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photo-eye Book Reviews: Pangnirtung

Pangnirtung, Photographs by Robert Frank.
Published by Steidl, 2011.
Reviewed by Ellen Rennard
Robert Frank Pangnirtung
Photographs by Robert Frank
Steidl, 2011. Hardbound. 40 pp., 27 black & white illustrations, 9x12".

I agreed to review Robert Frank's Pangnirtung with not a little trepidation. Where is Pangnirtung, anyway? The last page of the book has a map. One way of knowing. Northwest Territories. Cold. Isolated. Gray, like the photographs. Unrelenting gray on perfect, heavy, matte paper with plenty of white space. Overcast. The cover: "stones - maybe the balance of a big sky above..." The texture of the boards, rough. Simple, but not. Frank's text: sparse. The land: sparser.

Frank tells us he flew in from Iqaluit, formerly Frobisher Bay, in a four-passenger plane. Stayed with friends. A quiet time. Five days in 1992, 27 images in a book published by Steidl almost 20 years later. A book that sounds like silence, a journey that feels like stillness.

Pangnirtung, by Robert Frank. Published by Steidl, 2011.
 "The people's language is INUKTITUT," Frank writes. "One Man is INUK. More - the people INUIT." Okay. But there are no human beings in these black-and-white Polaroid photographs. 1,325 people in Pangnirtung in 2006, the book says. But none visible. Wait. There is one. A tiny figure in the distance on the right in the book's opening image of Pangnirtung Harbor. I get out my loupe to make sure. It appears to be a man. All but lost in the vastness, a figure dwarfed by the stark landscape that could be from the nineteenth century if not for a small motorboat floating in the calm water.

Pangnirtung, by Robert Frank. Published by Steidl, 2011.
Maybe the Inuit don't want to be photographed. They've lived here for thousands of years. Now in prefabricated houses photographed by Robert Frank. The windows are mostly covered: a Canadian flag, a tiger, curtains. Who's home? The same facade repeated on two facing pages with just a slight variation. For emphasis, but emphasis of what? A moment and then another moment. The compositions in this section vaguely reminiscent of Frank's "Trolley," the cover of Steidl's 2008 publication of Frank's seminal work, The Americans, but with no people, no movement. Being nobody, going nowhere.

Sad? Maybe. Or just hermetic. So what can I tell you to think about this book? You'll feel as you feel. It's a little journey. It starts in the harbor. The airplane lands at the community airport. A pile of rocks behind a chain link fence: "way in, way out," the caption reads.

Pangnirtung, by Robert Frank. Published by Steidl, 2011.
 You can feel the coldness of the air. You can smell winter. Another caption: "telephone post above perma-frost." Perma-frost: soil below freezing for two or more years. The last four pages are of graves marked by white wooden crosses. A cemetery by the bay. The final frame: "End of Pangnirtung Road System."

I keep returning to this book. Then to The Americans. I see Frank's early work differently now, all those cars, the motorcycles, and Jack Kerouac's introductory description of "the mad road, lonely, leading around the bend into the openings of space . . ." And continuing, here, in Pangnirtung: the main road, desolate, leading past the small village into the end of something.—Ellen Rennard

Ellen Rennard is a writer, photographer, and teacher of writing and literature at Groton School in Groton, MA. She graduated from Princeton, where she wrote her thesis on images of Native Americans; she also holds an MA in English from Middlebury. Her articles and reviews have appeared in Fraction Magazine and Photovision; her photographs have appeared in numerous publications, including Black and White and Orion. Images from Rennard’s book project on The Downs at Albuquerque were nominated for a New York Photo Festival Book Award in 2009 and won first place in the 2010 Px3 People’s Choice Awards for Book Proposal and Documentary Photography.