At The Photo Book Club we are really keen to hear your stories about Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’. After hearing Rich Beaubien’s personal reminiscence last week (link) it got us thinking about how others first came across the book, what it has meant to them, how it has inspired people and even whether people have traveled to some of the sites in the book to recreate images?
I first read The Americans in my first year at University, as my fascination with American photography began. It sat in between Lange’s ‘An American Exodus’ and Clark’s ‘Tulsa’ on my reading list and was exactly what i had, unknowingly, been looking for. Through 83 images Frank showed a nation in birth, death, rest and work, captured a time in history, and for me, captured a picture that stretched far beyond its own decade.
There are very few books that keep me as interested and intrigued as The Americans, which I must have read The Americans in part or in full, at least 8 times that same week. I loved noticing different images each time, spotting the humorous touches i had missed previously and analysing the expressions on Frank’s characters and extras, which is how i saw it at the time – as a film of a time passed. I had no reference to America or the 70’s.
As my understanding of the context in which The Americans was produced grew, I lingered longer on images previously ignored. I read more into the sequencing of the images, took note of the locations and developed a better understanding of what Frank had captured. I stopped seeing the America i wanted to see and started to see the America that Frank saw, as a photographer and outsider.
Yet, like Niall commented, I like my first view of the book best. Where I skipped through the cocktail parties, commencement speeches and political rallies (falling in love with the elevator girl on the way) to spend my time looking at the cowboy hats, cigarettes, jukebox’s and endless roads.
My first copy of this, was a free give away with a subscription to the glossy Condé Nast magazine, Vanity Fair. I still have the battered paperback copy and although I have bought the hardback and the expanded version since, I prefer my first view of the book. Not surprisingly those Vanity Fair’s have long since hit the recycling bin.
The book, to me, transcends the idea of it being a photobook, mostly because it’s so important, it’s not about photography any more. It’s called The Americans and that’s what it is – a book about America and the American people in the 1950s. To me there is no complicated story behind the images, there’s no nuanced discussions on photography techniques or colour reproduction, yet it seems to sum up a whole decade in 83 pictures.
I love the idea that is was considered controversial and derogatory at the time yet today it’s considered a great documentary of America’s most important time. Nice work Robert, your can take your place up there with Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen in my book!
I grew up in the US during the 1950’s and came of age during the tumultuous 60’s. Frank’s book documents the middle of the 1950’s and was released just prior to the explosive 1960’s decade. I found my first copy of The Americans in a second-hand bookstore sometime in the early 1970. It was Kerouac’s name on the cover that first enticed me (I was born and raised in Kerouac’s home town), in the end it was the photographs that captured me. I wasn’t sure what I had, but the evocative images struck me from the beginning. The careful sequencing (where I learned how story telling takes shape) and the format, with the blank facing pages, lends itself well to close inspection of each photo. There has always been, at least for me, both a subtleness and strong articulation in the images. Plus they all have some sort of interesting angle and often carry some humor. When looking at these images I often get transported as an observer back in time to the moment, becoming part of what is happening. These photographs captured the breadth this country as it entered a pivotal decade of the 20th century – the hope, difficulties, feelings, tension, and insecurities.
I guess this became more of a rambling personal reminiscence, than a review. Still, it was inspirational in my own development in that I realized for the first time of the possibilities capturing someone in public. I never saw a photograph the same way again.
I ﬁrst encountered Robert Frankʼs ʻThe Americansʼ as a young graphic design student in
the early 1980s. It wasnʼt a book I had been encouraged to seek out by my photography
lecturer — although he did point me in the direction of many wonderful photographers,
such as Bill Brandt, who continue to inspire me to this day — but a book I discovered by
chance as I browsed the small photography section in the art school library.
As a 16 year-old student my knowledge of America was based upon what I had seen and
read in the newspaper colour supplements, documentaries, and through stereo-typical
television series, but here in this small format book, was a series of gritty black-and-white
photographs that offered me a very different, and unique perspective of America that I had
nor seen encountered before.
Having spent the day looking at the book in the library, and seeking more information on
this unknown (to me at least) Swiss photographer called Robert Frank, I checked the book
out of the library for the maximum period allowed, two brief weeks, which just ﬂew by.
I was rarely without the book, picking it up and browsing the pages as often as I could, and
after two weeks I returned the book to library, only to check it straight out again, a pattern
that I repeated over the next year, each time I returned to the library hoping, no one else
had asked to look at the book.
A year after I ﬁrst encountered the work of Robert Frank and ʻThe Americansʼ I found a
secondhand copy in a local bookstore, and parted with a not insubstantial amount of my
small student grant, it wasnʼt the ﬁrst photobook I purchased, but it was the ﬁrst book of
photography that I purchased whose energy continues to excite me to this day.