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'Americans': The Book That Changed Photography
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'Americans': The Book That Changed Photography

Arts & Life

JACKI LYDEN, host:

A half century ago, one photographer took a cross-country journey to get his own snapshot of the nation. The result was a book called The Americans. The photographer, Swiss-born Robert Frank. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has devoted an entire exhibition to the book.

And as NPR's Tom Cole reports, those 83 images changed the way photographers look through their viewfinders and the way Americans saw themselves.

TOM COLE: The Americans was actually reviled when it was first published in this country, says Sarah Greenough, who curated the current National Gallery show.

Ms. SARAH GREENOUGH (Curator, National Gallery of Art): Popular Photography asked a number of writers to critique the book and almost all of them were very negative. It was described as a sad poem by a very sick person.

COLE: The Americans offered a very different view of America than the wholesome, nonconfrontational photo essays offered by such magazines as Popular Photography and Life.

Robert Frank captured people who were not always sharing in the American dream of the 1950s - factory workers in Detroit, transvestites in New York, the black writers on a segregated trolley in New Orleans. He didn't even get much support from the art world, as he recalled in 1994, the last time the National Gallery (unintelligible) the show of his work.

Mr. ROBERT FRANK (Photographer): The Museum of Modern Art wouldn't even sell the book, you know? I mean, (unintelligible) forget so easy. But the younger people caught on.

Mr. JOEL MEYEROWITZ (Photographer): It was the vision that emanated from the book that led not only me, but my whole generation of photographers out into the American landscape in a sense - the lunatic sublime of America.

COLE: Joel Meyerowitz was one of the younger photographers inspired by The Americans, so were Gary Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, and Ed Ruscha.

Mr. ED RUSCHA (Photographer): Robert Frank came out here and he just showed that you could see the USA until you spit blood.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COLE: Robert Frank came to New York in 1947. He was born in Switzerland, trained in photography, and very eager to escape the pressure to join his father's radio-importing business.

Sitting in his garage(ph) village apartment today, logs crackling in the small fireplace, his recollection of his first day in New York is vivid. His sponsor took him to get a bite to eat.

Mr. FRANK: He took me to a restaurant (unintelligible). We sat down - it's a table, like, for two. Glass came, and the waiter came and he just threw the knives and the forks on the table. It absolutely impressed me. I said, boy, this is something.

COLE: He didn't just get to know New York's characters. He honed his skills working as a commercial photographer, something he disliked but kept up as a way of make a living.

Joel Meyerowitz met him on one of these jobs. Meyerowitz was the art director at a small advertising agency. He didn't even own a camera. His boss sent him to watch Frank shoot the pictures for a booklet he was to design.

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: And it was such a magical experience watching him twisting and turning, bobbing, weaving. And every time I heard his Leica go click, I would see the moment freeze in front of Robert. And it was such an unbelievable and powerful experience that when I arrived back at my office, I walked in the door to my boss and said, I'm quitting.

And he said, what do you mean you're quitting? I said, I saw this guy take photographs. I want to be a photographer. I want to go out in the street and take photographs of life.

COLE: Joel Meyerowitz went on to become one of the pioneers of color photography.

In 1994, Frank remembered spending his time off from commercial shoots on the streets photographing life.

Mr. FRANK: Like a boxer trains for a fight, a photographer while walking the streets and watching, and taking pictures, coming home, walking out the next day, same thing again, taking pictures. It doesn't matter how many he takes or if he takes any at all. It gets you prepared to know what you should take pictures of or what is the right thing to do and when.

COLE: Robert Frank's noncommercial work started to get noticed. In 1954, he applied for a Guggenheim fellowship to make - in the words of the application -an observation and record of what one naturalized American finds to see in the United States.

Walker Evans and Edward Steichen, already famous photographers by then, wrote references. Frank got the grant. He spent part of the money on a used Ford and headed out.

Mr. FRANK: I was absolutely free just to turn left or turn right without knowing what I would find.

COLE: June 1955, first stops: Pennsylvania, Ohio, then Michigan, where he was allowed to photograph inside Ford's River Rouge plant in Dearborn.

Mr. FRANK: It was so hot and the noise and the machines. And then the workers -they would see me, and for some reason, they all started to scream.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANK: Just a release.

COLE: His photograph is a grainy blur: two lines of men at work, blacks and whites side-by-side, facing each other across the assembly line that runs up the middle of the picture.

Not long after he snapped it, he was stopped by a police. And when a search of his trunk revealed a second set of license plate - the used car's old ones - he was thrown in jail. It was the first of two run-ins with the law.

Curator Sarah Greenough says Frank was stopped in November of '55 in Arkansas.

Ms. GREENOUGH: For no other reason other than that he was a foreign-looking person driving an older car. And when the police stopped him, you know, he didn't speak with a good southern accent. And he was jailed for several hours and he described it as one of the most terrifying experiences of his trip.

COLE: A foreigner with a bunch of cameras at the height of the Cold War. The police thought he was a spy. Maybe he was, in a way.

In a whole, Robert Frank shot 767 rolls of film yielding about 27,000 images. He edited all of that down to about 1,000 work prints, then he spread them across the floor of his studio and tacked them to the walls to figure out which ones to use and in what order. He reduced a year and a half worth of work to just 83 images.

Frank does not like to go back and analyze them. But he will talk about one of his favorites, a peek at a private moment taken on a hill in San Francisco. At the top of the frame is a broad gray sky; below are the city's hills and houses in stark white. In the foreground, sitting on a hill overlooking the scene, is a black couple. The man turned around with an angry scowl on his face. The invisible photographer had been caught.

Mr. FRANK: All I could do is just stand there with my camera and keep photographing, but a little bit away from him so that he could think and accept that maybe I photographed the panorama of the city.

Those are the difficult moments every photographer has to get over and get away with it and not be discouraged, (unintelligible) sensitive has an effect on you. So maybe it's better not to be sensitive as a photographer and just go on. And many photographers today have that. I never had that. I think it's nice to be sensitive as a photographer, and (unintelligible) harder.

COLE: Despite his sensitivity, Robert Frank rarely spoke to his subjects; he chose to point, shoot and move on. The feelings he was trying to express in his pictures, nevertheless, struck a chord. The Americans became a hit not only with photographers, but with Americans as the 1950s gave way to the '60s. And the issues his photographs raised seemed not only relevant, but prescient. But by then, Frank had already moved on. The year The Americans came out, he set aside still photography and made his first film.

Tom Cole, NPR News.

LYDEN: You can see classic images from Robert Frank, The Americans, at our Web site, npr.org.

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