Whilst lauded as a classic now, Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958) divided critics on its publication as it eschewed the photographic conventions of the day and pushed people’s perceptions of what ‘good photography’ is. It is hard to truly experience the ‘shock of the new’ looking at it decades later, when these once-revolutionary aesthetics and vision can be seen echoed in the work of countless subsequent photographers. You have to try to put yourself in the shoes of the late 1950s viewer. Through this virtual lens it becomes clearer how much of a break from the past this collection represents.
A different kind of photography
Frank’s work is, at first glance, frustrating (well it was to me anyway). At first I couldn’t really see what the big deal was. But this is one of those collections where the more you look, the more you see.
What comes across is a set of images that place feeling/mood/emotion over technical quality. His work is often blurry, loosely composed, with tilted horizons, with unsure focus, with people’s faces obscured… in some instances I found it maddening that he hadn’t straightened up, cropped closer, refocused to get a better shot. But he seemed to select the exposures that conveyed the right feeling to him, not the ones that were technically the best. This in itself was revolutionary at the time.
Almost all photography up until this point (and much photography since) was edited for aesthetic quality; but if photography has a documenting role, it needs to be able to capture a moment that may not be technically perfect, but get across what was happening at that split-second. It is, as Cartier-Bresson says in The Mind’s Eye (1998), about getting the “essence” of the situation.
Is this ‘beat photography’? It’s telling that Jack Kerouac provided the introduction text. The style of photography has much in common with the ‘beat writer’ style and rhythm, which in turn was influenced by the musicality of jazz – disjointed, fragmented, staccato, improvised, seemingly stream-of-conciousness but with an underlying cohesion and rhythms, if you look for them. Specifically the road-trip format of the project echoes Kerouac’s most famous work – he manages to work the phrase “on the road” into the first sentence of the introduction.
Subjects and themes
In choosing what to shoot (and select in the edit), he set himself apart from his contemporaries; America as a broad theme had been done before, but not like this. He shot a huge variety of subjects, including many that others had not covered before: work and play, rich and poor, black and white, cities and wide open spaces. He seemed to be looking for a cross-section of subjects – people, places, activities – that together summed up America. His outsider status (he was a Swiss national) gave him both a curiosity about his adopted country and an empathy with the minorities he saw. This is not the America that a state-sponsored photography project would have covered.
He was, with this set of images at least, more of an eye-witness than an artist. In choosing to cover subjects/events not normally photographed, he provided a record of the country at that time. Furthermore, in choosing the specific exposures that more technically proficient photographers would have rejected, he was giving the world a chance to see specific moments of life that would otherwise never have seen the light of day. Example: the Hollywood starlet on the red carpet at the movie premiere: she’s out of focus, the spectators are in focus. He chose to highlight the ordinary people over the celebrity.
Whilst he had a knack for interesting subjects, he clearly had some specific thematic elements in mind. Some of these are now considered so stereotypical of 1950s USA that you wonder if they already were clichés or if Frank captured them on their way to becoming iconic: diners, big cars, jukeboxes. Several images allude to the racial segregation that was still being suffered by minorities in the 1950s. Other elements are timeless Americana: the US flag is highly prominent, stetsons make a few appearances. A couple of less obvious thematic elements become apparent on closer examination: death is depicted or alluded to in several images; religious imagery, specifically the crucifix, makes a few appearances.
Looking at it again recently, a couple of other, more subtle themes emerged for me. I was surprised how many of the images alluded to class differences, and not just racially based. I don’t think of the USA as being as class-conscious as Britain, but there are a number of images of the ‘upper class’ at play that don’t paint them in a very sympathetic light. The other extra layer I spotted was the overriding sense of loneliness in many of the images; I always felt a sense of melancholy in the series, but more specifically I’m now seeing images that emphasised how alone people can be, even in crowds – looking different ways, not engaging with each other. It’s added a new depth to some of the pictures. Frank the outsider coming though the pictures again.
Meaning and intent
What was Frank trying to say here? It’s certainly not a linear narrative, nor even, for a road-trip, a geographic one. He criss-crosses the states and captures what amounts to a series of vignettes, not a neat story with beginning, middle and end. He seems to want to provide a snapshot, or rather a series of snapshots, that show what a complex, multi-faceted place the USA was. If anything, he’s saying: all this is America; America is all these things. He is capturing a mood, a vibe. Holding a mirror up to a nation.
It’s understandable now why this is such a pivotal photo essay. It used photography in a new way, it defied convention, it showed that photography can be raw, honest, unglamorous. It can capture seemingly mundane slices of life as well as grand events. It can evoke a feeling that is detached from the aesthetic beauty of the image. With the decades of photography that has followed, it’s easy to take those things for granted. With this book you can see the roots of a new type of photography.
Cartier-Bresson, H. (2004) The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers. Woking: Aperture.
Frank, R. (2008) The Americans. Gottingen: Steidl.