By: Jean Dykstra
When Robert Frank’s landmark photography book, The Americans, was first published in the United States in 1959, it was not warmly received, to put it mildly. His photographs—off-kilter, sometimes out of focus or unflattering but always remarkable—were seen by some in that nationalistic, Cold War-era as an all-out condemnation of the country. Critics in Popular Photography called it “a wart-covered picture of America” and “a slashing and bitter attack on some U.S. institutions.” Sales were so slim that the book went out of print within a year, by which time Frank had made just over $800 on the project.
“To a great extent, he was one of the few photographers in the 1950s who were looking beneath the myth of America that was being put forth in the popular media, inLife, Look and on TV,” says Sarah Greenough, the curator of photography at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., who organized the exhibition Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, which is at the Metropolitan Museum in New York through Jan. 3. This is the first time a full set of prints of the photographs in the book has been exhibited. In addition, contact sheets and work prints offer glimpses into Frank’s editing process, and images on view from three earlier maquettes (Peru, 1949; Mary’s Book, 1949; and Black White and Things, 1952) suggest that Frank’s aesthetic was firmly in place before he embarked on The Americans.
Today The Americans is considered perhaps the most important postwar photography book. Revered among photographers, curators and collectors, it changed the way documentary photography is conceived and practiced. It is “one of the greatest bodies of work of the 20th century,” says Denise Bethel, director of photographs at Sotheby’s New York. “It’s beyond description in terms of how influential that body of work was, the images are so powerful.”
Frank’s highly personal photographs, contemplative and often deliberately opaque, laid bare the many stratifications in American society, racial as well as socioeconomic. Smug politicians, the poor and disenfranchised, outsiders and rebels, starlets and urban cowboys all made an appearance in his pictures, which also teased out some of the most potent symbols of American life—cars, crosses, television, the flag—suggesting both their power and the emptiness of their promises.
The first photograph in the book, Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955, shows an American flag fluttering across a worn brick building, concealing the face of a woman watching from her window. Another flag hangs limply on the wall of a recruiter’s office in Navy Recruiting Station, Post Office—Butte, Montana, 1956, a shot that shows the recruiter’s feet up on the desk, hardly at respectful attention. Another flag nearly fills the frame in Fourth of July—Jay, New York, 1954, though it’s torn and faded nearly to transparency. The flag is trotted out at fairs and parades, but what, Frank seemed to be asking, does it really represent?
Frank was an outsider in this country himself: Born in Switzerland in 1924, he came to the U.S. in 1947 and quickly immersed himself in New York City’s art world. He began working as a freelance magazine photographer, but with the support of his friend and mentor Walker Evans, he applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship, stating on his application that he wanted to make “a broad, voluminous picture record of things American, past and present.” Evans had made his own photographic road trip across the American South in 1935, producing the influential 1938 book American Photographs, the most obvious predecessor to The Americans. With the Guggenheim grant, Frank embarked on several peripatetic, Beat-style road trips, crisscrossing the country in 1955 and ’56. (It’s fitting that Jack Kerouac wrote the book’s introduction.) Frank took some 27,000 pictures, which he eventually winnowed down to the carefully edited 83 that make up The Americans.
The exhibition currently at the Met displays the photographs in the sequence that Frank so painstakingly established. They are connected thematically as well as visually, one picture bringing forward some new resonance in its neighbor. “As you look through the sequence of pictures, it’s almost like a musical score,” says Philippe Garner, international head of photography at Christie’s. The dismal circumstances of an elderly man, half-hidden by a rickety staircase in Rooming House—Bunker Hill, Los Angeles, 1956, are made more apparent by contrast with the next photograph, which shows an elderly man in a three-piece suit and derby hat resting comfortably on a bench as gowned graduates file past in Yale Commencement—New Haven Green, New Haven, Connecticut, 1956. The shimmery, protective sheet in Covered Car—Long Beach, California, 1956, echoes the rough blanket covering an accident victim in the next image, Car Accident—U.S. 66, Between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona, 1955.
“The kinds of juxtapositions that he whipped up in the book were tough for people,” says Peter MacGill of Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York, Frank’s longtime dealer, which is showing the photographer’s work Oct. 29–Dec. 5. “As Harry Truman said, ‘They say I give ’em hell. I tell the truth and they think it’s hell.’”
In his introduction Kerouac wrote that Frank “sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.” If the photography establishment didn’t welcome Frank’s poetry at the time, a number of younger photographers did. His influence can be seen from Nan Goldin to Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Bruce Davidson and Joel Meyerowitz, among others, all of whom have been influenced by Frank’s loose, intuitive style. “Frank transformed a purely documentary mode into one that could be a more subjective idea of the photographer’s own vision,” says Greenough. With his grainy images, blurred pictures and soft focus, Frank was the polar opposite of Ansel Adams, whose clean, perfect prints defined excellence in photography at the time. “But that granularity, that softness, was all part of the way Frank captured the mood,” says Garner. “The Americans is a landmark for how to use photography to be expressive, poetic and really function on its own quirky terms, setting aside the received wisdom of what constituted an excellent photograph.”
The establishment has long since come around, too. The market for Frank’s work has soared in the past several years, and individual prints from The Americans can bring hundreds of thousands of dollars. The top price at auction is $623,000, paid at Christie’s New York in 2007 for Trolley—New Orleans, 1955, one of his best-known images. The camera looks in at the passengers in a trolley, who almost could have lined up, left to right, from most powerful to least, as Greenough points out in the exhibition catalogue: white man, white woman (looking none too happy that her photograph is being taken), two white children, a black man and a black woman. The window frames divide the passengers cleanly into their own separate boxes. US 90, En Route to Del Rio, Texas, 1956, printed circa 1960, sold in 2007 at Phillips, de Pury & Company for $516,000. The last photograph in The Americans, it shows a car pulled over to the side of the road—Frank’s own car, as it happens, with his wife, Mary, and their son, Pablo, huddled in the front seat. More recently, in March 2009, a version of Trolley that was printed circa 1970–79 sold at Sotheby’s for $122,500, which suggests that even later prints are fetching solid prices, even in the midst of a recession. The book itself, in its French edition as well as the Grove Press edition that was published in the U.S., sells for between $3,000 and $10,000. “I still think the work is really undervalued,” says MacGill. “What book of photographs is more important than The Americans?”
Frank deliberately avoided explaining his photographs, at the time the book was published and in the years since. He realized, says Garner, that “photography was about seizing the intangible poetry of a moment rather than factually illustrating it”—which is why 50 years on, The Americans remains a process of discovery, and a revelation.