Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans
Parade, Hoboken, New Jersey (1955) by Robert Frank
This week I viewed Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I have long appreciated how Frank harnessed his wanderlust to create powerful work. This was an opportunity to reflect on how the formal iconoclasm that Frank expressed in The Americans became a classic and enduring style of photography.
Alan Solomon's essay, The New Art, describes how Beat Generation artists distinguished themselves from their predecessors, the Abstract Expressionists. Beats decided to return to depicting human figures and the environment. While some people hoped that this new figurative art would resolve the dilemmas posed by abstraction, it initially frustrated art critics and the general public. Instead of producing new and uplifting images of humanity to assuage the anxieties caused by the Cold War, Solomon observes that Beats depicted “contemporary man [...] as a disrupted, contorted victim of the modern cataclysm, torn by forces of a magnitude beyond his comprehension, a grim figure, full of despair and anguish, entirely without hope" (Solomon 77).
It is ironic that one of the most famous photography books about United States was first published in France in 1958 because it was difficult to find an American publisher. Furthermore, when The Americans was published a year later, it was criticized for being un-American. Since then, it has been heralded as a critical document of American history and Frank’s style of capturing visually spare yet highly emotional imagery has become associated with intimacy and truth-telling.
This negative view was primarily derived from how the Beat generation seemed to attack conventional ideas about art. Solomon explains that by presenting “familiar, public and often disquieting" subjects and advocating that artists integrate their lives with their art work, Beats challenged the view of art as an otherworldly activity with sacred and moral connotations (79). For example, Frank produced The Americans by spending a year making a series of cross-country road trips either on his own or with his young family. He covered 10,000 miles in a used Ford and with maps from The American Auto Club (Feeney). When he stopped in a particular location, Frank had a simple routine and made sure to be as unobtrusive as possible. He described his method thusly, “I go into post offices, Woolworths, 10 cent shops, bus stations. I sleep in cheap hotels. Around 7 in the morning I go to a nearby bar. I work all the time. I don't speak much"(Lane). It enabled him to capture images of people in their most unguarded moments and present scenarios that lacked an easy resolution. Frank’s commitment to realism resulted in photos that displayed the complexity and transience of life.
Trolley—New Orleans (1955) by Robert Frank
Frank was also gifted at picking up on things that others missed: moments of joy, despair, anxiety and what was unfair and overlooked. Through its display of passengers sitting in segregated seats, the photograph, Trolley—New Orleans, shows a range of human expressions while also matter-of factly depicting life under Jim Crowe. The other things he recorded were as glaring as his observation of how impressive, mysterious, and mythical daily life in America already was. Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac singled out the photo U.S. 285, New Mexico, and described it as a “long shot of night road arrowing forlorn into immensities and flat of impossible-to-believe America in New Mexico under the prisoner moon" (Lane).
U.S. 285, New Mexico (1955) by Robert Frank
Frank’s imperfect and vulnerable vision of Americans (from a range of social classes and ages) provided America with a new iconography. Fifty years ago, Frank’s work was read as a scathing and depraved social attack, now it is seen as a testimony. As one of the Beat Generation’s most impressive artistic achievements, The Americans demonstrates how emotionally honest portrayals of humanity can be beautiful.
Feeney, Mark. "Photographer Robert Frank’s landmark ‘The Americans’ revisited."Boston.com. The Boston Globe, 29 Nov. 2009. Web. 4 Dec. 2009. <http://www.boston.com/ae/theater_arts/articles/2009/11/29/photographer_robert_franks_landmark_the_americans_revisited/>
Lane, Anthony. "Robert Frank’s The Americans review." The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 14 Sept. 2009. Web. 4 Dec. 2009. <http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/09/14/090914fa_fact_lane?printable=true>.
Solomon, Alan. “The New Art.” Artists, Critics, Context: Readings in and Around American Art since 1945. Ed. Paul F. Fabozzi. Alexandria, VA: Prentice Hall, 2001. Print.