Robert Frank and “The Americans”

Robert Frank,  The Americans

I knew about this book as it has been mentioned so many times (including Mishka Henner’s ‘appropriation’ in Less Americains)   but hadn’t looked at it until I read John’s blog post   which inspired me to acquire it. I purposely decided not to re-read John’s blog post or do any research on the internet to decrease any influence on my immediate response. I even stopped reading the introduction by Jack Kerouac as it was such a lyrical piece that I thought this too might influence my reading of the images. Instead I looked just at the photographs. My first impression on looking through the book was that Frank was portraying lives ‘on the slant’. People were looking right, looking left, occasionally straight ahead. I could see compositional triangles and diagonals with horizons not usually straight.  The images were black and white (of course) and grainy. Many of the shots are blurry, as if captured quickly passing by, or people are moving. There didn’t seem to be a narrative flow, just random images. The captions named the building and place but it wasn’t as if I was in the same town/city or on the road to the next one as I turned the pages. I couldn’t quite make sense of what I was seeing. It was hard to understand why the book has had such an impact. I decided first to obtain the book On the Road to discover more about the connections between Jack Kerouac and Robert Frank and also to do more reading about Frank. I’ve already written about Kerouac here.

Some background on Robert Frank

I’ve accessed several interviews with Robert Frank, including video interviews,and will quote where it seems appropriate.  Frank was born in Switzerland into a Jewish family on 9th November, 1924.  He apprenticed himself to a variety of Swiss film and photography studios whilst a teenager and then emigrated to America in 1947, finding work with Harper’s Bazaar as a fashion photographer.

In an article in the New York Times (pub 4th September 1994) the interviewer, Richard Woodward, quotes from one of the first letters Frank wrote to his parents , “Never have I experienced so much in one week as here.  I feel as if I’m in a film.  Life here is very different than in Europe.  Only the moment counts; nobody seems to care about what he’ll do tomorrow”, which is a statement that, to me, certainly acts as a prescient comment on the content of Kerouac’s “On the Road” and also, perhaps, points to what I perceive as Frank’s ambivalent attitude towards America as shown in his later book “The Americans” and yet the fact that he has continued to live there.

Frank was both dissatisfied with the control that editors had over his work and also what he saw as the fast pace and overemphasis on money in the United States. He soon left America to travel in South America and Europe but returned in 1950 and married a fellow artist, Mary Lockspeiser, with whom he had two children, Andrea and Pablo. However, he continued to travel, moving briefly to Paris, but returned to New York in 1953 where he continued to work as a freelance photojournalist and associated with fellow photographers such as Saul Leiter and Diane Arbus. In a documentary for The Southbank Show in 2005 (Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank”  now on You Tube (see below) Frank said, “For a long time as a photographer I searched for very clear and strong pictures. I was attracted by what you call sombre events; strong images” (around 5.58 min into the video). He has said that he was influenced by the contemporary photographers Bill Brandt,  in England and Walker Evans .

Walker Evans encouraged him to apply for to the Guggenheim Foundation for a Fellowship to make, “a broad voluminous picture record” of the United States.  Frank began to make the first of several road trips where he documented what he saw as, “…a soul-damaged population, fluctuating between violence, ignorance and despair”  (p. 344 Marien, M.W. 2002). He said, “One became aware of white cities, black people, no money, no hope. The noise; the violence; how brutal people were” (Woodward, RB, 1994). All this was happening against the background of the Cold War and the Second Red Scare in America with its heightened fears of communist infiltration that enabled Senator Joe McCarthy to pursue his anti-communist activities.

I’ve read a lot around Frank’s affinity with the Beat Generation (and of course his connection with Jack Kerouac) in terms of values and attitudes they shared.  I’ve also wondered about other connections in terms of personality.  There’s that sense of alienation from mainstream thought and culture.  Mary Warner-Merien refers to  “…. beat generation hauteur with its emphasis on cool, self-absorbed rebelliousness in the face of narrow social conformity” (p. 347, 2002).   There was also the other aspect of living in the moment and keeping moving.  It seems to me that, like Kerouac, Robert Frank was/is a wanderer and, wherever he was he wanted to be somewhere else.  This came through to me also when watching the Southbank Show documentary where Frank and his second wife June Leaf are talking about their move to Nova Scotia in 1971 because Frank wanted to get away from New York. He describes how June was alone several times in Nova Scotia, “I was just a rolling stone”. (c. 40 min) – just as he was in those earlier years after he first went to New York.

Frank travelled mostly alone whilst gathering together his images, although sometimes with his (first) wife and children.  In the Southbank documentary he says, “What a lonely time it can be in America. What a tough country it is.  I saw for the first time the way blacks were treated.  It didn’t make me hate America; made me understand how people can be. You can learn a lot as a photographer.” (2005, around 12.01 min in).   His images in the Americans reflected Frank’s, alienated, outsider view.  Prints, as I described earlier – often gritty, tilted, blurred, shooting from the hip,  and with an unpremeditated look – “fragmented, ‘indecisive’ moments”. This style of photography has been described as ‘stream of consciousness” or ‘diaristic’ mode as it mediates the world through the personal (G. Badger)   To me, Robert Frank’s visual style mirrors what Jack Kerouac was seeking and found in his writing.  It needs a looser, freer approach, some kind of letting go.  I have found another photo resource here  to illustrate that.

Frank decided to make a book of the photographs, choosing 83 images.  The reaction in America was strongly against The Americans  with its technical roughness, use of low lighting and more unusual cropping,  plus its pessimistic tenor at a time when the media were more concerned to produce images of an optimistic population rebuilding themselves after the War. No American publisher would handle the book to begin with and it was first published in France as Les Americains  in 1958. By that time he had met Jack Kouerac who agreed to write an introduction to an American edition of the book which came out in 1959.  The two of them later went on to make  the film Pull My Daisy  with Kerouac as narrator and Frank subsequently turned to more film and video work, with a portion of it being based around his family, returning to still images in the 1970s.

Another look at The Americans

With all this new information I then turned back to look at the book again. I was more aware of the moment to moment, passing-through, style but it still didn’t make any narrative sense to me other than these are different people living different lives, some rich and some poor. Yet I know it’s been influential on many photographers since. Is it the loose, close-up, slanted,  shooting from the hip style; that sense of fast movement that street photographers get now?  Is it the fact that Japanese photographers such as Daido Moriyama have taken up stream of consciousness photography and a bleak alienated vision of the world. This is the work that Frank is probably the best known for.  Is part of this because of the connection with Kerouac and the Beat Generation?  I still have questions because I’m trying to understand the influence and I’ve certainly been on quite a reading and looking journey, so I looked again and found a paper by George Cotkin,  looking at Frank’s connections with the Beat-Hipster generation – the search for the essential self; critique of the established order and the existential awareness that death can always be just around the corner.

Cotkin notes some of the words that Kerouac uses in his introduction..   “CRAZY FEELING . . . music . . . jukebox . . . funeral . . . traveled on the road . . . old used car . . . agility, mystery, genius, sadness and strange secrecy.” He states that all of these are the essentials of the Beat imagination, “its iconographic roadmap” – all of which appear prominently in The Americans. To prove this, Cotkin describes a series of five adjacent photographs in the middle of the book that, to him, capture, in miniature, the book’s intermingling of life and death.

  1. “U.S.91 leaving Blackfoot, Idaho” – two young men in a car
  2.  “St. Petersburg. Florida” – “an evocative study of the elderly—sad and dying—sitting on two benches whose posts seem to resemble the marker lines of a highway. In the background of this image, placed against the rootedness of those involved in the waiting game of death, is a streaking car—perhaps one carrying the Idaho youth—off to new horizons and possibilities”.
  3. “Covered car – Long Beach. California” – a tarpaulin shrouded car, “immobile and dead”.
  4. “Car accident – U.S. 66, between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona” – body of an accident victim.
  5. “U.S. 285, New Mexico – “Returning to the road and a new set of possibilities.  The passing lanes of the highway suggest escape and speed, but evoke danger, for one can glimpse the outline of an on-coming car, headlights faint, in the passing lane”.

Cotkin places this ‘series’ within the context of  Rolan Barthes observation that “photographic images invoke death with tremendous vigour. “ It certainly makes sense, so does this series serve as a memento mori then? is Cotkin stretching this too far? Is this just another example of the way in which the viewer ascribes his/her own meaning to images?  After all, 5 out of 83 images isn’t a very large proportion although Frank did choose the order of course.

There is a newer book, an expanded  edition  containing a lot more of the background material – letters, essays, contact sheets etc – only the price has put me off buying it to see if I can gain even more of an understanding of the influence of this book.  Robert Frank has certainly drawn me in and much of this was to do with the Southbank Show documentary I watched on YouTube!

Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank (2005)

(Documentary with introduction by Melvyn Bragg on the Southbank Show)

Here’s a link to the YouTube version . I haven’t embedded it because it’s a long video, but I can certainly recommend it. Frank agreed to this documentary on the occasion of his 80th birthday. It brings out all that I’ve read so far about him – his reclusive personality, the tetchiness, the comment by Richard Woodward in his article in 1994 “…. Everything about the way Frank and Leaf lead their lives seems to announce that the occupants could care less about money, dirt, post-modern convenience…” However, it also provides what I think is a well-rounded portrait of a man committed to his art; to his wife still; and to the memory of his children – both of whom died early deaths. Early on, when the film runs out, he takes the crew off out (to Canvey Island I think) and, with his old photographs in his hand, begins to ask passers-by what they remember.  Frank often talks of the past as if it’s the present, living through his experiences and thinking around his photographic intentions. At one point he says, “You see how I walk around, go from one place to the next to the next. That’s what I know to do. It’s my life to travel through America; no guy sent me”.

I think that’s a good place for me to end.


18th March 2013



Frank, R,  (1958/2008) The Americans, Steidl, Germany [6th ed 2012]

Frank, R (2006) Come Again, Steidl, Germany

Keroauc, J 1959 Introduction: The Americans,(2008), Steidl, germany [6th ed 2012)

Marien, M.W. (2002) Photography: A Cultural History 3rd Ed, Laurence King Publishing Ltd, London (Jeu de Paume documentary) (Southbank Show, 2005,  from ITV Archive) Americans

19 thoughts on “Robert Frank and “The Americans”

  1. Catherine, this is very interesting. My tutor recommended me this book as well. Due to the cost, I ended up in getting the simplified Chinese edition. So the introduction is a little bit weird for me (for a photography book).

    In any case, despite the age of the book, some of the images match very well with what I remember when I was in US. Believe it or not, in some aspect that the states now are similar when it was half a century ago.

    • I’d be interested to see the Chinese edition Siegfried to compare – maybe next time we meet. Somehow, I’m not surprised that things haven’t changed much – maybe on the outside but not intrinsically.I think that was part of my problem in getting to grips with the book and its images.

  2. Hi Catherine. I have the Looking In book. I bought it a while ago but have not had a chance to study it … it is a thick tome. I plan one day to spend some time with it. I would be happy to loan the book to you if you would like to spend some time working on it.

    I have always considered Frank’s book as a breakthrough work. It seemed to be a new form of personal documentary which was more intuitive, experiential and free-wheeling than the classic magazine photojournalism.

    i think that the influences on Frank are very complex and I am not sure trying to pin him down to any one ‘movement’ is the right way to go.

    From what I’ve read most people think that his work is pretty opaque and does not offer any easy interpretation. Perhaps this was Frank’s intention. Much of the commentary about the work, especially a the time it was published, was about its loose formal style rather than about content. Perhaps it is best to allow oneself just to respond intuitively to the photographs and to see where this leads.

    i will now read John’s review and see what he thought about it.

    • That’s a nice offer Keith. I’ve got ‘Come Again”, some work he did in Beirut with polaroids – very thin and no words. Maybe we can do a brief swap and then compare.
      I know Frank’s book was out of the ordinary for the times (as presumably was Klein’s work). My problem was that my immediate response was that the images didn’t really strike me with any particular emotion apart from puzzlement as to what they were supposed to be showing me which was why I went on another of my ‘journeys’. I could then see the difference in terms of approach and style etc but, couldn’t see the ‘critique’ of the prevailing mood of the times, as many critics have said or that the images were showing anything startling – still can’t despite all the reading and looking! More food for discussion at some point, including how much Kerouac’s introduction really did colour people’s reception of the photographs.

      • I will bring the book next time we get together as a group….don’t forget to remind me. One of the difficulties in looking at the Americans now is that it is now and not then. It is also about the US and not here…maybe we are just not sufficiently in tune with the time and place to respond to it in the way people did back then.

  3. Thanks Catherine for this very interesting post… I am looking from time to time to this book, as I have it at home, but I never took the time to read it with the same depth as you did. As a french living in the Usa, I have the feeling that the lack of narrative you are talking about might in part come from the size of the country, so different from what we experience in Europe. This lack of narrative might reflect the topographical state of the United States: sometimes things are cluttered and suddenly you are in a no mans land for hours and hours, and at the end of the world you are in a different world. There is clear lack of continuity here compared to Europe, it is part of the charm, this wild and fascinating side, and at the same time, this is what makes it a country diffucult to understand and to figure out…

    • Very interesting points Stephanie – I was hoping you’d comment from your perspective. I’ve only been to the US three times and really did find it too large to comprehend. Very much like many different countries existing alongside each other and as you describe. Maybe that’s the mirror that Frank was holding up.

  4. Remembering that Franks was leaving Switzerland in ’47 – it would have been bleak, post war (though slightly aloof, a very Swiss thing) and arriving into a country that had just won the war and tremendously, proudly affluent. When I went to the States the first time in the early eighties, my eyes were agog also, coming from post seventies depression into the land of milk and honey. It is that state of wonderment that I see and recognise somewhat in the work; sure a lot of the images are dated but not the awe. “Did I really just see that?” “Is that for real?”. And of course he did, and it was; and like Evans suggested, he recorded it, he documented what was a very personal statement of an “other’s” vision of the “Land of the Free”, the “Leader of the Western World”, which for me suggests that it might also be a polemic against the country that would eventually provide a home for him for most of his life.
    Another very good and interesting read Catherine, now are off on your road now?

    • I certainly think you gained much of that sense of awe from your reading of the book John. Do you think that you put your own early experience into your reading of it, whereas I put my continuing incomprehension as to what the country is supposed to be about.
      I find Frank himself to be fascinating – at least what I’ve seen of him on-screen. What still comes over to me is that sense of wandering/searching for something; the urge to keep moving.

    • Thanks Norma. I just need to keep a watch on not getting too over-involved in all the reading at the expense of everything else! At least I’ve got more knowledge now on the context of it all.

  5. Hi Catherine,

    I too had made the sub-conscious link between Moriyama & Frank in the restless darkness and the graininess & varying technical values of their pieces. What separates them is their intention, as far as I can see, in that Moriyama has a self-professed sensuality/eroticism in his work which I cannot see in Frank’s. You have referenced Kerouac’s work so many times in your recent blogs that I must get to it – he sounds quite seminal in his ideas. You have certainly done a whack of reading – I am battling through G.Clarke’s views on portraiture! Glug, glug!

    Keep feeding us. Anna

    • Kerouac is certainly worth reading I must say though that his introduction to the Americans is much more ‘hip and stream of consciousness than ‘On the Road’ which I think is more literary.
      I’m slowly creeping up on Klein and Moriyama now as well. Frank did talk of his own ‘roughness’ in his photography on the Southbank documentary which fits with what you write regarding sensuality – forgot to mention that. It’s a good one to watch.
      Best of luck with G. Clarke.

  6. I read the Kerouac book Catherine and also did a bit more reading around the ‘Beat’ era. I can see that he captured the sub-culture attitude and lifestyle extremely well and I’m now awaiting delivery of my copy of ‘The Americans’ to see how they meet artistically.

    I must admit to being very intrigued as to how a post-war Swiss national and a French-Canadian came to be linked. The only way I can see it at the moment is that Frank was like a child in a sweetie shop when he got America and was going a bit wild to fall in with Kerouac et al, especially as he would have a very straight-laced background, comparatively speaking, especially with regard to Lucien Cole.

    • Great that you’re following it all through Eddy. New York is a melting pot but that particular scene must have been relatively small – guess that Kerouac and Frank connected in both being ‘outsiders’. From what I’ve read, Kerouac was quite right-wing whereas I don’t get the impression that applies to Frank. Presumably it was that ‘in the moment’ pace and freestyle that they both shared – at least enough to collaborate later. Good discussion points for our next group-meet I think.

  7. Very interesting Catherine. Have you seen that Amazon has the Looking In book for £32? Still a lot of money but a good deal less than £50. I have added it to my Wish List, despite having resolve to be more restrained in buying books this year. I blame you for tempting me. 😉

    I bought the book last year, and must say that my reaction was very different to yours. I had limited expectation from it, as what I’d seen online and in other books didn’t hugely grab me. But I was instantly taken by the book itself – its physical qualities – size, shape, paper – just felt right. the pictures for me are full of mood and intrigue. I was very stuck by the portrayal of race, but also by the sense of loneliness and of space, and the combination of beauty and tawdriness.

    Because I liked the book a lot I haven’t thought too much about why it had such impact until I read this. One thought, and it may not be a good one as I haven’t spent long reflecting on this, is that as well as the exploration of race (which even now is a hugely difficult subject in the US), he looks at many American icons. Compare the rodeo or starlet pictures to how these archetypal American images might normally be shown in the fifties. And his portrayal of the flag and patriotic events. I’m looking at it very much as an outsider and it speaks to me on that level, but I imagine that an American reader has very different reactions (by way of contra I wonder what sense they make of Martin Parr’s New Brighton?). America in the fifties and early sixties was promoting this dominant and positive self-image as the nation of plenty, of opportunity and freedom, the brave new world. And here was an upstart photographer from Europe looking under the make-up. Of course much of what we see by way of photography in the mid part of the 20th century was American or influenced by American work, and so it may be unsurprising that a work that is so much of and about America occupies a significant place in the lexicon.

    Anyway, enough for now: must get back to my video editing. Thanks for posting such an interesting exploration of the subject.

    • It’s always nice to have someone else to blame for making you spend money Eileen! One of these days I’ll get round to visiting Farnham UCA library and seeing what they have to offer (I keep putting it off).
      I think you’re like me re photobooks – it’s the whole aspect of them not just the images. I keep wondering why the ones in “The Americans’ don’t seem that special to me. It perturbed me which is why I set off on the exploration. Maybe I saw them a long time ago so they don’t seem ‘new’ or have seen films when young that conveyed the same atmosphere, including ones such as “Blackboard Jungle” that certainly didn’t present such a positive image of America.

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