The Americans by Robert Frank

In 1955 Robert Frank started a year-long journey across the USA with the intention of photographing America. He ended up taking 27,000 photographs which he would eventually edit down to 83 images that would fill his monograph, “The Americans”.

Surprisingly the volume was published in France first in 1958 and then in the U.S. in 1959 with an introduction by beat poet and writer Jack Kerouac. Today the volume is essential viewing for those who consider themselves serious photographers.

On its publication, it was not well received because Frank captured the country in a largely unglamorous way. Minor White, the photographer said the work was a “…degradation of a nation”. Frank also eschewed the technical rules of photography taking shots that were out of focus, under or overexposed and framed in what seemed an erratic manner. There also seems to be lack of shadow detail and the grain in some images is almost overpowering. Yet there is a visceral power in his photographs, they show a side of the USA that publications like Life and Harpers Bazaar didn’t.

I have always intended to buy the book and finally, I did. I wasn’t disappointed, the images are amazing. However, if you are looking for examples of photography that adhere to the “rules” then this is not the book to buy. But if you are looking for a masterful view into the American psyche of the 1950s then you should order it now.

Be warned however it is not an easy monograph to get immediately absorbed in. The whole book needs to be seen as a whole and I initially found it difficult to find the patterns, the nuances that are in the book and each turn of the page brings a different subject that can be a little bewildering and unconnected.

However, I found the book called “Robert Frank’s “The Americans”: The Art of Documentary Photography by Jonathan Day, and his excellent writing style took me through Frank’s book.
Day lays bare the stories, details and more importantly the thinking behind the photographs so that what could be seen as excellent but unconnected series of images, become a cohesive and coherent ground-breaking monograph. If you buy The Americans, buy Day’s book too.



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