The Americans (photography)
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The Americans, by Robert Frank, was a highly influential book in post-war American photography. It was first published in France in 1958, and the following year in the United States. The photographs were notable for their distanced view of both high and low strata of American society. The book as a whole created a complicated portrait of the period that was viewed as skeptical of contemporary values and evocative of ubiquitous loneliness.
With the aid of his major artistic influence, the photographer Walker Evans, Frank secured a grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 1955 to travel across the United States and photograph its society at all strata. He took his family along with him for part of his series of road trips over the next two years, during which time he took 28,000 shots. Only 83 of those were finally selected by him for publication in The Americans.
Frank's journey was not without incident. While driving through Arkansas, Frank was arbitrarily thrown in jail for three days after being stopped by the police who accused him of being a communist (their reasons: he was shabbily dressed, he was Jewish, he had letters about his person from people with Russian sounding names, his children had foreign sounding names – Pablo & Andrea, he had foreign whisky with him etc.); he was also told by a sheriff elsewhere in the South that he had "an hour to leave town."
Shortly after returning to New York in 1957, Frank met Beat writer Jack Kerouac on the sidewalk outside a party and showed him the photographs from his travels. Kerouac immediately told Frank "Sure I can write something about these pictures," and he contributed the introduction to the U.S. edition of The Americans.
Frank found a tension in the gloss of American culture and wealth over race and class differences, which gave his photographs a clear contrast to those of most contemporary American photojournalists, as did his use of unusual focus, low lighting and cropping that deviated from accepted photographic techniques.
The book initially received substantial criticism in the U.S. Popular Photography, for one, derided Frank's images as "meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness." Though sales were also poor at first, Kerouac's introduction helped it reach a larger audience because of the popularity of the Beat phenomenon. Over time and through its inspiration of later artists, The Americans became considered a seminal work in American photography and art history, and the work with which Frank is most clearly identified.
Sociologist Howard S. Becker has written about The Americans as social analysis:
Robert Frank's (...) enormously influential The Americans is in ways reminiscent both of Tocqueville's analysis of American institutions and of the analysis of cultural themes by Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. Frank presents photographs made in scattered places around the country, returning again and again to such themes as the flag, the automobile, race, restaurants—eventually turning those artifacts, by the weight of the associations in which he embeds them, into profound and meaningful symbols of American culture.
Frank's divergence from contemporary photographic standards gave him difficulty at first in securing an American publisher. Les Américains was first published on 15 May 1958 by Robert Delpire in Paris. Writings by Simone de Beauvoir, Erskine Caldwell, William Faulkner, Henry Miller and John Steinbeck were included, and many thought that Frank's photos served more to illustrate the writing rather than the converse. The cover was decorated with a drawing by Saul Steinberg.
In 1959, The Americans was finally published in the United States by Grove Press, with the text removed from the French edition due to concerns that it was too un-American in tone. The added introduction by Kerouac, along with simple captions for the photos, were now the only text in the book, which was intended to mirror the layout of Walker Evans' American Photographs.
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the book's original publication (15 May 2008), a new edition was published by Steidl. Robert Frank was deeply involved in the design and production of this edition, in which most images are recropped and two slightly different photographs are used.
Robert Frank discussed with his publisher, Gerhard Steidl, the idea of producing a new edition using modern scanning and the finest tritone printing. The starting point was to bring original prints from New York to Göttingen, Germany, where Steidl is based. In July 2007, Frank visited Göttingen. A new format for the book was worked out and new typography selected. A new cover was designed and Frank chose the book cloth, foil embossing and the endpaper. Most significantly, as he has done for every edition of The Americans, Frank changed the cropping of many of the photographs, usually including more information.
Frank's photographs were on display at the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill until January 4, 2009. A celebratory exhibit of The Americans were displayed in 2009 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
- Becker, Howard S. (2009). "Photography and Sociology". American Ethnography Quasimonthly. Retrieved 17 January 2009.
- "The Americans by Robert Frank". Steidl Verlag. Retrieved 2 March 2003.