‘The Americans’ and ‘Uncommon Places’, the Geography

Perhaps I am just amusing myself here but I enjoyed looking at Stephen Shore’s ‘Uncommon Places’ locations on a map of the US a few weeks back and so had a quick play with the locations of another American classic: Frank’s ‘The Americans’.

LOCATIONS FROM ROBERT FRANK'S 'THE AMERICANS'

Perhaps this tells us something, perhaps this tells us nothing, or at least nothing we didn’t already know, but to see two classic books which are often cited as historical snapshots of a nation laid out like this is interesting at least (just me perhaps?).
I have also put the two maps on top of one another below the individual versions, the central states and North West seem to have been passed by somewhat!

LOCATIONS FROM STEPHEN SHORE'S 'UNCOMMON PLACES'
LOCATIONS FROM 'THE AMERICANS' and 'UNCOMMON PLACES'

– Matt

Erik Palmer on the Frank/Avedon Connection

Erik Palmer, creative director of Vico Collective and teacher of communication theory at Portland State added another great comment, this time to Wayne’s personal observation.

As the end of the month draws near, I think it is also worth reflecting further on the creative and personal connections between Avedon and Robert Frank. As Wayne mentions, and as best narrated in Jane Livingstone’s book on the New York School, Avedon and Frank both worked for and studied with Brodovitch in the 1940s and 50s, although Avedon certainly had a closer relationship with the mentor.

As I was working on my dissertation, I spent a lot of time paging through old bound issues of Harper’s Bazaar in my university library, and I found a lot of product still lifes and other commercially motivated images bylined to Frank.

But I think it is most interesting to consider the relationship between The Americans and Avedon’s In The American West. Although the approach to photography of the two books could hardly be more visually distinct, I believe that Avedon set out to put his own mark on the kind of photographic grand tour that Frank originally perfected.

'June Leaf' ©RICHARD AVEDON

Both explored the west and sought to tell its story. And both told a controversial story of the failure of American ideals. Both were criticized for the perceived ugliness of their vision. Avedon photographed Frank and his wife (June Leaf, in what I think is a hidden gem among Avedon’s white background portraits) in the late 70s, and I suspect that their encounter was fresh on Avedon’s mind when he set out on his Western project.

Erik Palmer

The Americans – A Summary

A huge thank you to all who have dropped by and especially those who have contributed in the first month of the Photo Book Club, looking at Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’. We have compiled an archive of the posts below for future reference and will also be listed under the reading list page.

Please continue to share any links and further chatter around Frank’s masterpiece as we will keep updating the blog to provide an even better archive of information for future reference.

An American Journey – Film following Frank’s footsteps

Below is a short introduction and trailer to Philippe Séclier’s film ‘An American Journey’ which follows in the footsteps of Frank’s own journey. We are keen to hear from any who have seen the film and could offer their comments? The DVD is available here.

UPDATE: A excerpt of Rich Beaubien’s review for the film is shown below. His full review can be seen in the comments section. Big thanks to Rich for this!

In contemporary photography, everybody agrees there is a “before” and an “after” The Americans, Robert Frank’s 1958 photographic manifesto.

Half a century later, French director Philippe Séclier decided to follow in Robert Frank’s footsteps to explore the spirit of the “Beat Generation” and the impact of his book, The Americans, not only on the art of photography, but also on american culture.

From Texas to Montana, from Nebraska to Louisiana, from New York to San Francisco, An American Journey is a 15,000 miles odyssey through contemporary America, moving between past and present, photography and cinema, and two Americas, separated by time.

Though I’ve picked up many ideas about visual structure from cinematographers and films I’m just not a regular movie-goer so my not having seen this film is both typical and true but seeing a Twitter message come across my screen from the folks here at The Photo Book Club piqued my interest.

Philippe Séclier’s engaging, one hour long, documentary starts out as a film about the making of a book. Séclier spent two years (2005-2007) retracing the Frank travels around the United States interweaving interviews with attempts to revisit a handful of the book’s most famous photos.

San Francisco-area photographer Wayne Morris describes how Frank made a ‘first cut’ by actually cutting individual frames from strips of negatives and skipped making contact sheets. Anne Tucker the curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas thumbs through the dummy of the book made by Robert Frank in 1957.

Sarah Greenough, a curator at the National Gallery of Art and curator of the exhibition Looking in: Robert Frank’s The Americans and editor of the catalogue, is seen thumbing through some beautiful photographs that Frank did not to include in his book. “He could have made an even more negative view of America,” she says.

Stuart Alexander speaks of the initial critical reception of The Americans that the photos were not about “all” Americans and maybe “Some Americans” was more appropriate.But the film isn’t really about Robert Frank or The Americans it’s about Séclier’s view of America and as Ed Ruscha acknowledges in the film, “It takes an outsider, really, to show us what’s it all about. We don’t know ourselves.”

I recommend the film for those you haven’t seen it. It’s only an hour and if you are familiar with Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ it will be a well spent enjoyable hour.

– Rich Beaubien

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.

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.