Sunday, May 13, 2012

Robert Frank: Imagining the Americans


After Dorothea Lange's depressing images of the Depression and World War II, one would think that most of the United States would move on to a more prosperous and joyful mindset of rebuilding and expansion. Photographer Robert Frank had the same thought, but slowly he realized that the opposite was true, and the harsh realities that he imagined were materialized in his seminal photobook "The Americans".


Robert Frank may have created one of the most influential books in the history of American photography, but the man was actually born in Switzerland. Around his mid-twenties Frank emigrated to the US and, with his background in photography, he was able to work as a fashion photographer for magazines such as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar.

By the 1950s, hi restlessness found travelling to Europe and Latin America for awhile before coming back to the US to work on his photography again. In 1954, he secured a grant with the Guggenheim Foundation and together with his family, he took a cross country road trip of the US, taking photographs as he went.


What Frank captured on his camera, however, was not the Golden Age that America that had been advertised since the end of the War. Instead, he turned his attention to racism, loneliness, decay, ugliness... everything that was the opposite of what politicians had promised America.

This was what Frank believed after his disillusionment of America's overemphasis on money-making and apparent loss of values. In Frank's image, the real America was not pretty, and even his friend the poet Jack Kerouac said that Frank "...sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film...."


When Frank had sifted through over 700 rolls of film, he ended up with only 83 images that he included in the book that he first released in 1957 France entitled, "The Americans". When he released the book in America two years later, Frank received a lot of negative criticisms, and it's not hard to see why. One photography magazine at that time lashed out against the photographs' "meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness''

More than 50 years since the initial publication, Frank's book is now widely celebrated for almost the exact reasons that it was hated. Like Lange's Depression era photos, Frank's pictures aren't beautiful, but they were supposed to be beautiful in the eyes of Americans half a century ago. Unlike Lange's pictures were the depressing context was self-evident, Frank's images were taken during a time when most Americans thought (or were made to believe) that it was the best time of their lives.

In Frank's photographs, the mask is peeled away and the ugliness and ordinariness of America is on full display. Fifty years hence, it seems that some things never change.


There aren't a lot of website dedicated to Robert Frank and the way he imagined the Americans, so just do a Google search instead. The 1958 publication has been updated in the the form of Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans, Expanded Edition. You might also want to take a look at London/Wales and Robert Frank's Portfolio.


10 comments:

R said...

Great fotos as usual, thanks for sharing!

Matt said...

Pretty interesting perspective of Robert Frank. I'll have to go see more photos.

D4 said...

These images are strong, but the history behind them is what really makes them interesting. To me, anyway.

Bonjour Tristesse said...

For some reason the world looked so much more interesting back then.

Bart said...

usa! usa! usa!

Bersercules said...

I love these classic pictures!

Fred Rickerson said...

Intense imagery from one of the most celebrated periods of U.S. history. Fantastic post Jay, keep them coming.

Dale JaneƩ said...

He definitely captured so many aspects of this era and it's touching and sad to see all the different emotions of people from the making out in the park to the despair

nice post
-Dale

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have camera, will travel said...

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