This past weekend I visited Washington DC and saw the exhibit at the National Gallery
of Robert Frank’s photographs for his 1959 book, The Americans
. This book of Frank’s black & white photographs of America has been one of my favorite photo books since I first saw it in the late 1970s.
Casual and seemingly off hand, the photographs in The Americans paint a portrait of America in the 1950s vastly different than the sanitized image of the country portrayed in Life magazine and Saturday Evening Post. As a European outsider, Frank explored aspects of American culture that are not its best side–the racial divide between blacks and whites, the lonely interiors of bars, the sadness of the wrong side of the tracks.
For me some of the revelations of the exhibit at the National Gallery include seeing contact sheet and work prints of images that never made it into the final book. Frank shot 27,000 images in 35mm black & white on his various trips around the US in 1955 and 1956. He made rough prints of about 1,000 of those and ultimately pruned those down to 83 images. It fascinated me to see many strong images that never made the final cut.
The beauty and poetry of the book is the sum of all of the images rather than the heroics of any one specific image. There is a rhythm to the sequence of images in the book. Frank documented America’s obsession with cars, the ubiquitous presence of American flags, and the despair and mystery of funerals, gas stations, diners and jukeboxes.
Another revelation to me was seeing the cover of the original published version of the book. Unable to find an American publisher willing to publish the book, Frank found a French publisher who issued the book in 1958. Copies of that version were on display. The cover features light blue graph paper representing a modern building coupled with a whimsical ink drawing of a sidewalk, pedestrians, a street lamp and an awning in a style similar to Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker illustrations in the 1960s. This cover is bizarre because it is so different and disconnected from the dark and brooding photographs within.
In his introduction to the book, Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road, and a friend of Frank’s sums up, “Anybody doesnt like these pitchers dont like potry, see? ….To Robert Frank I now give this message: You got eyes.”