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University of the Arts London London College of Communication MAPJD 10 Unit 1.2 History & Theory of Photojournalism and Documentary Photography

‘Badly composed, out of focus and technically incompetent’, or ‘a sad poem sucked out of the heart of America’ …which of these more accurately describes Robert Frank’s book The Americans?

Teresa Cos

For decades critics have struggled to describe and understand Robert Frank’s book The Americans, dissecting it from all the possible perspectives, such is the the enormous impact this masterpiece continues to exert in contemporary history of photography. But it comes to a point in which words seem to be inconclusive, as The Americans is such a personal statement of one’s view of the world, that it is impossible to reduce it to definitions. “A strange subliminal feeling is generated by the book because of this lack of clear, rational - that is verbal - equivalent” (Cook 1982).

The Americans certainly is not “technically incompetent”, as we know that Frank, before he set out on his journey through America, was a successful commercial photographer, working for the most important magazines of that time such as Vogue and Fortune. There is purpose and design behind the style of The Americans. Frank himself wrote that his intention was “to produce an authentic contemporary document; the visual impact should be such as will nullify explanation” (Frank 1958 ). Nor it is just “a sad poem”, as Kerouac describes it in the introduction of the first American edition of the book. Kerouac himself at a certain point seems to have no more words and just cries out “ The humour, the sadness, the EVERYTHING-ness and American-ness of these pictures!”.

What makes The Americans a stand-alone work that inspired an entire generation of photographers, such as Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, is exactly this perfect balance of opposite values: hope and sadness, intention and instinct and the clear choice of a style able to give a sense of this duality of feelings. The book is so carefully composed that it “can be recognised as an Anatomy which deftly dissects America, organ by organ” (Cook 1986). Each photograph has such a specific place within the sequence that just the thought of altering feels detrimental. At the same time the photographs are linked to one another through so many different layers of significance that each time we leaf through the book again, with the constant rhythm of the single page spread that almost feels like a breath, we have the impression of being lost. “Frank’s ability to build a series of single unrelated images to a crescendo of unnerving feelings is perhaps the most masterful aspect of the book” (Cook 1986).

A clear example of this ability to evoke uncertain feelings through what it seems to be a logical juxtaposition of images, is the sequence of five photographs that ends the central section of the book. In “U.S. 91, leaving Blackfoot, Idaho” (Fig. 1) Frank depicts two young men in the interior of a car (actually his own - Frank picked them up from the street while they were hitchhiking and let them drive) staring determinedly towards their journey. This shot is followed by “St. Petersburg, Florida” (Fig. 2), which shows a group of 1

elderly people in the foreground sitting back-to-back on benches and in the background “is a streaking car—perhaps one carrying the Idaho youth—off to new horizons and possibilities” (Cotkin 1985). The next shot, “Covered Car—Long Beach, California” (Fig. 3) functions as a break, and demands contemplation. The car, covered in a white sheet that reflects a blinding sun, stands still, immobile in the middle of the composition with the palm tree shadow highlighting its symmetry. It is the only picture in the book in which Frank lets the sun so sharply shape his subject. When we turn the page and see the next shot, “U.S. 66, Arizona” (Fig. 4), we need to take a deep breath as we recognise the image; the covered body of an accident victim mirrors the covered body of the car, standing in the exact same central position. At this point we realise that the previous three pictures used the subject of the car just as a formal reference, when in fact it represents the great metaphor of life and death. “U.S. 285, New Mexico” (Fig. 5) completes this circle by returning the viewer to the image of the road, restoring hope and freedom, whilst retaining a sense of immense solitude and danger. As a metaphorical foray into the pictorial representation of the Beat idiom, these photographs capture much. They suggest freedom but always link it with death. We are only alive to the endless possibilities of life when we are in the passing lane, traveling fast, faster, faster. And yet, as we seek to avoid the rootedness of old age and inertia, the time of non-discovery, we must always beware of that other car, the car of death, immobility, old age, coming toward us as we speed into the passing lane (Cotkin 1985). In trying to justify this sense of frustration, sadness and, using Walker Evans’ words “irony and detachment” that we perceive throughout the book, critics relate mainly to two aspects of Frank’s biography. The first is the fact that Robert Frank was not an American. As a European immigrant Frank carried cultural baggage throughout his journey, pointing out all the contradictions to be found in such a young country, lacking in self-awareness and incapable of self-criticism. That would in part explain the reason why in the first instance the book was fervently repudiated by American critics. As Americans we could not read it. What was depicted as crass was seen as social commentary. Where the book points to class distinctions, we read economics. Where Frank deals with pointed description, we see metaphors. And when Frank explicitly doles out sarcasm, especially when he speaks to our littleness, we misread him entirely because we are little, just as we are provincial and parochial. We are backwards, barbaric, uneducated, but mainly uncultured. We are ill at ease in our environment, we wear uniforms and costumes with dead seriousness, we mimic Europeans without knowing why. We are reported to be classless, yet we draw severe racial and economic distinctions. We are reach, yet we have needless poverty. We pretend to sophistication, yet are spiritually impoverished (Cook 1982).


The second aspect that relates Frank’s biography to The Americans powerful style and ambiguity of content is the fact that he was deeply involved in the artistic environment he was surrounded by in New York, and which he well knew: the Beat movement and the Abstract Expressionist. Just one year after the French publication of The Americans Frank started his career as a film director with the short film Pull My Daisy, in which he depicted the Beat Generation using the same sort of spontaneity and improvisation that characterised the Ginsberg and Kerouac movement. The Americans is “the visual equivalent of the stream-of-consciousness writing of the 1950s American ‘Beat’ writers” (Badger 2004). Frank was, moreover, the existential photographer par excellence. He said that he had always had a "feeling of being outride." Photography allowed him to remain outside; his art required no communication or connections with others: "I wouldn't have to talk with anyone. . . . You're just an observer." Frank was the photographer on the move, seizing the moment through an "instantaneous reaction to oneself."His vision was self-professedly personal and emphasised feeling rather than ratiocination. Like the Beats, Frank was not rooted to any one place, just as he was not connected to any of his subjects; he was embarked upon a frenetic, nationwide quest for self and subject (Cotkin 1985). Here Cotkin adequately explains the first reaction of the American public to Frank’s images of America. One writer, for example, has said that Frank “produced pictures that look as if a kid had taken them while eating a Popsicle and then had them developed and printed at the corner drugstore” (Papageorge 1981). It was not a criticism of the subject matter. America simply didn’t have to be shown in this light, rough, grainy, careless and lacking in composition. Gas stations, cemeteries, barber chairs, statues, political posters, parked cars were all subjects already present in Walker Evans’ book American Photographs, which Frank used as an “iconographical sourcebook for his own pictures” (Papageorge 1981). But Frank had completely transformed what Evans had done. Compared to the perfectly composed and carefully exposed large format pictures of Evans, Frank’s photographs appeared almost improvised, “they had a sense of immediate discovery about them, as if Frank’s passionate regard had compelled the world to return him its most sorrowful truths” (Papageorge in Winogrand, G. 1977, Public Relations).

Truth. Probably this is what still strikes us so much about Frank’s book The Americans, beyond all the possible interpretations. To return to the previous assumption, it is not just the rough and immediate style or the careful choice of the subject which makes The Americans so revealing of a country, but the intense antagonistic feelings that it is able to raise. It works as a mirror for the contradictions of the country itself. Frank the European immigrant, travelling without presumption or arrogance dynamically captures postwar 3

America with its imagery of alienation, loneliness, mass culture forms and racial issues. “Robert Frank’s fine flatulent black joke on American politics can be read as either farce or anguished protest. It is possible that Frank himself was not sure which he meant” (Szarkowski 1973). Frank justifies himself only once in the statement he wrote shortly after the French publication of the book, explaining that is impossible for a photographer to have an indifferent attitude towards life and that “criticism can come out of love. It is important to see what is invisible to others—perhaps the look of hope or the look of sadness” (Frank 1958 t). Again, hope and sadness, the two different sides of the same coin. After the publication of the American edition of The Americans Frank isolated himself from the spotlight, trying to run from all the attention that his book was receiving and reluctant to answer any questions regarding The Americans. Frank turned instead to a career as a respected film director, returning from time to time to photography, concentrating himself on the only thing he believed an artist can do: to look for the truth. I think that truth, once you find it, is slippery like a fish. It’s hard to know, hard to grasp. But there is no other motivation. You really want to express something that reveals the truth as you know it. So when Mr. Hearst sends me to Kansas City, America, I don’t want to be a journalist, I want to be myself, and express what I feel about things (Frank 1996).


Bibliography Badger, G. 2004, The Indecisive Moment: Frank, Klein and 'Stream of Consciousness' Photography, in : Badger G., Parr, M., The Photobook: A History, Volume I, Phaidon Press. Cook, J. 1982, Robert Frank's America. Afterimage, 9:8, March, pp. 9-14. Cook, J 1986, Robert Frank: dissecting the American Image. Exposure Magazine, 24:1, Spring. Cotkin, George 1985, The Photographer in the Beat-Hipster Idiom: Robert Frank’s Americans. American Studies, 26:1, Spring. Evans, W. 1938, American Photographs, Fiftieth-Anniversary edn, New York, The Museum of Modern Art. Frank, R. 1958, Les Américains, 3rd edn, Paris, Delpire. Frank, R. 1958, A Statement. U. S. Camera Annual, p. 115. Frank, R. 1959, The Americans, introduction by Jack Kerouac, 3rd eds, New York, Aperture. Frank, R. 2004, Story lines, London, Tate. Frank, R. 2009, Portfolio : 40 photos, 1941-1946, Göttingen, Steidl. Papageorge, T. 1981, Walker Evans and Robert Frank: An Essay on Influence, New Haven, CT, Yale University Art Gallery. Sontag, S. 1978, On Photography, New York, Delta. Szarkowski, J. 1973, Looking at photographs, 8th edn, New York, The Museum of Modern Art. Wallis, B. 1996 Interview with Robert Frank: American Visions - Photographer and Filmaker. Art in America, March. Winogrand, G. 1977, Public Relations, introduction by Tod Papageorge, 2004 edn, New York, The Museum Of Modern Art.



Fig. 1: “U.S. 91, leaving Blackfoot, Idaho”

Fig. 2: “St. Petersburg, Florida” 6

Fig. 3: “Covered Car—Long Beach, California

Fig. 4: “U.S. 66, Arizona” 7

Fig. 5: “U.S. 285, New mexico”


Badly composed, out of focus and technically incompetent  

‘Badly composed, out of focus and technically incompetent’, or ‘a sad poem sucked out ofthe heart of America’ …which of these more accuratel...