The Americans in Context – John Edwin Mason

This post, looking at ‘The Americans in Context’ has been written by John Edwin Mason is a writer and photographer who teaches African history and the history of photography at the University of Virginia. You can read his fantastic blog here and follow John on twitter here. A big thank you to John for this contribution, if anyone else would like to write on the Photo Book Club, pop us an email.

Robert Frank’s The Americans:  Some Notes on Context
John Edwin Mason

Wayne Ford’s perceptive comments about the ways in which The Americans was received, when it appeared in the United States, have got me thinking about the historical context within which Frank made and published his photographs.  That context — riddled as it is with complexities and contradictions — can itself suggest a series of commentaries about both the photographs and the ways in which people responded to them.

Wayne is quite right when he says that, on the whole, that American reactions to the book were initially hostile.  While the New York Times was ambivalent (conceding that Frank had talent), most reviews were unambiguously negative.  J. Hoberman has summed it up nicely:  “…[most] Americans took The Americans personally.  The book was characterized as ‘sick,’ ‘warped,’ ‘joyless,’ ‘dishonest,’ ‘sad,’ ‘neurotic,’ ‘marred by spite, bitterness, and narrow prejudice.’  Coming from a foreigner, the title was an insult.  Why not ‘Some Americans?’”

Covered car, Long Beach - California ©ROBERT FRANK

It’s not hard to understand where this hostility was coming from.  The nation that confronted people, when they opened the pages of The Americans, was anything but the “Shining City on the Hill” that so many have so often imagined it to be.  Instead, the country was a dystopia, its citizens alternately menacing, menaced, or estranged.  The photos often reveal racial hierarchies and class stratification.  In many of them, fear, anger, and suppressed rage — sometimes masked by a boisterous bravado — seem to linger just below the surface.  Frank wasn’t making any of this up, and people knew it.  They hated him for showing it to them.

If Frank’s Americans seemed to be beset with both tangible and existential anxieties, we can understand why.  Early victories in the African-American civil rights movement destabilized the old certainties of white supremacy.  Suburbanization disrupted established communities and broke families apart.  Cars choked the highways.  Post-war prosperity failed to eliminate poverty.  Always present, but largely unseen were the Cold War and its threat of nuclear annihilation.

Charleston - South Carolina ©ROBERT FRANK

No one who had read The Americans would have been surprised by what was to come a few short years later — the assassinations (the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X), the urban rebellions of African-American youth, and the disastrous escalation of the Vietnam War.

Ranch Market - Hollywood ©ROBERT FRANK

Then as now, however, there were many Americas and many sorts of Americans.  Frank didn’t capture them all and couldn’t have, even if he had tried.  As a result, people had a point when they said that the book was actually about “some Americans.”

Frank saw the darkness in the American soul, but he rarely captured the light.  The years during which he shot, edited, and published The Americans — 1955 to 1959 — belonged as much to Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry as to anyone else.  They were the commercial avatars of a cultural revolution that was leaving few aspects of American life untouched.  This was the decade of rock ‘n’ roll, civil rights, abstract expressionism, and the Beats.  Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Allen Ginsberg and James Baldwin, Jackson Pollack and Jasper Johns, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe could all lay a claim to it.  Coincidentally, if not ironically, Disneyland opened in a Los Angeles suburb just a few months before Frank passed through town.

Movie Premiere - Hollywood ©ROBERT FRANK

The ’50s were as exuberant as they were bleak, but we rarely see this in Frank’s photos.  (Interestingly, Jack Kerouac, who wrote an introduction for the US edition of The Americans, managed to capture some of both qualities in his early novels.)  Nobody relying on The Americans for their knowledge of the US would have anticipated much of what was to come next — the successes of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, the emergence of women’s and environmental (Green) movements, not to mention hippies, Woodstock, and bell bottom jeans.  Frank’s America hadn’t disappeared, as Richard Nixon’s victory in the 1972 presidential election made perfectly clear.  It was, however, one America among many.

It does nothing to diminish Frank’s achievement to say that the truths he captured in The Americans are partial and contingent, rather than comprehensive and absolute.  The insights are powerful, the photographs are beautiful, and we cannot plausibly ask for anything more.  The book remains essential reading and viewing for anyone who wants to understand the history of photography or the nature of American society in the 1950s.


0 thoughts on “The Americans in Context – John Edwin Mason”

  1. Very interesting post. Is there an equivalent to Frank for the 60s, I wonder? I mean a photographer who in his body of work captures that remarkable decade.

  2. Hi, Eileen.

    “Is there an equivalent to Frank for the 60s, I wonder?”

    Great question. I’d nominate Tod Papageorge’s “American Sports, 1970: Or How We Spent the War in Vietnam.” Yes, 1970 isn’t the ’60s, and the book was published until 2007, but I think it captures the late-’60s brilliantly — in all their variety.

    I’d like to hear suggestions from others. The ’60s was a busy decade for US photographers.

  3. Robert Frank’s “The Americans” along with “Family of Man” and was one of three books on photography thatI studied and Cartier-Bresson’s 1952 book, “The Decisive Moment” were the first books of photography that seriously studied in the late 60’s before investing in the “Time-Life” Library of Photography series. They were a great tool in forming my style of shooting. “The Americana” is one of the greatest and classic photo books of all time and its a great document of American society from that time period of the 50’s. I think everybody interested in studying photography should look at this book.

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