Robert Frank, The Americans

Upon reflection on The Americans, looking beyond all the facts and dates, there is much research needs to be discussed around the individual details of the photographs, the subtle details that reveal America in time and place; a time that does not exist now in that vein. When I thought of The Americans before researching it, I found it uninteresting black-and-white photojournalism, but upon reflection, I see something somewhat different. It was similar to my reaction to Peter Frasier’s ‘Two Blue Buckets’, I hated it, yet now, it is quite brilliant. The topics explored, the characters that reveal themselves in the pages reveal the handful, and it is a handful, of people living in America. Despite the fact America being the overpopulated country, in terms of photographic bodies of work, I find myself inclined to follow in these footsteps. There is an inbuilt urgency to pass through it, and see it, see what I see in England, in America. But why, and why is that even interesting in the slightest. I can respond to the book, free from academic restraint, and just mark it for what I enjoy, expressing the description as it forms from my head, which in academic terms, is harder to do.

When flicking through the book, I am confronted with something strange, and comfortable, yet it is uncomfortable to my previous knowledge of America. This is the first time I have blatantly seen a disregard for art photography’s attempt to butter up the subject, but at the same time, it is the first time I have been inspired to be excited about black-and-white photography in the reportage style of a journalist. Looking at the front cover, I am confronted with an image of order, an image that segregates, but an image that is so perfect in its execution, an image that feels to perfect and is deprived from the beauty of recording in a more aimless approach. As an image, it is deprived of what makes photography exciting, like summing up everything in one picture, when you can do it with many. However perfect this frame may seem, as the book goes on, you see a resonance with Walker Evans, American Photographs, and of course the two stand as definitive moments in photography. It is the photographic awquard-ness that is great about the work, clearly made by someone uncomfortable with photography itself, not just America. There are ideas of racial segregation from the beginning, and the white window holders separate races and classes on the busses, the same busses that Rosa Parks was arrested on for refusing to move when commanded. There sits a man, aware of Frank looking onto this almost impossible to imagine scene, where everything that should be captured has been captured, a man who looks at Frank with despair, and the child to the left who sits with pride holding himself up with the white window pane. The white windowpane could stand for a metaphor for the white control over the black people on the bus sitting at the back, but what would be the point, as this feels like added meaning. The bus was not black, and the white would not be so prominent, if it wasn’t for the black-and-white film. A woman sits on the last available windowpane looking out onto a ‘new world’ hoping for a better future, describing the struggle in America around that time. But those readings feel flawed, and are not true, because the woman on the available seat is looking at what is behind Robert Frank when he took this picture. The subjects are not looking at a photographer to help them, especially when he may be a tourist, they have more dignity than that, and they have their problems and are strong enough to not lean on a photographer to eventually publish a book that will save them from the ways of the world. A woman at the front, priority seat looks on at Frank with a look suggesting distaste, and finally a man with his face blocked by a window looking beyond Frank, blissfully unaware of the photographic reading going on behind him, for he, is probably going to work or seeing family. We have no context where this bus is heading, we have no information on the world behind Frank, because it is a photograph, and relies on the trust of selective viewing that this subject at this time was the most important aspect of the moment to show us in permanence in this Steidl published 3rd edition copy of The Americans, and this image is the best to sum up Frank’s intentions from the very beginning. This is just the front cover.

This may be a misinterpretation in itself, because of the mysterious nature of Frank’s compilation of images, we may read into them in the wrong way, but what is the right way in the first place? This must be challenged.

The caption: <i>“Restaurant – U.S. 1 leaving Columbia, South Carolina”</i> describes an image of a restaurant with the TV on and someone important speaking. The window is overexposed by sun and the sun perishes the end of the table making it razor sharp. The table is set for people, an image taken from the perspective of another table. The place is empty, and it is quiet, the shelves bare from books. We are given Frank’s coordinates, and where he was and will be. Frank stated in his Guggenheim application that the captions would cement a personal standpoint, and this is what is being done.

Another caption: <i>“Covered car – Long Beach, California” </i>describes an image of a covered car in the sun of California. What do we associate with a covered car, wealth? The palm trees act like guardian protectors, shadowing the car from rain, a double buffer, leaving the unknown car free from harm. A prominent shadow strikes down the middle, making a third tree that does not exist. The sky bewildering, as we do not know where or what time of day it is. This is the sublime effect of the clear sky, the multilayered image that feels as if it removes all reality of time, this could be a Lewis Baltz picture, this could be anywhere in long Beach, California.

The images that comprise The Americans are baffling; they confuse but confine us to a view, Frank’s view and Frank’s position. Where he is, and where he is going. They are hinting at everything, but saying nothing definitive, they are frustrating and beautiful; two contradictions yet need to work together to make sense. I do not know if I can define what Frank’s work is, I don’t think it needs to be defined. To define is to make sense, and to make sense is to loose the mystery. To ask why all the time, is something that is flawed in how we look at photographs. What we should be saying, or could be saying, is what does it say to me? And that will always differ from person to person. What does this image say to me, as someone who has their own opinions, their own experiences, and ultimately, their own reasoning behind the images influence upon them? Just like Robert Frank would also have.


To further a point made previous, Peter Frasier’s ‘Two Blue Buckets’ when first introduced to the work I found frustrating, I left the museum talk angry, and ran into a debate with a good friend of mine on the brilliance of the man, yet I did not comprehend her meaning. The exact it happened when leaving a talk by Paul Seawright in Invisible cities, and the photographing of peoples arms, to fit a concept, instead of the actual subject. This frustrated me, and I left the talk fuming that this is what photography was. But I was naïve, and didn’t know anything, I thought photography could save the world, but what, in reality, it merely poses questions. At different points in our lives, do we draw influence from different types of photography, we can find the work of Cartier Bresson incredible when we hit fifty, and find the mish-mash of tumblr rubbish great when we are eighteen. Each decade appears to have its own set of influences, inevitably influencing the next, but each decade is different because of what is happening. Going away from a tangent, I find myself falling in love with the work of Paul Seawright, and Peter Fraiser, as beautifully aesthetic objects, which for sure is great, but at the same time, it is the concepts that intrigue me more. What they mean, becomes a mystery that I am dying to find out its key point. It first hits me aesthetically, and then hits me conceptually. Without the aesthetic the concept is useless, because no one will look. It is sad to say this, but our brains appear to work this way, they appear to be driven by all things pretty and nice, and if it catches our eye for aesthetic, it is instantly a success and we need to purchase it, even if our banks cannot afford them.

What becomes at issue here is the use of concept, and has that concept now gone away from saving the world, another, is the medium of photography even the best way to save the world. I was naïve, and didn’t know better, but the photographs power is very small. It is quiet, it is easy to shift off the ball, like a pacey winger running down the flanks, but it is clever, it is intelligent and allows us to question things that happen in our time, despite how insignificant that issue may appear to be.

The sad thing is, it is the insignificant nature of what we find so fascinating and care so much for that make us feel insecure about our role as photographers, we think that our jobs are useless, and why don’t we go stack some paper in offices and do some real work. It is the pressures of financial drain from business who have sucked the financial sector dry from the creative parts, so we rely on arts grants and Guggenheim applications. A handful of established institutions are there to represent the work as gospel and an authoritive position to inform us and make us question. The photographer and artist are being made to feel small and insignificant in result of this. This is not to moan about this, as this is sad but it is its positive, because it allows the photographer to develop a low expectation rate, in that we are forced to think and create something outstanding that will force attention. It also, when it happens, makes the process of success that much sweeter, because it was difficult and almost impossible to make in the first place. Ultimately photography is a difficult format, it is a hard to manipulate and manoeuvre process and one that will never be taken seriously in the whole collection of people in the world, they will always find ways of belittling it, but for good measure because this allows and forces the photographer to make something that is worth while to be seen by them, and also this can be as mundane and insignificant as it can be, just how it is presented to us is what makes all the difference in terms of how successful it can be deemed to withstand success. Photography appears to be a fickle thing, and one that many dismiss too early, and we are all guilty of it, even me, being the biggest hypocrite of them all here, in how I dismissed Peter Fraiser’s work on first impression.