Shortly after Robert Frank photographed rich bankers and poor miners on the rainy cobblestone streets of London and Wales, he turned his lens on America. Armed with a Guggenheim fellowship, he travelled the country from 1955 to 1956, taking in the prosaic and the profound: diners and honky-tonks, roadside memorials, parades and political rallies, open highways and segregated trolley cars. Eighty-three of these black-and-white images became Frank’s seminal work, The Americans, published 50 years ago last month and just re-released in a new edition by Steidl and the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
What accounts for the book’s lasting significance ? The National Gallery calls it “the single most important book of photographs” since the second world war. Frank certainly wasn’t the first to document America. The photographers of the Farm Security Administration – Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and, most notably, Walker Evans – also travelled far and wide to capture scenes of American life. (Evans, incidentally, helped Frank to secure the Guggenheim grant – the first to a European.) In contrast to their crisp, iconic portraits, however, Frank’s images are grainy, blurry and oddly framed, the result of shooting from the hip as he moved furtively through crowds. His subjects are more lyrical, more angst-ridden — expressions of the Beat movement. Jack Kerouac wrote the introduction.
Released first in France in 1958 and then in the United States the following year, The Americans caused an uproar. Frank’s unorthodox style and critical evaluation of American society stood in stark contrast to the feel-good images Edward Steichen had mounted in the popular Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (Moma) in 1955. “It is difficult to remember how shocking Robert Frank’s book was,” wrote John Szarkowski, Moma’s influential photography curator, in 1968. “The pictures took us by ambush.” Yet they established, as Szarkowski explained, a “new iconography” for America – a visual language that has influenced later photographers such as Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus (stars of the landmark New Documents show at Moma), as well as countless others.
Today, it is certainly difficult to think of The Americans as shocking. The conservatism of the 1950s seems even more remote now than it did in 1968. The book’s 50th anniversary serves as a useful reminder of what American society was like in the middle of the 20th century, and of how far we have come since then.