As part of my ongoing research into classic photobooks generally and the photo essay in particular, I got a copy of the 2008 Steidl edition of Robert Frank’s 1958 collection “The Americans” . Unlike the Martin Parr book I covered recently, this wasn’t actually a work that had crossed my radar – surprisingly, perhaps embarrassingly, given its place in photography history.
The book has something in common with Parr’s The Last Resort: whilst lauded as a classic now, it divided critics on its publication as it eschewed the photographic conventions of the day and pushed people’s perceptions of what ‘good photography’ is. Like the Parr work, 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 (side-note: would I have given it a second look if it didn’t come with the weight of expectation? chicken/egg…).
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.
This was the big eureka moment for me: 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. A “good photo” doesn’t have to be a “good” photo!
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. 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.
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 is. 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 easy to see 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 whether the image is inherently beautiful. With over 50 years of photography that followed, it’s easy to take those things for granted. With this book you can see the roots of a new type of photography.
1. Frank, R. 2008. The Americans. Gottingen, Germany: Steidl