After Robert Frank, contemporary photography was never the same.  In the middle of the twentieth century, photography was redefined by one book, The Americans, published in 1958 in France as Les Américains, and in America in 1960: fifty years ago.  Before this book of carefully themed and arranged images of America, photography was roughly divided between “art” and “popular” photography, including commercial and documentary forms. Art photography, like commercial photography, was “straight photography,” meaning that the photograph was not manipulated. What Robert Frank achieved was the creation of a space in-between art and commerce, called “vernacular” photography.

As the terms suggest, “art” photography concerned itself with that which was photographed beautifully and made into beautiful prints, while “commercial” photography was used for advertising and “documentary” photography was employed for record making.  A Swiss emigrant, Frank “documented” America in an “artful” fashion, separating art from documentary photography.  The result was “vernacular photography” in which the every day, the ordinary was photographed with seeming casualness but with striking formal finesse.  Akin to the vernacular glance of Robert Raushchenberg’s paintings, Frank’s photography ignored beauty in favor of the quotidian, looking at sights that were present but unnoticed.

Funded by a Guggenheim grant, the seminal book, The Americans,  was supposed to be about America as seen through the eyes of a foreigner, as his grant application stated, “what one naturalized American finds to see in the United States that signifies the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere.” 

Accustomed to being admired by Europeans, the American audience for Frank’s 1955 journey across the United States no doubt expected an homage to the Land of the Free.  The photographer took 767 rolls of film and returned back to New York with some 27,000 photographs. After a year and half of sorting through the possibilities, Frank selected eighty-three images. Traditionally, photographers showed their art in galleries but Frank went a different route with a book, a format that allowed him to arrange the sequences into themes and to set up a formal rhythm was the reader/viewer turned each page.

In his penetrating 1986 illustrated essay, “Robert Frank: Dissecting the American Image,” Jno Cook explained,

The Americans uses a form completely different from the narrative, the illustrative, even from the diaristic and album type of photographic literature, and certainly from the “photo essay.” The anatomical form has a clear parallel in literature, and had been approached with the encyclopedic presentations of Walker Evans and August Sander. But Prank went further by taking The Americans to me expansive experience of a playful admixture of public and private, by bringing the emotional stance in direct contact with an acceptance of the commonplace, and especially by amassing endless qualifications on themes — the bewildering and dislocating, yet stylized, organization of the sequences, as in the free use of parody, incessant punning and occasional moralizing. The display of an intimate knowledge of contemporary photography, both European and America, turned out with a lively ironic wit, and set amid an overwhelming barrage of images from the American experience, presented a style which cautioned against jumping to conclusions and argued against an exploration of its meaning in any terms. This is a modernist argument; it is existential, ad visually it implies the surreal.

Because it operated like a book, The Americans could be “read” as much as much as it could be seen. Although , taken on a Guggenheim grant awarded in 1955, Frank’s photographs were not published in America until 1958 and were reviled and criticized by all but young photographers. The version of America from the perspective of a Swiss tourist was a socio-economic critique. The “America” captured by this moody photographer was not the “America” of spacious skies and purple mountains majesty. Frank’s America was not a scenic America but a nation composed of people who seemed alienated from each other. The question is how is one to account for this abrupt change in mood and approach that altered the definition of “America” from a land of scenic wonders to a culture on the edge of change?

Frank was a Holocaust survivor.  Being Jewish, his live was saved because he grew up in neutral Switzerland. On the other sides of the borders of the surrounded nation was certain death in the territories controlled by Hitler. After the Second World War, Frank left Switzerland, never to return, and emigrated to New York in 1947. Isolated during the war, Swiss photographers still followed the old-fashioned approach to the beautiful print beautifully composed and lit. In contrast, America had developed a documentary and journalistic style that was direct, confrontational, quick to grasp a “picture.” But, oddly enough, Frank’s first job in America was as a photographer for Harper’s Bazaar, and the demands of fashion photography are very formal; but he was given a chance to travel, apparently he became interested in studying his adopted nation.

We do not know, and may never know, the full range of  the photographs Frank took for his Guggenheim Grant. All we have is the eighty-three selections. Because the photographer is famously taciturn, we are uncertain as to his lack of starry eyed idealism. But during the mid-fifties, the “Americans” displayed to the public were largely white and middle class and were apparently living in traditional suburbs. Frank presented a wide range of “Americans,” many of whom were sub-cultures, such as the transvestites, others were people of color, black and brown. The only precedent for a white photographer to publish images of lower class people of color was an artist like Helen Levitt, a street photographer, who worked in Harlem.

From looking at the photographs produced by Frank,  especially those he took in Europe during these formative years, it is clear that he was careful about him artistic mentors. He rejected the easy thrill of Henri Cartier-Breson’s “decisive moment,” the journalistic reportage approach of Margaret Bourke-White, but his deep interest in Eugène Atget fed into the innate formalism of his youth. Frank always favored the centered composition of Atget, a point of view that never looked composed or arranged and always appeared to be spontaneous. Atget photographed the edges of Paris, the small but telling details, gathered together. Atget’s approach to Paris was analytic, studying Paris by increments. In contrast, Frank’s American mentor was Walker Evans who had used a late view finder camera and photographed everything, animate and inanimate from dead center, a summing up synthetic approach. But, according to  Weston Naef, curator of photography at the Getty, there is a bright line from Atget to Evans to Frank.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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