Looking again at The Americans

I’ve had my copy of Robert Frank’s The Americans for about a year and during that time I’ve picked it up at least once a month. It isn’t particularly original to say that the book is important or that it’s a masterpiece – pretty much the standard viewpoint is that this collection first published in France in 1958 is the most important in the history of photography.

I first properly came across Frank when Tate Modern did the decent thing and put on a retrospective. The biggest impact on me though came not from les Americains but from the work Frank had done immediately prior, in particular in the mining community of Caerau, South Wales.

The Tate exhibition spent a long time getting to 1959, by which time Frank was 35 and had already shot more iconic photographs than most people will manage in a lifetime. The classic style was established and the copyists had no doubt begun to take to the road. Then came the final section dealing with the still active Frank’s career from 1960 onwards in which I genuinely struggle to take much of an interest. The clear and decisive break with what came before almost makes it seem like two entirely different men.

But back to The Americans.

These are familiar images now and even if the specific ones are not well known the style is ubiquitous even today. Every street photographer who uploads their stuff to flickr is following Robert Frank. But rather like how everybody can craft a sentence or two of hard-boiled detective fiction there’s still only one Raymond Chandler. Frank’s gift is not in technical perfection and it certainly is not in excessive manipulation or cropping. His gift is to present the straightforward and familiar in such a way as to make the viewer assess and reassess both what the image is presenting and how it was captured.

The latter is a littler easier to do now that the contact sheets are available. As an example we can follow how Amercians 35, Car Accident came into being. The sheets show what the selected image does not – the actual wreckage and the work of the rescue services. We can see how Frank was in the middle – not clicking rapid fire but building a record of significant moments. The chosen images shows men gathered almost in prayer over a covered body. It seems calm, reflective. But we can see that these people have been working hard and are now waiting to put the body in the hearse. Less reflective and more a well-earned breather.

As to what is being shown it’s interesting how negative a lot of the reaction was to The Americans from both photographers and public. Other photographers no doubt despised the blurs and the fact that everything had the potential to seem like just a snap, not a well thought out photograph. And the public, in particular the American public, no doubt felt intruded upon and subverted. Frank’s was a liberal standpoint and his work clearly shows the divisions in American society. It also has an eye for the uncomfortable pairing – Americans 35 described above sits next to Americans 34. The former a covered corpse after an accident, the latter a covered car prior to sale.

The Americans is a constantly invigorating collection and fifty odd years on from its first publishing still feels modern and telling. Whilst the works of some key photographers operating immediately before Frank feel through no fault of their own to be records of the past in both style and subject Frank is the start of modern-era America and he captures its power, its ambiuguities, its beauty and its troubles.

The video below goes into a bit more detail about The Americans and is by Sarah Greenhough who, with Stuart Alexander, produced Looking In, the definitive contextualisation and study of Robert Frank’s masterpiece.

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