more fully, instances of great generosity.



The technology of the camera offered another kind of reduction. The 35mm format he used was significantly smaller and faster than the view camera bodies operated by earlier generations of American photographers like Timothy O’Sullivan or Walker Evans. Here was an opportunity for him to subject the same spaces to a different set of laws, contemporaneous laws, laws that better described his own encounter with the facts and figures of the world.



As a book, I can remember how the characteristic stillness or urgency of each photograph could be communicated with the way I responded to the material reality of bound pages. I liked to keep my fingers stalled at the white edges of the page to better see the broad backs of men turned away from me. Or I could just as willfully skip past the news from Hoboken or St. Petersburg. It depended on my mood. And his.



When I began pulling apart my well-cared-for copy of Frank’s book, I was thinking about Kerouac’s words. In clear black ink they shaped the results of my own long looking, helping me confront the rising and falling ambiguity of seeing and seeing and seeing—those pictures, now. How can any set of pictures give us enough time to loosen objects from the values of the world? Here was the labor left to the viewer after all that seeing was done.



The Histograms is a reduction of all the photographs in Robert Frank’s seminal book from 1959, The Americans. The images were cut out and scanned in order to derive their individual histogram data. The generated graphs present the unique distributions of tonal ranges in each picture, from shadows on the left to mid-tones and highlights on the right.





Sherwin Rivera Tibayan (Subic Bay, Philippines, 1982) is an artist whose projects address digital culture and its relationship with the history of images. In 2012, The Histograms was given the Society for Photographic Education’s SPE Award for Innovations in Imaging in Honor of Jeannie Pearce. He received an MFA in Photography from the University of Oklahoma and is currently a PhD student in American Studies at the University of Texas, Austin.




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Text & Images ©  Sherwin Rivera Tibayan