Kunstler, Venturi and Stephen Shore

The subjects of Shore’s images in ‘Uncommon Places’ could well illustrate architect Robert Venturi’s seminal ‘Learning From Las Vegas‘ as they represent Venturi’s comments on the highway-dictated landscape to a tee.


Below I have pulled a few quotes from ‘Learning from Las Vegas‘ as well as James Howard Kunstler’s ‘The Geography of Nowhere‘ (more concerned with urban sprawl than PoMo architecture). I think these quotes really highlight the importance of Shore’s work in elevating and evaluating the everyday and ordinary in America.

(Of interest – Venturi wrote a few words on Uncommon Places which are featured on the back cover)

– Matt

IMAGE STEPHEN SHORE

“Acting as symbols, the signs and building identify the space by their location and direction, and space is further defined and directed by utility poles and street parking patterns.”
– Robert Venturi/Denise Scott Brown/Steven Izenour

“Ever-busy, ever-building, ever-in-motion, ever-throwing-out the old for the new, we have hardly paused to think about what we are so busy building, and what we have thrown away.”
– James Howard Kunstler

IMAGE STEPHEN SHORE

 “On the commercial strip the supermarket windows contain no merchandise. There may be signs announcing the day’s bargains, but they are to be read by pedestrians approaching from the parking lot.”
– Robert Venturi/Denise Scott Brown/Steven Izenour

IMAGE STEPHEN SHORE

“Americans are doing almost nothing to prepare for the end of the romantic dream that was the automobile age.”
– James Howard Kunstler

“The freedom to get up and move is a premise of the national experience. It is the physical expression of the freedom to move upward socially, absent in other societies. The automobile allowed this expression to be carried to absurd extremes.”
– James Howard Kunstler

IMAGE STEPHEN SHORE

“Service stations, motels and other simpler types of buildings conform in general to this system of inflection toward the highway through the position and form of their elements. Regardless of the front, the back of the building is styleless, because the whole is turned towards the front and no one sees the back.”
– Robert Venturi/Denise Scott Brown/Steven Izenour

 

An Interview with Chris and Jack

In preparation for this month looking at Shore’s ‘Uncommon Places’, I revisited the 2009 Steidl publication ‘New Topographics‘ (a great representation of the 1975 exhibition, or as much as I can imagine without having been there). Just after the director’s preface is a great little interview with two viewers at the exhibition; A man (Jack) and his wife or girlfriend (Chris).

Jack’s comments sort of some up my own feelings on the work featured in the exhibition, and in particular of Shore’s images, it’s also a lovely little interview with great characters itself and so I hope you enjoy it here:

– Matt

CHRIS: I just don’t like this at all; [I prefer] people, pictures, something that tells a story. Route 66, big deal, it doesn’t mean anything.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think the photographer had any intent?

CHRIS: He must have, for a layout like this. He couldn’t have been doing this for his enjoyment, because they are very dull pictures in my opinion. Jack, what do you think?

JACK: They mean something to me because I’ve never seen them before. I think he’s trying to get at…I’m still working on it…

INTERVIEWER: Do you think these pictures really capture the feeling of the places?

JACK: They really do, very much so. At first they’re really stark nothing, but then you really look at it and it’s just about the way things are. This is interesting, it really is.

CHRIS: Look at this picture. I just…why? What is he trying to show?

JACK: You said there are no people here, but there are people, all over the place. Everywhere you look there’s people.

CHRIS: Okay, you look at this you can imagine somebody checking out of the hotel, but it’s gone, there’s nothing for you to identify with except, what, dirty sheets? I don’t like it. I’m sorry! I don’t care for that kind of…Are you a photography student? What kind do you prefer?

INTERVIEWER: Do you think there’s any difference between the [photographers] in the show and what they were doing? Do you like anyone better than the others?

CHRIS: I really can’t comment because we’ve only been in just this one area [Shore, Schott], looking at just these, so I can’t say as to what I prefer.

JACK: I found my truck. I can’t believe it, it’s my truck, right there.

INTERVIEWER: Robert Adams, got your truck.

JACK: Just interesting. You know I think there’s a lot of people, I really do, there’s people, it’s a way of life. It’s how it is. It’s interesting.

CHRIS: I don’t like them. They’re dull and flat. There’s no people, no involvement, nothing. Why do you like them?

JACK: Because I’ve been there. This is what people have done. [The pictures are saying] ‘This is it, kid—take it for its beauty and its ugliness.’

CHRIS: I don’t like to think that there are ugly streets in America…but when it’s shown to you, without beautification, maybe it tells you how much more we need here. What do you think, Jack?

JACK: Try not to, it hurts.

CHRIS: You’re the one who enjoyed them.

JACK: I enjoy everything.

Havn’t seen ‘Uncommon Places’ yet? Have a look…

Uncommon Places: 50 Unpublished Photographs

A comment (shown below) from Karen alerted me to the presence of another ‘Uncommon Places’ book, this one is titled ‘Stephen Shore, Uncommon Places 50 Unpublished Photographs 1973-78‘, it’s a catchy title and one I have not come across before.

Stephen Shore. Uncommon Places, 50 Unpublished Photographs 1973-1978

From what I can tell via the publisher ‘Verlag der Galerie Conrads‘ the book ‘offers the first complete examination of Shore’s long and storied career, from his residency at Warhol’s Factory to his experiments in conceptual photography; from his landmark series AMERICAN SURFACES to his continued exploration of emerging techniques. Shore’s high-key portraits of America’s chromatic landscape can be found in the permanent collections of major museums all over the world.’

I would be keen to here more from anyone who has the book, is this a must for Shore fans or a bonus book for the die-hards only?

Karen said:

I’ve only realised after reading these articles on the Photo Book Club that my copy is “uncommon places 50 unpublished photographs 1973-78″ not the full book, none the less I still love it. There’s something about Shore’s work that excites me, something about the everyday, the normalcy, maybe it’s a nostalgia effect, maybe it’s the romanticism of Americana (for me), I can’t quite say.

Stan Banos said:

‘FWIW, I’d say it’s more the latter- that said, there’s a good 20 that could have easily gone into the original and a solid dozen that are real gems.

Simen Edvardsen: Uncommon Places, On The Road

Thanks to Simen Edvardsen who runs the blog ‘Enthusiasms’ here for this post comparing and relating Shore’s ‘Uncommon Places’ with the moods and thought’s of Jack Kerouac in ‘On the Road’. This is a fantastically rich article which I hope will be enjoyed in it’s entirety.

(And if you still have not seen Uncommon Places, the video is found at the bottom of this post)
– Matt

On the Road is the fictionalized account of a number of road trips Jack Kerouac took across America together with his friend Neal Cassady and an assorted menagerie of other characters in the late 1940s; Uncommon Places is the photographic account of a number of road trips Stephen Shore took, chiefly alone, through the 1970s, armed with an 8×10 camera and color film. I promised earlier that if I could get over myself, I would describe these two together, as I think they are in many ways similar and in some other ways dissimilar, but in almost every way illuminating in light of each other. Well, I got over myself and besides, I only finished reading On the Road recently, so here are some thoughts.

Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, California, June 21, 1975

On the surface, the one thing that ties these together is the road, but I think there’s more to it than that. For one thing, they both take a particular interest in the unparticular, the mundane, the scenes that we pass through every day without consciously registering them. On the Road is written in a streaming way that is by turns impressionistic and quite frankly incoherent, with little to no meaning but with a certain poetic beauty, and an almost photographic depiction of the little things, which we can see as the literary analogue of the super-detailed scenes of everyday life in Anywhere, USA that Shore would later depict with his large format 8×10 camera. The characters, and especially Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady, have an exaggerated but sincere fascination with everything, large and small, significant and insignificant. Kerouac was inspired by and tried to incorporate the free-flowing and vividly detailed letters Cassady wrote to him and to other of his friends — his wife described him as having a photographic memory — and this kind of raw curiosity and visual sponging-up of every detail is both analogous to the mega-negatives that Shore later exposed to the everyday world he passed through and captivating to read (for me, anyway). Here’s a wonderful little passage from Part Four of On the Road, which describes a trip from Denver to Mexico City — it’s an exalted overfascinated curious little monologue by Dean:

Oh! This is too great to be true. Gurls, gurls. And particularly right now in my stage and condition, Sal, I am digging the interiors of these homes as we pass them — these gone doorways and you look inside and see beds of straw and little brown kids sleeping and stirring to wake, their thoughts congealing from the empty mind of sleep, their selves rising, and the mothers cooking up breakfast in iron pots, and dig them shutters they have for windows and the old men, the old men are so cool and grand not bothered by anything. There’s no suspicion here, nothing like that. Everybody’s cool, everybody looks at you with such straight brown eyes and they don’t say anything, just look, and in that look all the human qualities are soft and subdued and still there. Dig all the foolish stories you read about Mexico and the sleeping gringo and all that crap — and crap about greasers and so on — and all it is, people here are straight and kind and don’t put down any bull. I’m so amazed by this.

All this from passing a few houses on the road. Stephen Shore, decades later, found that he didn’t need to focus on anything in particular, because his film was so huge and slow that it preserved approximately every detail you could ever desire and still had room for cramming in a piece of bacon should you so desire, so instead of putting one thing or another in center his images are for the most part in focus front to back and there are these little wonderful details that you don’t notice because no one forces you to stop and look at the everyday (dare I say, the daily meh), but Shore captures them and shows them to you, if you wish to look. On a second or third look, or even a fifth or fifteenth, you can still find details you didn’t notice on any of the previous viewings. I don’t know about you, but I can’t but admire the fascination and sincere interest in ordinary stuff — I’m too much of a sucker for the extraordinary and special which we can’t have every day anyway, and if I could only learn to enjoy the simple stuff and take in the world in the way one does when visiting a truly foreign country for the first time, life would be so much more interesting and exciting. Babies have this ability and I wish I had kept it, and admire those who do.

Presidio, Tex., Feb. 21, 1975

So, there’s all this detail, and Shore lets it sit there waiting to be discovered, instead of putting it left, front, center, in the rule-of-thirds-prescribed position, or anywhere else where you might expect it. Instead, he looks at lines and perspectives and puts on these displays of composition — not just a buzzword used as a placeholder for “I like your pic” on Flickr, see — that are nigh unparalelled in photography. I think if you took a bunch of transparencies, put them over Shore’s pictures and drew out the lines and stuff, you would have yourself a textbook in composition. Stephen Shore’s uncommon pictures of common places are real marvels of lines, really formal but nice. And there, my pairing of these two books starts straining and feeling forced.

I mean, both Shore and Kerouac are on the road, and both document it in their chosen medium, and both photobook and novel eventually became landmarks in their respective traditions, both capturing the zeitgeist and signaling, legitimizing a form of expression (art photography in color and the beat, “spontaneous prose” and then-vulgar lives of the Beats, respectively). Both are concerned in some way with the ordinary. But really. Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty (especially the latter) are amoral adventurers who experiment with drugs, sex, breaking the law, peeking over the edge of life down to death, testing the limits of friendship, alternatively doing dirty jobs and living off momma’s grace to sustain themselves, digging the world, and generally being genuinely counterculture. They are obscure and searching. Stephen Shore, both the man and his photographic persona, seem quaint in comparison. He’s two decades too young to be a Beat, and according to interviews he once dressed up as a jungle explorer of the 1800s for the task of driving around the fucking country in a car, abiding the law, risking nothing, and taking pictures. His edginess consists of his choice of film (color) and something that would be called guerilla art today: distributing postcards he’d made of Amarillo, Texas (with nothing vulgar or interesting on them, in fact they looked like ordinary postcards) at store stands. His days as one of the cool kids are over when he turns to the road. Besides, he’s already famous, as famous as an art photographer gets, anyway.

Trail’s End Restaurant, Kanab, Utah, Aug. 10, 1973

That’s one of the important differences between Shore and Kerouac on the road, besides the obvious. Jack Kerouac was an obscure writer until he woke up the morning after he late at night had bought the freshly printed NY Times from an all-night newsstand and read its glowing review of On the Road — or so the legendarium that is the critical introduction to my copy of the book has it. Stephen Shore’s minibio up until his road trips, in contrast, looks like this: first photo kit at 6; calls up Edward Steichen, curator at MoMA, and sells three of his photos at 14; hangs around Andy Warhol’s Factory, taking pictures and getting to know Andy, from 17 and on; second living photographer to have a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at 24; experiences the greater America outside NY for the first time on a road trip around the same time. He was a successful artist and a naive youth when he set out while Kerouac was unknown, struggling, almost as naive but probably more world-weary when he hit the road. In common, they had a search for something, anything, whatever: meaning, or another of the eternals that we humans seek and seek and have sought since the dawn of time.

Of course, my slamming of Shore is only my youthful love of rebellion, otherness, edginess, which On the Road has in spades (though it’s no longer shocking, because, well, we’re used to that kind of stuff now) — even as I acknowledge that going the other way just for the sake of going the other way is stupid, that going the opposite way of the herd is no better than mindlessly going along with it. Shore’s project is by far the most mature, but also, I suppose, less fun. Both the view camera with its hyperdetailed images and the kaleidoscopic by turns hyper-aware and impressionistic, unconscious looking at the world that happens in On the Road are examples of what Shore calls “a heightened awareness of the world.” Shore is meticulous, both because he wants to be and because his large, slow camera forces him to be; Dean Moriarty is as fascinated by the world as Shore but he has the attention span of a goldfish and rather than slowly setting out to capture everything he almost accidentally inhales it. The characters in On the Road sound like they’re high (which they often are) even when they’re not. If Shore’s hyperawareness is achieved by the equivalent of meditating calmly in a cave for a decade, Dean and Sal’s is like ODing on life. No wonder Stephen Shore is still alive and will probably live to be both seventy and eighty (random unknowns notwithstanding) while both Kerouac and Cassady, the models of the characters in On the Road, died relatively young.

Ginger Shore, Causeway Inn, Tampa, Fla., Nov. 17, 1977

I’ve mentioned hyperawareness several times now, and it’s undeniable that the technical equipment has a large part in achieving this for Shore, while Kerouac’s and Cassady’s hardly can be attributed to their typewriters. View cameras are large, tripod-operated, slow, and they produce enormous negatives/slides (I was amazed when I realized the pictures in Uncommon Places the book are just a tad larger than the film that was exposed to produce them). The fact that a tool had something to do with it sort of destroys my neat as hell ten-years-of-meditation metaphor, but it’s true. Interestingly, Shore mentions in one interview — sorry, I didn’t keep notes while researching this post, so I don’t have a link — that he was actually more anonymous and drew less attention with his view camera than with his previous small 35mms. What was a spontaneous process in the precursor to Uncommon Places, the photographic diary Shore kept on one of his first road trips (in 1972) and which was exhibited to unglowing reviews as American Surfaces (guess what subject matter he chose), where he photographed everything casually with a small camera, became an involved process in Uncommon Places. He photographed his pancake breakfast early on, and where previously he would have reached for the camera, snapped a pic and then eaten, all while sitting, he now had to put his tripod-mounted camera on a chair, set it all up, focus via ground glass and everything, and when the picture was finished his pancakes were long cold.

On the other hand his newfound anonymity-by-hiding-in-plain-sight allowed him to photograph streets without having anyone complain or act up; the long-haired kid lurking around with a not always obvious camera that he was in American Surfaces wasn’t always welcomed. But then again Uncommon Places has few people in its pages, even in the Complete Works edition I have that contains some 100 pictures previously cut to keep the price down, including some more portraits and interiors. What is more important is that it forced him to or facilitated his looking at patterns, at lines, at corners and shapes, at the picture as a two-dimensional thing, and it resulted in his virtuoso performance as a photographic composer. Everything’s almost always placed so that there’s an underlying order. Poles and cables are everywhere, perspectives recede into the sharp background and your eyes are led into the picture as you switch between looking at the shapes and colors on the one hand and the 3D scene they represent on the other. All the while Shore doesn’t actually touch the scene. He can’t: his scenes are buildings, other people’s shops or homes, the urban landscape, stuff too heavy to move or choreograph other than by moving the frame, and he has only natural light to illuminate the stuff.

Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, August 13, 1979

The details and the composition is illustrated well by the picture of Merced River, above. In recent years Shore has been making a series of small-run photobooks with iPhoto, and one of them consists solely of crops from Merced River. While this might have been a cheap gimmick from just about anyone, from Shore it works. At least the web-size pics I’ve seen of it. The technical quality is, of course, up to par, as you’d expect from the equipment. But there are so many details and patterns in this picture that, particularly when looked at up close, or as in Shore’s little book in crops, they stand up as individual pictures.

Uncommon Places is the only photobook I own. I love the photos in it. I can praise their subject matter, their exposure and composition and light and tonalities. But what appeals to me about both Uncommon Places and On the Road, as a young person and as someone who often feels like an outsider, not an interesting outsider with a backstory and a sidekick but simply one on the outside looking in on life, is the search and the guts. Out on the road, experience things, genuinely, without scarequotes around the experiences to protect from the criticism that inevitably comes from expressing a real, honest feeling about anything, and above all, live while you’re alive and worry about death while you’re dead (which is to say not at all) — that attitude is so full of life and so much of what many aspire to be, it’s pathetic, romanticizing and awesome. And here the pairing of these two books again falters, because when Shore talks about his project he talks about solving aesthetic problems, while Kerouac says things like:

… I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’

While Stephen Shore also occasionally mentions that before the set out to do American Surfaces, he hadn’t seen much of the world outside New York and he wanted to rectify that, often he talks more about aesthetics and whatnot, maybe because his project has nothing to do with that search for meaning, purpose, a life that we find in On the Road, or maybe — and this is what I prefer, since I want him to be an actual adventurer and I want him to be someone I can identify with, even as I consider that this might be simply wishful thinking — or maybe he’s simply older and slightly embarrassed about the illusions of the road he had when he set out. In one interview he says he didn’t set out to copy Jack Kerouac or Robert Frank (another photographer who produced a seminal work documenting America, called The Americans, published around the same time as On the Road and with an introduction by Kerouac). He says that who he was really emulating was “a young painter who picks Jack up outside Cheyenne and takes him to Denver”, but “with a camera instead of a paintbrush.” That young painter did not make an impression, to say the least. I can’t even remember him, and I just read the book. So maybe his project isn’t that exciting in the meaning-of-life-searching way.

Cedar Springs Road, Dallas, Texas, June 5, 1976

One last thing. Both books have a sad undercurrent. There’s one picture of Shore in Uncommon Places, not counting one where only his feet are visible, and it’s a self portrait taken in his apartment in New York. In it, he’s staring emptily (if not angrily) into the camera (detail from that picture). The picture doesn’t fit in with the rest at all and yet strangely does, since it exemplifies the man behind the project, and maybe a little bit of his soul. Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac, too, is a sad person. He is extremely extraverted compared to everyone I know, yet also sad and introspective (something I can more readily recognize in myself), and he has illusions of or hopes for the road that turn out to be nothing but disappointments. He is looking for something, for anything to make his life great, he’s having fun but also can’t shake the feeling that he’s been cheated out of whatever vague glob of happiness the dream promised him, and in the end, a lot is experienced (and isn’t the journey the point?) but nothing is accomplished. After his trips, Kerouac continued to seek meaning while he was struggling to write his road novel and get it published. When it finally was published, he couldn’t handle it, and his last years of life weren’t exactly characterized by the cheerful joy and hyperawareness of the best and most optimistic passages of On the Road.

In the end, we don’t know anything (except, per Socrates, the preceding fact) and especially so when we’re young. We seek but we don’t find. In fact I think the answer may be not to play the game: excessive introspection and meaning-seeking, while not exclusive to introverted and intellectual wannabes, always stands in the way of happiness. Happy people never look like the aforementioned intellectuals with big thoughts and huge doubts. Throwing yourself on the road and trying to live in the now is certainly one way to combat this, but whether or not it’s a success is a different question altogether.

– Simen Edvardsen

VIDEO: Stephen Shore’s ‘Uncommon Places’ (The Complete Works)

For those who may not have access to either the original book, or ‘The Complete Works’ edition, I have made a video of my own copy (Complete Works) which can be seen below.

We would love to have as many people as possible to share their thoughts, whether this is your first viewing or you have owned and treasured a copy for decades! Please leave any comments in the section below and I shall post them towards the end of the week.

– Matt

The Valley: A Summary

Thanks to all who have contributed to the discussion on Larry Sultan’s ‘The Valley’. We have compiled an archive of the posts below for future reference and will also be listed under the reading list page.

Larry Sultan: Video Obituary
Synopsis: Larry Sultan, The Valley
Images from ‘The Valley’
VIDEO: Full book video
‘Nature is Strange in the Valley’ Essay by Larry Sultan
Erik Saeter Jorgenson – The Valley is my favourite photobook

Chris Timothy on Larry Sultan’s ‘The Valley’
Larry Sultan – Katherine Avenue
Larry Sultan interview with Terri Whitlock
Out of Sorts in ‘The Valley’ – Matt Johnston
The Valley – Exhibition Catalogue

July’s book is ‘Cafe Lehmitz’ by Anders Petersen. If you would like to contribute to the discussion, just let us know on mail@photobookclub.org

Out of Sorts in ‘The Valley’

To me, There is something out of sorts about the scenes in Larry 
Sultan’s ‘The Valley’. And it is not the naked house guests or their crew 
members that are lighting, filming, resting, and sweating around the 
porn scenes.

Instead it is the homes and artifacts within them that seem out of 
place. The choice of art hanging on the wall and furnishings dressing 
the home all come under a new scrutiny when juxtaposed with the
 writhing bodies of many fantasies now occupying ‘family spaces’. I wonder, like Sultan, whether the 
real fantasy taking place here is that of the perfect American home.

 Each one we enter has a similar, slightly sterile feel. We see the
 pools, gazebos, patios, large sofas and TV’s that appear on the
 quintessential ‘dream home checklist’ but not much else.
The addition of fictitious backdrops in gardens and living rooms creates a feeling that the each house is just part of an elaborate set for the filming of real-life.

The
 personality Sultan does show us of these homes seems tired, the girls 
bedroom with neglected dolls now sitting on a shelf, a drum kit
 gathering dust and a bed with no sheets that has certainly seen better
days. It is these rooms, kept out of view of the directors camera but picked up by Sultan’s that offer a melancholy feel to the viewing experience of the book. It reminds us of all the dreams and items once cherished as well as that which would be deemed unpleasant to others that are now gathering dust, or else pushed aside from the gaze of any possible visitors in so many homes.

These are not the locations chosen by the director, and neither are
they chosen to be displayed by the home owner. Both the director and
home owner want to show the same thing, a representation of success,
and of a fantasy, but without any personal effects or clutter that
would tarnish the ‘scene’.

– Matt Johnston

Erik Saeter Jorgenson – The Valley is my favourite photobook

The Valley is my favourite photobook. It’s the one I wish I had made. As a European, San Fernando Valley is pretty much my idea of the American dream. Equal opportunities in jizzneyland. I think the first image I ever saw from the book was the one with the lady in the killer heels, and the dogs following here. I was hooked. Then I read the essay and was blown away. It was so vivid, I could feel the Cali sun (and the dried cum too). The pictures themselves are so subtle and quiet, businesslike even. At the same time, they’re more cinematic than any porno I’ve ever seen. Porn is all about putting the viewer in the film, but Sultan manages to both be really present, and seemingly invisible at the same time. I still don’t understand how he made some of his shots. Sultan was there, and from first page to last. No book has thinner pages. There have been many books about porn and the performers, but The Valley will always be my American dream.

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.