'Americans': The Book That Changed Photography In 1959, Robert Frank's The Americans dramatically altered how photographers looked through viewfinders and how Americans saw themselves.
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'Americans': The Book That Changed Photography

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'Americans': The Book That Changed Photography

'Americans': The Book That Changed Photography

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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.

SARAH GREENOUGH: 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: 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.

ROBERT FRANK: 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.

JOEL MEYEROWITZ: 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.

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


COLE: 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.

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: 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.

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

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: 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.

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.

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.


FRANK: Just a release.

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

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: 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.

FRANK: 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: 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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