Robert Frank – The Americans

Robert Frank’s Photo book entitled “The Americans” has sparked interest in viewers for over fifty years. Being Swiss-born allowed Frank to have an impartial view of America; America as seen from the outside and inside, sans bias. “Frank was a Swiss-born photographer exploring a foreign land during the 1950s, visually interpreting and translating its diverse regions and peoples to each other and for the world in a period that trumpeted superficial cultural homogeneity”.4

Frank’s book contains eighty-three photographs of America from a perspective of a bystander, an insider, and a contemporary social documentary photographer. It offers a unique perspective of vernacular America in the mid-to-late-nineteen-fifties. “The Americans represents the significant and the mundane: the experience of human life and the mindless passing of time. And while it is the representation of the mundane that immediately distinguishes my description of the work from typical travel or documentary photography of the 1950s, the project’s basic premise seems fairly conventional: to make a photographic record of the people and places one would see when traveling the U.S”.4 The images offer a realistic portrayal of America; inclusive of multiple racial groups as well as differences in class. In his 1955 Guggenheim grant application, Frank stated “that he sought to portray Americans as they live at present: “Their every day and their Sunday, their realism and dream. The look of their cities, towns and highways”.5 “The project would be driven by “what one naturalized American finds to see in the United States that signifies the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere”.

In studying the many reviews of The Americans, one can discern some similarities. The first of which is that most reviews describe Frank’s book as eye-opening; “a haunting and extremely complex portrait of an emerging cultural landscape, the pictures are both lyrical and brutal in their presentation”.5 Franks portraits revealed a new America, an America that was real, honest, and inclusive. Most were not accustomed to this view of America being seen in major publications or as art forms. As such, the collection was often seen as threatening and therefore was often attacked by the media and art reviewers.
The second similarity seen in many of the reviews of The Americans is the fact that the book is laden with various dichotomies. The juxtaposition of multiple binaries within the collection alluded to hidden social commentaries on issues such as racism and homophobia. Frank’s method of photographing the all as opposed to the selected allowed him to have an ambivalent omnipresence in his stance on these dichotomous wars.
The third similarity seen in the book reviews of The Americans is the comment on the assumption that Frank is using his images to unobtrusively confront American socio-political issues.
In all, the central argument in most reviews is that Frank attempted to capture the real. “Frank was struck by the solitariness of American life, the emptiness of the landscape — and he looked to capture the isolation, melancholy, and empty promises of a new consumer culture. He experimented with the visual language of black and white photography, using gesture, movement, light and shadow, splaying open the underside and the elegance of the mid-century America. Zigzagging the continent, from Detroit to Los Angeles, he trained his lens on back alleys, bus stations, post offices, luncheonette counters, and cemeteries, and from the Ford automobile factory to the backlots of the MGM studios in Hollywood”. 5

On the subject of the revealing nature of Robert Frank’s photographs featured in The Americans, the central argument is that America was simply not ready to look at itself honestly. With the iconic glossy images of Hollywood glamour and the positive, charismatic, and blissfully ignorant images of social life as seen in the media, this new form of social documentary photography was something America was completely unaccustomed to. Frank used his images to reveal the true nature of America. “In diners, bars and candid street scenes, Frank revealed an America that it was not quite ready to see for itself: restless, alienated, driven by excess and poverty, and still new to the power of media and the self-awareness that comes with it”.1 This idea of honest photography also allowed those photographed to view themselves as their honest selves.
In the image entitled “Elevator–Miami Beach, 1955,” the unsuspecting model Sharon Collins was captured unknowingly at a moment of truthfulness. “Although Collins doesn’t remember Frank, his split-second portrait of her felt unusually true. “He saw in me something that most people didn’t see,” she confided recently in a radio interview. “It’s not necessarily loneliness, it’s, I don’t know, dreaminess.”1

For many of the same reasons Robert Frank’s photographs featured in The Americans were revealing, they were also disliked; and often attacked. 1950’s America was extremely “cookie-cutter” and anything straying from this “norm” was often disliked. “At the time of its publication, The Americans was perceived to be an attack on not only the period’s photographic standards, but also on its moral values and political beliefs”.4 Frank’s photos were “attacked for being anti-American”.2 Viewers felt that since the photographs did not match with those of the glamorized photographs they were accustomed to, Frank was exposing something too taboo, too embarrassing, and almost blasphemous. That being said, “Frank did not take cheap shots at his adopted land. He never acted the shocked foreigner or wide-eyed innocent”.3 He did not intend to “expose” or embarrass, he only wanted to reveal. Reviewers describe The Americans as an attempt to “provide an “anti-aesthetic” model for photographers of the 1960s, many of whom had become impatient with the formal prescriptive and narrative codes of both the fine art and documentary photography establishments”.4 Not only was Frank’s work seen as conceptually and contextually taboo, his technical means of capturing and recreating these moments were seen as lazy and unprofessional. “Critics decried the work as un-American, sloppy, and drunken, but a half-century later Frank’s style has been adopted into our visual language”.5 So, although the conceptual and photographic styles were unaccepted at the time the images were captured, Frank’s quiet social commentaries and aesthetic style helped shape the contemporary photographic art of the future.

The Americans contains images of many various dichotomies. Frank “picked images of Americans rich and poor, working and idle, northern, southern and western. There were urban landscapes and rural, diners and flags and jukeboxes, kids and cars. The result was neither documentary photography nor a foreigner’s fascination with the exotic, just a remarkable individual’s engagement with what he saw”.2 Again, Frank utilized his ability as a foreign person to the country to have an open, unbiased view of the reality of American life. Often, “Europeans who venture to America often focus their cameras on the gulf between our ideals and a grimmer reality, between rich and poor, black and white”.3 Frank’s objective view of the country offered a fresh outlook, despite sometimes being less than appealing. “Blurring the lines between art and documentary, objective and subjective, public and private, good and bad photography, “good” and “bad” people, Frank’s book reveals the ways in which these categories are used to organize and circumscribe our experience of the world and knowledge of ourselves. Looking at this work today in an increasingly polarized and politicized climate in which politicians and pundits constantly attempt to define and limit who “real Americans” are, Frank’s work from the 1950s, through its multicultural and socio-economic diversity and inequity, reminds us that the Americans are ever a chimera”.4 In short, Frank’s images of America not only revealed reality, it also suggested to Americans to have a more critical perspective of their country, their politics, their socio-economic issues, and their personal lives. “In his images of the road–hitchhikers, drive-ins, diners and the pavement itself–Frank seemed to find the nation’s fracture line: between young and old, comfort and loneliness, staid society and the unshakable thirst of the new”.1

Many of the subjects or objects depicted in Frank’s photographs are similar. This repetition of symbols helps to unify the collection as well as provide an underlying tone to the work. “Motorcycles and racial divisions are among the motifs that help to unify The Americans, along with jukeboxes, crosses, televisions, luncheonettes, cowboy hats, fedoras, cigars, highways, the old and the young, lonely offices, huge automobiles, run-down parks, blowhard politicians and American flags”.3 Franks images are often accompanying simple titles with little explanation. This leads us to believe that his perception of America was deeply esoteric. “His complicated feelings about the country were expressed so obliquely that the book remains as open to interpretation today as when it first appeared fifty years ago”.3

The Americans, although appearing to be ambivalent, contains many images related to the confrontation of racism, segregation, and homophobia. As such, this also played a part in the photo book’s initial unwelcome reception. “The Americans was published at the height of Cold War xenophobia, and it was not received warmly. “A wart-covered picture of America,” one photography critic spat. Others suggested it should have been titled “Some Americans” or perhaps “Why I Can’t Stand America”.1 Although many rejected this view of America, many embraced it because of it’s denunciation of traditional xenophobic views. “The work went against the grain of the “culture of consensus” that dominated the discursive framework of the 1950s. Not only did Frank include pictures of African Americans, transsexuals, and bikers in the same book as white, urban socialites—and noted that they were all “Americans”4

The social issues America was accustomed to having such as the ones present in the Depression become almost too axiomatic after observing the photographs in The Americans. Frank preferred to silently attack different social issues; issues that are still relevant in today’s society. “Frank’s photographs pointed to more abstract social ills than Depression-era starvation and homelessness. The implied alienation of a class of people in the face of postwar material abundance was a more slippery social and representational problem than the rural or urban poverty of the 1930s”.4 Instead of evoking empathy, Frank’s images often evoke a sense of cynicism. The images gingerly critique the American sociological perspective. “Like Evans, in his photographs of the Depression, Frank also rejected the sentimentality that had characterized social documentary photography of the 1930s. Social documentary of this period largely sought to invoke compassion and empathy in viewers in order to move them to address the social wrongs or inequities depicted by the images. But unlike Evans’s famously neutral gaze, a number of Frank’s photographs present a sardonic and even blistering assessment of his subject matter”.4

Robert Frank’s photo book entitled “The Americans” contains a critical analysis of American life while allowing viewers to see “truth”. “The point of view represented in The Americans is unequivocally that of the photographer-as-individual rather than as mediator between a social issue and the public”.4 The images allow for the viewer to be educated and make their own decisions regarding various social issues.
“The final image chosen for The Americans, which gives us machine and baby, makes a powerful statement if one considers the jukebox to be something of a pop culture umbilical cord linking diverse ethnic and regional groups around the nation in the 1950s to grand machines that were more monumental, sleek, and well nourished than the skinny children and tired workers depicted ever would be”.4 Frank used the symbolic imagery of the jukebox and the baby to speak of the link between the overly-biased and overly-positive media portrayal of pop culture to the reality of America’s then-current social issues.

1.) Burdick, Alan. “Looking in on The Americans: photographer Robert Frank hit the road a half century ago and created a record of daily life that came to define an era.” American History 44.6 (2010): 42+. CPI.Q (Canadian Periodicals).
2.)”A sad poem of American life; Robert Frank’s photographs.” The Economist [US] 17 Oct. 2009: 89EU. CPI.Q (Canadian Periodicals).
3.)Woodward, Richard B. “Curious perspective; Robert Frank’s book the Americans changed photography. Fifty years on, it still unsettles.” Smithsonian Nov. 2008: 12+. CPI.Q (Canadian Periodicals).
4.)Moeller, Robert. “Robert Frank and Two Babies: “The Americans” at the Met” Afterimage 37 no5 Mr/Ap 2010 p.2-5 (Visual Studies Workshop)
5.)Tully, Nola. “Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans” The Metropolitan Museum of Art” The New Criterion 28 no4 42-4 D 2009


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