The Wall Street JournalThis short essay appeared in yesterday's edition accompanied by this slide show. Something to note - according to the credit Sante has a new book on photography due out next month.
SEPTEMBER 18, 2009, 9:46 P.M. ET
Seeing Beauty in Our Shadows
Robert Frank's 'The Americans,' unpopular when first published, has shaped the way America looks at itself.
By Luc Sante
Robert Frank’s book of photographs "The Americans" was first published in the United States 50 years ago, in 1959. The pictures had been taken in the course of several trips by car across the country in 1955 and 1956. They show people—old and young, black and white, rich and poor—in bars, hotels, luncheonettes, parks, offices, factories; at funerals, casinos, parades, cocktail parties, rodeos; on streets and roads. They also show settings without people: gas stations, barber shops, newsstands, dime stores. There are jukeboxes, cars, buses, motorcycles, and each of the book's four sections is announced by a photograph prominently featuring an American flag. Some of the people are happy, some not; some of the settings are desolate, others opulent. The book wouldn't be mistaken for a brochure meant to sell the country's image abroad, but neither does it constitute an indictment. It is a poetic portrait by a photographer to whom all of it was new and who took nothing for granted. At the time, however, the United States didn't recognize itself.
Initially unable to find an American publisher, Frank, a Swiss émigré, first saw his book issued in 1958 in France in an edition featuring a cover drawing by Saul Steinberg and, on the pages facing the photographs, an anthology of critical texts about the U.S. by writers ranging from Alexis de Tocqueville to John Dos Passos. The book received only glancing attention. The first American edition, a proper one containing no extraneous images and no text apart from skeletal captions and a brief, lyrical forward by Jack Kerouac, was issued by Grove Press, then the preeminent publisher of all things daring or avant-garde, from Victorian erotica to Samuel Beckett.
Aside from a brief notice in the New Yorker that called it "a beautiful social comment" expressed with "brutal sensitivity," the critical reception was savage. "Utterly misleading! A degradation of a nation!" thundered the photographer and editor Minor White in his magazine, Aperture. The book caused such a furor at Popular Photography that the editors assigned no fewer than seven critics to review it, almost all of whom agreed that it was "a wart-covered picture of America" by "a joyless man who hates the country of his adoption," and who was "willing to let his pictures be used to spread hatred among nations." The book sold only about 1,100 copies, and almost immediately went out of print.
Fifty years later, it is the focus of an exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans" (Sept. 22 to Dec. 27), which originated at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. The original catalog is over 500 pages long—many times the size of the original book. (Full disclosure: I contributed an essay to the catalog, and next month will be participating in a discussion at the Met in conjunction with the show.) "The Americans" routinely appears near the top of every list of essential books of photography, no matter how short. It has had nine separate editions, not counting those in foreign languages. How did 50 years transform Frank's work from pariah to classic? Fifty years have added somewhat more ambiguity to the national self-image; perhaps we are more capable of seeing the depth of shadows and the beauty of doubt.
Robert Frank was born in Zurich in 1924. After apprenticing with local photographers, he sailed to New York in 1947, where he was hired by Harper's Bazaar. In the following years, he traveled extensively in South America and Europe, taking pictures. In 1953 he met Walker Evans, who encouraged him to apply for a Guggenheim Fellowship. His application was successful; the fellowship, renewed once, underwrote the trips he documented in "The Americans." Evans had abundant experience with road photography. As a contract employee of the New Deal-era Farm Security Administration he had traveled extensively through the South in the late 1930s, ostensibly documenting the crisis of American agriculture and its relief, but really looking for the sort of rough-hewn native vernacular beauty that was everywhere along the road but seldom if ever noticed, let alone acknowledged. His own first book was called "American Photographs" (1938). He clearly saw Frank as an heir to his vision.
Indeed, there are remarkable similarities between their two books. Both feature a lot of ordinary people in unguarded moments, and a lot of the sort of expressive but unassuming commercial décor that everyone took for granted before that landscape was overwhelmed by corporate logos. Both are moody, terse and passionate about leveling the distinction between high and low; both avoid simple anecdotes and tidy resolutions. The similarities extend to individual choices of subject here and there, as if Frank were deliberately answering Evans. The possible presumption of their titles leads in different directions, however. Evans was announcing an American modernism based on native, non-academic styles quite distinct from any European models. Frank was presenting the view of a foreigner experiencing the length and breadth of the country for the first time and posing certain questions, if not exactly drawing conclusions.
The extent to which Frank's status as a foreigner determined his vision is open to debate. Certainly there were native-born photographers at the time who shared his aesthetic and general outlook, although they tended to be New Yorkers and perhaps could be seen as equally foreign to the vast expanse of the country. There is a consistency to Frank's approach and choice of subject matter that links the pictures in "The Americans" to the photos he took in Bolivia and Spain and Wales and France; he does not seem to have shot much in his native Switzerland after leaving it for good. Frank's foreignness may have influenced his critics, in any case. The 1950s were a famously nervous time in America, awash in Cold War terrors and attempting to assuage them with grimly sunny boosterism. The most widely broadcast currents in art photography tended to be fastidiously uncontroversial: Ansel Adams's Western landscapes, Eliot Porter's nature photos; and Edward Steichen's great success as photo curator at the Museum of Modern Art, the thematic exhibition "The Family of Man" (1955), which was hardly a disgrace to photography (Frank, in fact, was included) but wouldn't have been out of place at a World's Fair. Frank may not have been alone as a maker of fugitive, spare, sometimes bleak photos, but the others didn't have published books.
Walker Evans did. But the culture of social critique with which that work was associated had passed most of a generation earlier and fallen into opprobrium since then, because of the looming specter of Communism. In the 1950s, Evans was an employee of Fortune magazine and going through a fallow period in his personal work. In stark contrast to the 1930s, when Evans and his collaborator James Agee could propose to Fortune a study of destitute tenant farmers in Alabama (the magazine turned it down but it was published as a book, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," in 1941), views of American society that couldn't be proudly displayed to the people of the Soviet Union didn't get much of an airing.
And the critics couldn't have missed the cover of "The Americans," on which was reproduced "Trolley—New Orleans, 1955," which shows a row of windows of a conveyance headed left: blurred white person, scowling white woman, dressed-up white boy and his vaguely distressed younger sister, and, at the rear, a black man with a look of infinite sadness. Although no contemporaneous critic mentioned it to the best of my knowledge, Frank portrayed quite a lot of black people in his book: elegant mourners in South Carolina, a turbaned mystic bearing a cross on the bank of the Mississippi, a dashing couple of motorcyclists in Indianapolis, a very dark nurse holding a very white baby whose expression matches hers. On the whole, African-Americans come across in the book as possessing somewhat more grace and style than their white counterparts. You didn't see that very often in published photography before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Furthermore, the mainstream aesthetics of the time could only see the pictures' oblique, asymmetrical approach. Their fluid edges and melting grays were received as messy, even squalid. The refusal to present sharply delineated, self-contained, centered figures was to the eyes of the time as troubling as the failure to provide clear-cut moral anecdotes and examples for emulation. The pictures were a photographic counterpart to beatnik poetry and bebop jazz and Abstract Expressionist painting and European art movies, none of which got much respect in the conventional press of the time, either. Both their form and their function were suspect in a time when uncertainty was as good as treason.
Anyway, it is difficult for us to see "The Americans" through the eyes of 1959, because its influence has been so pervasive, persistent and deep that it is impossible to think of the photography of at least the ensuing 30 or 40 years without reference to it. Our vision, collectively, has been permanently altered by it, and this is true even for people who've never seen it but have been exposed to its style and outlook at second or third remove. The book may only have sold 1,000 copies initially, but word got around nevertheless. By the time of its second edition, in 1968, its influence was already widespread. Frank's work at the very least gave courage and inspiration to like-minded younger colleagues such as Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Danny Lyon, and Bruce Davidson, while it was formative for the following generation. There isn't a documentary photographer who came of age in the 1970s and '80s who didn't absorb the book and reflect its lessons in some way, and that includes such disparate figures as Stephen Shore, Sylvia Plachy, Eugene Richards, James Nachtwey, Thomas Roma, Gilles Peress, Nan Goldin, and Mitch Epstein.
Frank essentially abandoned conventional still photography not long after the book came out. He went on to make films, as well as montages and assemblages that employ photographs that are physically altered, sometimes violently. The ultimate success of "The Americans" seems to have cut him much deeper than its transient early failure—he didn't want to replicate the book, for one thing, and yet every picture he subsequently took would lie in its shadow. Although much of his later work is significant—some of the movies, in particular, are extraordinary, such as "Pull My Daisy" (1959), "Me and My Brother" (1967), and "C'est vrai/One Hour" (1992)—Frank remains so completely identified with "The Americans" that it has threatened to overwhelm his entire life and career. He has been, as they say in entertainment, branded by it, and that's not necessarily helpful for an artist who wishes to change and grow.
The overt influence of the book on the young may be on the wane these days, in large part because of the different possibilities and demands of digital photography. Among art photographers there may be more interest in manipulation, narrative, scale and deliberate control of the image. In documentary photography, on the other hand, its influence is deep-rooted and seemingly permanent. "The Americans" might be said to have brought agnosticism to photography; it forcefully introduced doubt, as expressed by asymmetry, overlaps, tilts, radical cropping, out-of-focus foregrounds and the use of massed shadows and pulsing glare. That quality has come to be synonymous with truth-telling, even if it has been abused over the years. Until someone comes up with a transformative new way of taking pictures that can convince us it has an even stronger mimetic relationship to the way we actually see, it is likely to stand as such. Even if art photographers are for the nonce more interested in creative ways to concoct falsehoods, the legacy of "The Americans" remains evident and even necessary in journalistic photography. More than a subjective portrait of a particular country at a particular time, the book is an essential treatise of visual vocabulary.—Luc Sante, the author of "Low Life" and "Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces 1990-2005," teaches writing and the history of photography at Bard College. His new book, "Folk Photography," will be published next month.