Robert Frank and “The Americans,” Part Two

WHAT ROBERT FRANK SAW

Following in the footsteps of Walker Evans who, in the late 1930’s had produced The American Photographs, Robert Frank found the humble and forgotten America. But where Evans, the sophisticated and urbane New Englander, had located American Quaint and Picturesque, aestheticizing even dire poverty with his rectilinear formalism, Frank found a new America of post-war prosperity, poverty, power and alienation. He found an America socially divided and stratified into a caste system. He found an American hooked on cheap, easy entertainment, on fast foods and cheap thrills. And this was an America, because it was just coming into being, was in process of being invented, that had never been photographed.

“I was absolutely free,” Frank said later, “just to turn left or turn right without knowing what I would find.” But one traveled at one’s own peril in the land of the free. He was arrested in Arkansas, Frank was jailed for hours, simply because he was a “foreigner.” At a time when the South was on the defensive, Frank took his life in his hand, perhaps unknowingly at first, when he photographed African-Americans as the second-class citizens they were. In Mississippi, his life was threatened. We can only wonder how the xenophobia and racism registered on a Holocaust survivor and a Jew, who probably had no idea that being Jewish in the South was only a bit less dangerous than being Black. He later related,

What a lonely time it can be in America, what a tough country it is…I saw for the first time the way blacks were treated. It was surprising to me. But it didn’t make me hate America. It made me understand how people can be.

While the old generation was angered at the obvious political content of the book, the new generation saw in Frank’s work a new direction for the photography of “realism.” Photojournalism was in decline, slated to fall to television news, and the days of the big picture magazines, Life and Look were numbered. Frank had no use for photojournalism’s phony realism, which organized images into a neat narration; life was rarely neat. According to the recent catalogue, Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” by Sarah Greenough, the American critics were not impressed: “A slashing and bitter attack on some U.S. institutions”—“A Degradation of a Nation!”—“a sad poem for sick people.”

Frank’s approach to his subjects was ambiguous. He was neither intimate nor empathic with his subjects, like Dorothea Lange, nor was he distanced, like an anthropologist, like Walker Evans. Frank was both present and absent. He seemed to glide through an environment, discretely, without interacting. Famously he used a small hand-held 35 mm camera, and used it like a notebook, quickly taking sketches or the overlooked and the unnoticed. Out of what must have been a vast warehouse of impressions, Frank seems to have found a series of “found” fragments that must have coalesced into a complete impression of the margins of America.

The fifties was a very dark period in America. Although disguised by the new television situation and domestic comedies, and smothered by a blanket of compensatory materialism, there was the dark threat of a new and lingering total war, the Cold War. There were many thoughtful Americans who looked beyond the affluence and were concerned that the population was being distracted from serious changes with serious consequences. With the Cold War always hovering in the background, Frank’s American flags (he photographed several) were not revered or even iconic.

The very first photograph in the book was the bottom piece of a flag, stretched across a brick wall blocking the windows, obscuring the people inside the building—a fragment of a flag and the theme for the book. The dead center of this photograph is the brick wall between the two windows. The viewer is blocked at every turn. The photograph of a trolley in New Orleans shows the same open/closed, grid composition that neatly and powerfully showed whites in the front and blacks in the back of the bus. And here is where we might begin to understand the true content of Frank’s work: this photograph is not about its mild-mannered title, Trolley—New Orleans, but segregation in defiance of a Supreme Court Order.

In photograph after photograph, the same ambiguity ruled. Frank never said, he simply showed, held up a mirror to Americans. The camera’s focus was clear, the composition was centered and gridded but the content, the topic, the very raison d’être of the image was in doubt. It was the jukebox, the drive-in movie, discovered or captured, “found” by Frank’s 35 mm camera on the run, created new pop icons before Americans were aware of their new gods. Frank, impressed by the grainy film of Italian avant-garde cinema, filmed on the cheap by the Neo-Realist directors, shot his images with available light, black and white film with a 35mm camera.

Frank was a member of a small group of contrarians who disapproved of America’s materialism, the Beatniks. The introduction to The Americans was written by the Beat novelist, Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road (1957). The dissidents were sensitive to the dark side of America in the first decade of the Cold War. According to Krouac, Frank “sucked a sad poem out of America.” The black and white images symbolized despair and hope, but the old guard saw only sarcasm and satire. Who, after all, would photograph a tattered American flag? Who would photograph a juke box? Who would photograph a rodeo? The subjects captured by Frank were new and common at the same time, popular culture, and vernacular scenes. Jonathan Day, in Robert Frank’s “The Americans:” The Art of Documentary, quoted Frank, writing to his parents, “America is an interesting country but there is a lot here that I do not like and I would never accept. I am trying to show this in my photos.”

The small camera with its wide-angle lenses caught America off guard, candidly, capturing the ambiguity and the quirky off centeredness of “real” unarranged life. The images were unfamiliar, the people were unknown, the brutally candid and coldly impersonal stance was unsettling to the readers who were asked to put aside familiar aesthetic readings for this new definition of photography.Frank also created a new vocabulary for the photographers who followed him; as for Frank himself, he photographed only rarely after that. There was nothing more left to say.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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