His images perfectly capture the new America: a flag-draped memorial to Honest Abe; celebrity-worshippers at a glitzy premiere; Windy City operators huddled in political deal-making; the empty chairs and desks where bank-loan officers and aspiring homeowners once sat; couples clutching in hope and love and uncertainty on public lawns.
It's evidence both of the cycles of American life and the timelessness of photographer-filmmaker Robert Frank's art that a half century after the debut of his ground-shifting book The Americans, so many of its brazen, coarsely poetic pictures still frame our national experience.
The work — 83 photographs in all, edited down from tens of thousands taken on the artist's treks across the U.S. from July 1954 to January 1957 — wasn't always revered. A year after its first and largely unnoticed 1958 publication in France, as Les Americains, Frank's perception-shattering travelogue was released in the States. It was initially dismissed as the jaundiced work of an unpatriotic cynic who kept company with the similarly subversive and ragtag Beats. (Allen Ginsberg was a close friend, and Jack Kerouac wrote the introduction to the U.S. edition.) In Frank's United States, idyllic 1950s-era cliches of domestic life yielded to raw black-and-white depictions of class and racial inequality, alienation, corrosive political and religious influence, and the creep of consumer and media culture. Amid the darkness, there were also luminous portrayals of cowboys, cars and other quintessentially American people and things. Each image told a powerful story and reverberated with a deep appreciation for the texture and complexity of our way of life.
The unwelcome reception to Frank's tour de force was soon enough reversed and the work now ranks among the most pivotal in the history of photography. To mark the book's 50th anniversary, an ambitious exhibition of Frank's work opened last month at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The show will travel to San Francisco before ending its run in December at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The just-released catalog to that show — both titled Looking In: Robert Frank's 'The Americans' — is a sublimely detailed exploration of a 20th century masterwork. Numerous vivid essays illuminate Frank's restless early days as a glossy-magazine photojournalist, his crucial relationships with mentors Walker Evans and Edward Steichen, his relentless work on The Americans and his unending struggle to reconcile the distorting impact of its success on his life and art.
In one of her four penetrating texts, Sarah Greenough, the exhibition's curator and catalog editor, picks apart a long-dominant theory that Frank's outsider status as a Swiss-born Jew was key to his ability to eye our country so clearly. Reinforcing Greenough's argument in another revealing essay, author and critic Luc Sante looks at the friendship and obsession Frank shared with American icon and fellow road warrior Kerouac. Both of them, Sante writes, "stood for a ... conscious embrace of wonder at the very aspects of American life that were supposed to lie beneath notice at the time: the filling stations and bus stops and fleabag hotels and jukeboxes and diners and dented cars."
The catalog includes Kerouac's typed drafts of his intro, photographs that predate and lay the groundwork for The Americans, images by heroes and peers that informed Frank's style, and his work prints for the original portfolio. Of course, it also includes definitive reproductions of what should now just be called "the 83." (A less comprehensive and less expensive softcover version of the catalog can be purchased at the exhibition.)
It's sacrilege to say, but perhaps even more revelatory than the 83 photographs themselves are Frank's contact sheets, a frame-by-frame record of the images snapped on his sprawling journey. Filling 81 pages of Looking In, they not only provide a thrilling and rare insight into the shaping, through masterful editing, of images into art, but they also reveal how a great photographer sees — in this case, directly into the soul of America.
Looking In: Robert Frank's 'The Americans,' Expanded Edition Frank Interview
By Robert Frank (photographer), Sarah Greenough (editor)
Hardcover, 528 pages
National Gallery of Art, Washington/Steidl
List price: $75
Hear the photographer discuss his life and work