First impressions are often tricky; the first time I saw Robert Frank’s work — in San Francisco, three years ago — I was less than impressed. His dark, alternative view of post-war economic boom in America did not speak to me, but the same could not be said for my the-then girlfriend who was deeply moved by it. She grew up in smalltown Washington and Texas, witnessing firsthand the communities Frank documented.
In 1955, when Frank won a Guggenheim grant to capture America as he drove across it, the United States was a different country. He photographed factory workers in Detroit, a cabalistic political convention in Chicago, segregated trolley bus in New Orleans (above), transvestites and a lone rodeo cowboy in New York, a poor black wedding in Carolina, and the sad pensioners in Florida. They were rarely seen sides of a country going through vast cultural and sociopolitical changes that seemed surreal even to those who lived through them. As the Times wrote, “traversing the country and documenting events ranging from political rallies to backyard barbecues, Frank created a new iconography of jukeboxes and motorcycles, symbols which reflected the inherent contradictions and peculiarities of America’s shifting cultural identity.”
In Arkansas, Frank was stopped by state police for no other reason than that he was a foreign-looking person driving an older car. When the police stopped him, he didn’t speak with a good southern accent and was jailed and interrogated for several hours. A Swiss Jew traveling with a bunch of cameras at the height of the Cold War caused a lot of anxieties and the police — who more often than not have never even heard of Guggenheim — frequently thought he was a spy. Indeed, to the earliest critics and viewers of his work, Frank, with his gritty depictions of toll of capitalism on America, was the enemy within.
Meanwhile in his New York apartment Frank was busy whittling down 28,000 snapshots he took on 767 rolls of film. Only 83 would make it to his final portfolio, which was published in November 1958 in Paris, as Les Américains. His US version came out in January, 1960, as The Americans, prefaced by the beatnik poet Jack Kerouac whom Frank met by chance on his road trip. (Frank was paid mere two hundred dollars in advance, a sum that rose to just over eight hundred and seventeen dollars by the end of the year.)
The art world originally hated it; Walter Evans and Edward Streichen who wrote recommendations for Frank’s Guggenheim grant were uncomfortable with it. When Popular Photography asked a number of writers to critique the book, almost all of them were very negative. Accustomed to wholesome, nonconfrontational photo essays, they considered The Americans as a sad joke by a sick man. The Museum of Modern Art refused to sell the book, and yet, by the end of the year, the book was out of print.
Few single photobooks in history have dramatically changed the direction of the photoessay, but The Americans dramatically altered how photographers viewed America and the way Americans saw themselves. By the 1960s, the traditions of candid photography Frank championed would be continued by such masters as Garry Winogrand, Daido Moriyama, Nobuyoshi Araki and later Stephen Shore.