Mar 2, 2011
“Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand, he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film… To Robert Frank I now give this message: You got eyes.”
– Jack Kerouac, introduction to ‘The Americans’.
Robert Frank was born in Switzerland, but became a significant figure in American post-war photography, mostly due to his highly influential book ‘The Americans’, which was first published in 1958. Frank’s photographs are distinctive for their innovative use of unusual focus, low lighting, and cropping – but more than that, they paint a picture of American society that is lonely, conflicted, and unguardedly beautiful.
‘The Americans’ began when Frank secured a grant in 1955 to travel across the USA and photograph its multi-layered society. Over the next two years, he shot 28,000 pictures, of which only 83 would eventually be published. The book was not immediately popular, Frank’s photography being criticised for “meaningless blur, grain, [and] muddy exposures”, and sales were initially poor. However, over time and through its influence on later artists, ‘The Americans’ became a seminal work in American photography.
Frank’s photographs illustrate the tension between the materialistic, idealistic gloss of American culture in the 1950s, and the underlying, unresolved issues of racial and social inequality at the time. However, although it is sometimes accused of being desolate or excessively critical, ‘The Americans’ is in fact a more optimistic work that it’s given credit for – Frank’s images celebrate the shared humanity of ordinary, diverse Americans, capturing quiet moments when his subjects wear their souls on their faces.