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