Another side of Frank Roth


One afternoon, less than a week before the opening of his first show of photographs, Frank Roth was rushing out the door of his house to talk to an auditorium full of students at Solomon Schechter Day School about art. Roth, whose exhibition of new photographic work, “Narrative Patterns,” opened Thursday, May 14 at Bruno David Gallery in Grand Center, first became visible in the 1940s as Arts and Crafts Director at Camp Hawthorne. Roth continues to exert strong influence in the Jewish community, the art and design world and the St Louis community at large.

He’s been mayor of Olivette, sat on boards such as the Jewish Light, Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel Congregation (where he still produces the monthly bulletin), Craft Alliance, KWMU Public Radio, Cancer Family Care and the American Lung Association.


“Frank is always going off to a meeting,” sighs his wife, Faye Herman Roth, who herself has been awarded many times as volunteer extraordinaire.

His design firm, Frank James Productions, produced cutting-edge work for Winco Windows, the St Louis Post-Dispatch, Missouri Pacific Railroad and Kenneth Balk Associates — he even designed a ship for Intrav — winning him dozens of national awards. He designed the Swing-Away can-opener that was selected to represent America at the International World’s Fair in Brussels and was the first winner of the Washington University Distinguished Alumni Award.

According to the Jewish Light’s vice-president Diane Gallant, who worked for Roth’s firm in the 1980s, there are two simple words that describe him: “creative genius.”

“He has such a handle on creativity, on what was right promotionally and in terms of design,” she says. “In the ’80s, his office was a training ground for every ad agency in St Louis.”

As an extension of his design and direct-marketing work, Roth has been instrumental in shaping many local political campaigns. Larry Levin, Publisher and CEO of the Jewish Light, worked with Roth when Levin ran for the Ladue School Board.

“Frank has an incredibly intelligent, insightful and savvy voice about personal and community issues,” Levin says. “For someone like me who knew very little about how to construct materials for a political campaign, Frank was a reassuring presence, engaging and a strong barometer about professional matters and about right and wrong.”

Architect Hannah Roth (not a relative) who worked with him when she was vice-president of marketing at McCarthy Construction, says “when Frank was running Frank James Productions, he was the same kind of happy, warm person he is today. He hired this marvelous collection of strange, wildly creative people. They were always laughing together It was always fun to visit his studio.”

“He’s always been well-respected in the art school at Washington University,” she continues. And he is famously generous in the not-for-profit world. He sits on the Washington University Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts National Advisory Board.”

Not surprisingly, 350 people — few of them strangers — packed the Project Room at Bruno David Gallery to look at Roth’s new work.

“I have always been fascinated by and cared deeply about how patterns reinforce the function and mood of visual images,” Roth explains. “For four decades, teaching how patterns are created have driven my teaching of two-dimensional visual design theory at Wash U and influenced my career as an art director/designer.”

Roth says when students, clients, friends have asked over the years what kind of work he creates, he explains that he doesn’t have a “personal art or a special medium.”

“I always get the same blank look and a surprised, disappointed ‘Oh,'” he says.

“That’s been the simple truth of my life, until recently. Why? Because, although I’ve always used photographs and edgy designs for clients, my first love — my identity, I suppose — has been teaching students the way visual patterns are created and how they work, in order to help them understand spatial relationships.”

However, Roth decided to revisit a medium he started with before attending art school: photography.

“I gave myself an assignment: explore the creation of photographic images that look at ordinary scenes — a marketplace, a grove of trees, a non-descript building — and present them as a narrative image that reduces the illusion of three-dimensional perspective and respects the flat surface of the picture plane; an image that suggests an abstract, random pattern. An image that will have the viewer questioning if there is more to see.”

Frank Roth’s narrow, horizontal photographs never tell a complete story. To him, the physical image is just the beginning of the story.

The narrative began before the photograph was taken and will go on afterwards. “I’m not trying to make a recording of the instant,” he says impatiently. “What’s interesting about that?”

Roth explains that the content he cares about is “the tension between negative and positive forms that prompt questions. The partial images of figures that make us ask: ‘What are those people doing there?'”

Why does he deliberately cut off the heads of the two women in the foreground of one image?

“To force you to look at the tension. Life — what gives the picture vitality, vibrancy, magnetism — is the tension between positive and negative space — not the story of the people in it.”

“A good painter rearranges the positive and negative spaces on a canvas,” he explains. “For a photographer, it’s harder. You’re stuck with the content that comes with the territory.”He allows nothing in the foreground to have more importance than anything that’s going on in the background.Roth shoots from a great distance whenever possible to help create a flattened appearance. “I shoot the images when I see them, regardless of the time of day, in existing light, to capture the mood.”

Images are not altered, but carefully cropped, to arrive at his final statement. “I don’t shoot portraits,” he insists.

In conventional portraits, the tension is between the poser and the photographer. Here, the tension is what holds the parts of the photograph together.

“Is the tension visible?” he asks. “You decide,” he smiles.

Frank Roth: Narrative Patterns

When: May 14 – June 27

Where: Bruno David Gallery (Project Room), 3721 Washington Boulevard (in Grand Center)

Cost: Free

Hours: Open Wednesdays through Saturdays and by appointment, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and first Sunday of every month, noon- 5 p.m.

More info: 314-531-3030 or [email protected]