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  • Ashley Anderson

On The Edge Of Our Mind: The Americans

Post war America was like a based-on-a-true-story film. The basic ideas of how Americans lived were there, but in the end the film takes a lot of liberties. We showed the world happy nuclear families with eternally smiling mothers, briefcase toting fathers, kids named Sally and Billy, and lemony-fresh homes. It's idyllic and it's a lie. That wasn't the whole story. One man dared to fill in the blanks with a book of 83 photographs in 1959 - The Americans.

One of the 83 images in Robert Frank's defining work The Americans. A whole family piles into a 50s style car as they head into town. Black and white image of a mother and daughter looking out the car window.
Butte, Montana. Photo by Robert Frank

Robert Frank projected a different narrative of America onto the world stage in 1958 and 1959. His study of people who weren't living the American dream has become one the most treasured pieces of art in our history. The Americans holds the same stature as Citizen Cane and Moby Dick. At first, the book insulted us. It laid out all of our taboos for everyone to see. In print. Then, as the fear of having all our laundry hung out to dry faded, we began to marvel at how complex our nation is. Frank's book not only became a source of pride but single-handedly changed American photography.

"I think people like the book because it shows what people think about but don’t discuss. It shows what’s on the edge of their mind." - Robert Frank

Frank photographed everywhere and everyone. On a cross-country trip Frank photographed in almost every state and came home with over 27,000 images. His contact sheets were filled with everything from an African-American funeral to Sunday drivers to cowboys and everything in between. The photographs touched on a wide array of subjects like consumerism, poverty,classicism, and changes in the land. Prior to this body of work most photo magazines and advertisers were primarily producing fluffy artwork that glossed over everything that wasn't the American dream.

As a foreigner, Frank wasn't beholden to this ideal and was able to break the mold. As he traveled he captured moments and scenes that were intimate to the American population. Ones we were all familiar with. For example, in one image we see a whole family pile into a car in Butte, MT for a trip into town. In another photo, we see a little old farm in the middle of a prairie. Somehow, we all know that farm. In yet another photo, we see a diner filled with people and repeating banners that says "Orange Whip 10¢." Recurrent advertisements are a constant pattern of our capitalist society. While these photos may not have been everyone's story, they represent our story as a whole.

I have many personal favorites in this project, but I would be lying if I didn't say my favorite photograph wasn't the cover image. It shows the broadside of a trolley facing the camera. Each window, like individual frames on a roll of 35mm film, shows one or two people, each vastly different from the one sitting in front of them. When you pull back, add in large block letters with the book title, and look at the strip as a whole you get the immediate sense that there is more the Americans than meets the eye. It sets the tone for the whole project. It told the viewer that there will be no utopian, stylized depictions, just simply what Robert Frank saw. And damn, what he saw was spectacular.

A broadside view of a New Orleans trolley filled with a diverse group of people. Each window perfectly frames a different person and they perfectly describe how diverse American culture is. It is a black and white image with a white man, white woman, two white children, a black man and a white woman as the subjects.
Cover of The Americans. Photo by Robert Frank

One thing that stuck out to me about Frank when I was in college was he seemed to have that true-blue artist's struggle to make something affecting. Well, The Americans was definitely affecting. He had received a Guggenheim grant to conduct this project and part of the funds were allocated to publishing a book. Naturally, Frank attempted to get the book published in the U.S. However, because it laid everything bare, no publisher would print it. His pictures received nothing but bad reviews and in the end he had to publish it in France.

The French publication was interesting because it was part of a series, Encyclopédie Essentielle, that was designed to give the French people a sort of armchair world tour. All 83 images were presented on one side and text by various writers like Faulkner on the other side. Frank's photos were really meant to support the text rather than the other way around. Between the additional text and alternative order of images, a French viewer may have drawn different conclusions than those who read the American version.

Sequencing the images in an meaningful way for presentation is just as important as choosing the right exposure. The order in which you look at photographs can drastically change your conclusions about what the project means to you or makes you feel. It is an important tool that photographers use to make their display more cohesive. Rather than using words (though they can be used too) to walk you through a beginning, middle, and an end, the conscientious order will help you decipher the photographers message.

So, because the French version had a travel guide sort of structure to it, Frank didn't have as much say on the sequencing. One year later, in 1959, Grove Press of New York picked up the book. This time Frank got to arrange the pictures to his liking and he chose who did the introduction to the book. After a chance meeting with Jack Kerouac, Frank asked him if he would write something to go along with his photos. Kerouac agreed and wrote an introduction that was as poetical and visceral as the images were.

When you first look through The Americans you may not see any special sequencing. It's a subtle sort of non-linear display of photographs. However, if you look closer you can see that Frank used the flag to demarcate our four sections. Like a tour guide with a flamboyant umbrella that lets you know where he is, the flag is meant to guide you. To remind you. That even though these images may not match what was portrayed as American life, they are authentic to the way we live.

I just love this series so much that I could talk about it for days. Every time I look at this project I find something new to think about, and I'm not the only one. Generations of Americans have looked at Frank's photos and felt a sense of familiarity. In fact, he highly influenced what feels nostalgic to us. His endless pictures of jukeboxes, old cars, and diners are subjects that we all feel compelled to photograph to this day. We do it because those things are authentically American. Robert Frank just helped us see it.

- By Ashley Anderson

Check out the whole book here.


Elson Lecture 2009: Robert Frank - This was super cool! Hear Frank talk about the project.

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