It makes perfect sense that Jack Kerouac, an unofficial poet laureate of his beatnik generation and author of On The Road, would write the introduction to an unassuming — but revolutionary — body of photographs called The Americans.
"That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that's what Robert Frank has captured in tremendous photographs taken as he traveled on the road around practically forty-eight states in an old used car ..."
With only 83 photographs, this Robert Frank, a Swiss immigrant and Guggenheim fellow, single-handedly altered the course of photography in 1958 when his book was published. The product of a few years on the proverbial road, The Americans was a simple documentary project about the American people. And although the subject was a familiar one, it was unlike anything that had come before it.
What came before The Americans? The world of photography that Frank inherited was formal and highly regulated. Like Frank, photojournalists such as Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson were interested in "vernacular" subject matter, but their photographs were perfectly crisp, clear and composed.
Frank, on the other hand, was something of an anarchist. Although formally trained, he was heavily influenced by the artistic zeitgeist of abstract expressionism. He was friends with Willem de Kooning and Allen Ginsberg, and it showed in his photographs that liberated the frame from convention.
Needless to say, the finished project was excoriated. To photography pundits, Frank's photographs were offensively imbalanced, unfocused, even drunken. Not only was his style a total departure, but also — and more disturbingly — his photos shattered the popular image of a happy, wholesome America. Eerie glowing jukeboxes, joyless lunch-counter customers, stretches of open road — far from what he knew in New York City, the country Frank encountered was plagued by poverty, racism and xenophobia. There was a sadness and solitude to his photographs that was completely honest, but tough to face.
But The Americans stood the test of time, because although it was brutally honest, it was also strangely reverent. Today it is often cited as one of the most seminal bodies of photographic work, if not the most influential. To mark the 50th anniversary of its publication, an exhibition opened Tuesday at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans, which began its tour at the National Gallery of Art in D.C., features the original 83 photographs, as well as contact sheets and a detailed examination of the book's formation and its legacy.
Cover of Gefter's book, Photography After Frank
Dealey Plaza, Dallas, 1964 by Garry Winogrand (From Photography After Frank/Courtesy of Aperture)
Its legacy alone has spawned a fair amount of scholarship recently, such as New York Times writer Philip Gefter's new book Photography After Frank. In a collection of essays, Gefter makes a case for the breadth of Frank's influence, arguing that without Frank, there would have been no room for Garry Winogrand or Diane Arbus or Stephen Shore — basically, there would have been no room for spontaneity. And although the contemporary trend in photography has been a return to formula, there's no doubting Frank's influence on both the frame and the way we Americans see ourselves in it.
Hear Gefter discuss the photographer: