The Americans – Your Personal Reminiscence?


©ROBERT FRANK

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?

As always you can get involved by using the hashtag #photobc in Twitter, or use the comments section below.

Matt Johnston

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.

Niall McDiarmid

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!

Rich Beaubien

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.

Wayne Ford

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.

Editions and History: Robert Frank – Les Américains/The Americans

The History

In June, 1955, Robert Frank purchased a five year-old Ford Business Coupe in New York, this purchase would signal the start of a road trip, that would first see the Swiss-born photographer drive alone to Detroit, then in late Summer south to Savannah and Miami Beach, before heading to St. Petersburg, and New Orleans, an then on to Houston, for a rendezvous with his wife Mary, and their two children, Pablo and Andrea. Together, they would drive west arriving in Los Angeles shortly before Christmas. They remained on the Pacific coast until May 1956, when Mary and the children returned to New York, leaving Frank to continue his 10,000 mile trip alone. His route took him via Reno to Salt Lake City, before joining U.S. 91 to Butte, Montana, then through Wyoming, Nebraska, and Iowa, before arriving in Chicago, where he turned south, arriving back in New York in July.

In just over a year, Frank exposed more than 760 rolls of film, producing some 27,000 photographs, and on his return to New York, he began the mammoth task of editing his work. Over the next few months he selected and printed 1000 work prints, which he pinned to the wall of his Third Avenue apartment, or laid on the floor, slowly editing these prints to just 100, and then the 83 that would make up the final sequence of Les Américains (Robert Delpire, 1958).

Frank received an advance of $200 for The Americans (by the end of the year the was book out of print, and this sum had risen to $817), the road trip itself had been financed by a Guggenheim  Fellowship. His application to the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation in the autumn of 1954 listed five supporters, including the legendary art director of Harper’s Bazaar, Alexey Brodovitch (1898-1971), who had hired Frank as an assistant photographer, when he first arrived in New York from Switzerland in 1947, and the great photographers Walker Evans (1903-1975) and Edward Steichen (1879-1973).

Frank’s application stated his aim was to record ‘what one naturalised American finds to see in the United States that signifies the kind of civilisation born here and spreading elsewhere.’ It is worth remember that at this point Frank was not yet a naturalised citizen of the United States (he was awarded US citizenship in 1963, to which he remarked ‘Ich bin ein Amerikaner’), and Evans had a hand a significant hand in drafting the written application.

Like many great works, the initial reaction to The Americans was scathing, with condemnation coming think and fast, ‘A Degradation of a Nation!’; ‘a sad poem for sick people,’ the editors of Popular Photography where so incensed they published no fewer than seven reviews in the May 1959 issue, with just one proving ‘unreservedly admiring,’ in short The Americans, was viewed as un-American. But this was short lived, with more editions and reprints of this book being published than possibly any other photobook, reflecting the significance and influence of Frank’s seminal work.

Key Editions

•    Les Américains, Robert Delpire, 1958
•    Gli Americani, Il Saggiatore, 1959 (Italian edition)
•    The Americans, Grove, 1959 (Introduction by Jack Kerouac)
•    The Americans, Aperture, 1968
•    The Americans, Aperture, 1969
•    The Americans, Aperture, 1978
•    Les Américains, Robert Delpire, 1985 (French translation of Kerouac’s introduction)
•    The Americans, Pantheon, 1986
•    Die Amerikaner, Christian Verlag, 1986 (German edition)
•    Amerikanzu: Robato Furanku shashinshu, Takara-jimasha, 1993 (Japanese edition)
•    The Americans, Cornerhouse, 1993
•    The Americans, Scalo, 1993
•    The Americans, Scalo, 1998
•    The Americans, Steidl, 2008 (50th anniversary edition)
•    Die Amerikaner, Steidl, 2008 (German edition)
•    The Americans, Steidl, 2008 (First Mandarin edition)

Other books by Robert Frank

Where possible, Amazon links have been provided

•    Hold Still – Keep Going, Steidl, 2011
•    Tal uf Tal Ab, Steidl, 2010
•    Portfolio: 40 Photos 1941/1946,  Steidl, 2009
•    Frank Films: The Film and Video Work of Robert Frank, Steidl, 2009
•    Seven Stories, Steidl, 2009
•    Black White and Things, Steidl, 2009 (re-issue)
•    Paris, Steidl, 2008
•    Zero Mostel Reads a Book, Steidl, 2008
•    Pull My Daisy, Steidl, 2008
•    Peru, Steidl, 2008
•    Me and My Brother, Steidl, 2007
•    One Hour, Steidl, 2007
•    Come Again, Steidl, 2006
•    New York to Nova Scotia, Steidl, 2005
•    Storylines, Steidl, 2004
•    Frank Films: The Film and Video Work of Robert Frank, Scalo, 2004
•    London/Wales, Scalo, 2003
•    Hold Still – Keep Going, Scalo, 2001
•    One Hour, Hanuman Books, 1998
•    Flamingo, Scalo, 1997
•    Thank You, Scalo, 1996
•    Black White and Things, Scalo, 1995 (Facsimilie of 1952 edition)
•    Robert Frank: Moving Out, Scalo, 1995
•    The Lines of My Hand, Distributed Art Partners, 1995
•    Black White and Things, 3Nishen Publishing, 1991
•    The Lines of My Hand, Parkett/Der Alltag, 1989 (revised edition)
•    The Lines of My Hand, Random House, 1989
•    Flower is…, Yugensha, Kazuhiko Motomura (Tokyo, limited edition of 500)
•    Thats Life, self-published, 1980
•    The Lines of My Hand, Lustrum Press, 1972 (condensed edition)
•    The Lines of My Hand, Yugensha, Kazuhiko Motomura, 1972 (Tokyo)
•    Me and My Brother, a handmade/promotional book for film of same name, 1965
•    Zero Mostel Reads a Book, New York Times, 1963
•    Pull My Daisy, Grove Press, 1961

Wayne Ford

Further reading

Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, Expanded Edition, Steidl, 2008.

Links, comments and suggestions

We thought it would be useful to have a place where all the great suggestions, comments and links can be seen easily. Below are the thoughts shared so far about Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’. Keep them coming through the hashtag #photobc in Twitter or share links and blog posts in to comment section below.

Comments

Steve Goldenberg
There was a show of all 83 images at the Corcoran Gallery of art in DC a year or so ago. Just amazing.#photobc

Thing that sticks with me most about The Americans is contrast b/w how familiar the imagery looks but how foreign the images feel #photobc

Rich Beaubien
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.

John Edwin Mason
There’s a lot of good audio on the website of the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC, which mounted a major exhibition on The Americans (and including Frank’s entire career) in 2009.

You’ll find an hour-long conversation between Frank (in very good humor) and Sarah Greenough, plus other talks by Greenough, Stephen Brooke, Martin Gasser, Olivier Lugon, and Alan Trachtenberg, among others. Here’s the link:
http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/frankinfo.shtm

My favorite edition of The Americans might be Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, which was the catalog for the National Gallery exhibition. It contains, besides the usual scholarly essays, reproductions of the contact sheets on which each of the photos in the book appears. And there are few things in the world more fascinating that a great photographer’s contact sheets.

Looking In also contains some of the photos that didn’t make it into the book. It’s wonderful to see what made the cut and what didn’t.

Thanks for putting this together, gents. Should be fun.

Links

Brian David Stevens
EXHIBITION: Some contact sheets from the Americans are up at the Tate Modern at the moment. must admit I prefer Frank’s Paris more at the moment
http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/CollectionDisplays?venueid=2&roomid=5626

Larissa Leclair
INTERVIEW: “Robert Frank, Sarah Greenough and Joel Meyerowitz on ‘The Americans'” (2009) #photobc
http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/03/interview-robert-frank-sarah-greenough.html
(Also mentioned by David Campbell)

ESSAY: Robert Frank: The Americans on American Suburb X http://www.americansuburbx.com/2009/01/theory-robert-franks-america.html

Rich Beaubien
Might be a good time to revisit NPR’s story on Robert Frank and ‘The Americans’ #photobc
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=100688154

And if you haven’t seen it there’s “Frank’s ‘The Americans’ Elevator Girl Sees Herself ‘  #photobc
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112389032
(Also shared by Matt Dunn)

John Edwin Mason
You’ll find an hour-long conversation between Frank (in very good humor) and Sarah Greenough, plus other talks by Greenough, Stephen Brooke, Martin Gasser, Olivier Lugon, and Alan Trachtenberg, among others. Here’s the link:
http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/frankinfo.shtm

Matt Johnston
Shane Lavalette looks at the influence of Frank’s ‘The Americans’ on Danny Wilcox Frasier’s ‘Driftless’
http://www.shanelavalette.com/journal/2008/02/11/danny-wilcox-frazier-driftless/

Suggestions

Larissa Leclair
I would be interested to hear a discussion about the initial criticism for the book when it was published in the US and a discussion on how the sentiment changed to be lauded as such an influential book.

In Reply – Pete Brook
I think Larissa’s wish to read criticism upon the release of ‘The Americans’ is tantalising. I’d like to see those reviews too.

Iain Sarjeant
Congrats on the launch of @photobookclub – would love to see Keld Helmer-Petersen discussed in the future #photobc

Brian David Stevens
Maybe a future discussion on what great photobooks are out of print and why that is….?

Henry Iddon
Its not photography but Colour by Derek Jarman is a brilliant book that should be read by anyone in visual arts.

Synopsis: Robert Frank – Les Américains/The Americans

Title
Les Américains/The Americans

Author
Robert Frank

Publisher
Robert Delpire, 1958/Grove Press, 1959

Overview

Robert Frank’s (1924-) Les Américains, was first published by Robert Delpire on 15 May 1958, the 83 black-and-white photographs had been taken by the Swiss born photographer on a road trip across America he took between 1955 and 1956, and where accompanied by a text on the social and political history of America by Alain Bosquet. Each of Frank’s photographs is placed on a right-hand page, with Bosquet’s text on the left, with the edition forming part of the Encyclopédie essentielle series, which aimed to present foreign countries to a French audience.

In 1959, the first English edition of The Americans was published by Grove Press, New York (released in January 1960), it retained the same visual sequence as the Delpire edition, but replaced Bosquet’s text with an introduction by the poet and novelist Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), whilst the right-hand opposite Frank’s photographs had captions by the photographer, which describe the location of the image.

Although widely criticised when the book was launched in the United States, this seminal work, has since 1959, been published in numerous editions and become, one could argue, the most influential photobook of all time.

Wayne Ford

Get involved

Let us know your thoughts by using the hashtag #photobc in Twitter or share links and blog posts in to comment section below.

Coming next…

Later this week Wayne will take a look at the key editions of ‘The Americans’ as well as the history of the initial project and subsequent books.

Get the book

The current English language version of Frank’s ‘The Americans’ published by Steidl is available from the Amazon link below or from many other book stores.

Welcome to The Photo Book Club

Announcing the launch of the Photo Book Club

The idea for the Photo Book Club which will launch on 28 February 2011, grew out of conversations between designer Wayne Ford and photographer Matt Johnston, with the encouragement of photographer and educator Jonathan Worth.

The premise for the Photo Book Club is a simple one, each month we will discuss one book that we consider to have made a significant contribution to the world of photography, this may be a well known volume, such as Robert Frank’s Les Américains/The Americans, (1958/1959), which will signal the launch of the Photo Book Club, or a lesser known, but no less important work.

At the beginning of each month we will post a brief introduction of our chosen book on the Photo Book Club website, followed by a more in-depth comment on the work, and through the comment section of the website we aim to create a platform through which we can discuss the impact of each body of work through, over the coming weeks.

Whilst Wayne and Matt, both have ideas for the books that we would like to feature, we want the Photo Book Club to be an open platform, for a community to evolve, so we actively encourage suggestions for books, and in other ways in which we can develop the conversation, we want to create a community where the photobook in its widest context can be discussed and appreciated.

Whilst we are initially launching the Photo Book Club as a blog, and as a Twitter feed, we are hoping that in the near future we can arrange the occasional physical meeting, and even some print content too.

The Photo Book Club

THE PHOTO BOOK CLUB – 4 days…

It is now only 4 days until The Photo Book Club officially opens it’s digital doors for discussion of Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ (latest version Amazon link). The month-long discussion of Frank’s seminal book will begin with an overview written by Wayne Ford, followed a week later by Wayne’s extended writing on the book.
At any point over the next month (and beyond) please submit your own thoughts/blog posts/tweets to The Photo Book Club and the community by heading to the ‘Get Involved‘ section and letting us know what you think!