The lesson often learned from The Americans was not one of content or meaning, but a realization of the enormous strength of the attitude behind it.
What a poem this is,
what poems can be written
about this book of pictures
— Jack Kerouac
By Jno Cook for Exposure Magazine, Volume 24, Number 1, Spring 1986
When I first saw Frank’s photographs in The Americans  I understood nothing of them — yet they demanded comprehension. I later realized that even when exhibited singly in museums, they still evoked their placement in the book — like quotations from a sacred text they called up entire passages, themes, subtle connections to other photographs. Here started a journey into The Americans in an attempt to understand not just the photographs, but the book. It has been a journey among museum archives, borrowed books, and xerox machines. It has meant searching out other Frank fanatics, engaging in endless and at times pointless discussions and arguments, and planning forays into literature and foreign languages.
Today I think I know exactly what The Americans means, but whenever I try to explain I get lost among the facts, details, hints, and significant quotations. Each new explanation seems to qualify the previous one, and each encounters new obstacles — very real obstacles, for many were placed there by Frank. Reading The Americans becomes a confrontation with Robert Frank, but it is as if he recedes, indifferently, at each approach; reading The Americans is like being in a maze where you are confronted at every turn with new passages. I’ve charted a few of them: I’ll start at the center.
At the center of a career as photographer and filmmaker, and separating the two, Robert Frank produced The Americans. It came from the heart and from the mind: it was wrought from personal conviction and shaped by the accumulated knowledge of a career in photography. It was little understood and appreciated at first, and it took ten years before its influence was recognized. By me mid-1960s Robert Frank was as well known among filmmakers as among photographers; by then photography had changed also, and photographers pointed to The Americans a one of the major sources for the changes. While those changes led photography into the ever-broadening fields of surrealism and formalism, Robert Frank limited his photographs to the personal and the private. What did Robert Frank learn from The Americans that we’ve overlooked?
In 1972 he published another book, The Lines of My Hand,  a visual autobiography. The Lines projected an amazing objective clarity, even in the use of snapshots, which seemed at odds with the distance and impenetrable silence of The Americans. The same sense can also be derived from Frank’s films, which show a precise editing ability unlike the apparently random selection of photographs in The Americans. Where was me clarity of The Americans?
The different reactions to the book, both by critics and photographers, attest to a irresolvable ambiguity in its meaning. The lesson often learned from The Americans was not one of content or meaning, but a realization of the enormous strength of the attitude behind it. The Lines of My Hand shows this as a sense of inevitability, a feeling that there is no escape from life. That is, after all, what is written in the lines of one’s hand. Could not The Americans be charted with equal certainty?
If The Americans was a public gesture of disgust which had photography in mind as a target, then The Family of Man would stand as the perfect center to that target.
These two threads, clarity ad certainty, which become so apparent in Frank’s later work, can also be found in The Americans. They lead through the maze of its meaning. They argue for a cohesiveness of form, a accountability for every detail, and a message.
Most striking about The Americans is me amalgam of public and private which in combination raises the effectiveness of both. The Americans is overtly public in subject matter, yet deeply infused with personal feelings — recognizable even in me 1950s as a tone of disapproving sadness which had never before been allowed in photojournalism. Gaylord Herron called it “Robert Frank’s diary,” but many saw the book instead as an accurate reflection, and hence as a critique of America. 
In fact it was both, and much more, because Frank brought to a close photography’s quest for the decisive moment — the ever more decisive moment which had been defined in terms of the perishable and publishable moment which was easily recognized and quickly read by the public. In The Americans, America stood still, frozen into a frightful pose between moments. But it took years to recognize that the book went far beyond diary and document, that in rejecting the mannered and predictable style of photojournalism of the period Frank produced a radical critique of photography itself. Radical, because it returned photography to the vernacular of vision: in The Americans the everyday is recognized as it is seen and this recognition makes me book amazingly undated even after twenty-five years. And a critique because any return to the vernacular implicates the established style of photography in a falsification of the real world. “You can photograph anything now,” Robert Frank said in 1961. 
The suggestion of this double critique — of thee social structure and of the established diction of photography — comes from more than just speculative theory. The specific composition of the book can be recognized as an Anatomy which deftly dissects America, organ by organ (stopping only at the heart) and is clearly put forth in the tradition of Rabelais and Swift, of Goya and Daumier.  But a look at the overall plan of me book reveals it to be more like a perverse parody of Edward Steichen’s 1955 catalogue for the exhibition, The Family of Man. It covers the same range of topics but from an altered viewpoint that reverses the implicit argument that the political system proceeds from the individual. And there are clear parallels — the introduction by Jack Kerouac, for example, which mocks Carl Sandburg’s introduction to The Family of Man. The piper of The Americans is the American flag.
There would be a remarkable efficiency in such a project, for a parody of The Family of Man would critique both the implicit purpose of Steichen’s exhibit — to sell the American way of life — and the explicit assumption that this could be done photographically — that photography comprises a universal language. Steichen’s show was thee most heavily attended photographic exhibit in MoMA’s history, and the catalogue a still in print today. This attests to the persistence of Steichen’s premises and points to the acuity of Frank’s choice for a possible starting point. 
There were other good reasons for considering a parody. Seven photographs by Robert Frank had appeared in Steichen’s catalogue. But this dubious tribute of being one of the better-represented photographers came at a time when Frank’s attempts to sell his work from a Guggenheim project on America met with constant rejections. The magazines didn’t want the photographs and in the end Frank didn’t want the magazines either. The 1958- 1959 publication of The Americans closed the door to future commercial sales for it was a final statement in photography, a rejection which was soon thereafter sealed with its abandonment. Publication of The Americans was itself an act that pointed to something which would become increasingly clear in Frank’s later work: that his art dealt with experience, specific personal experience. This is a thread to which I will return. 
If The Americans was a public gesture of disgust which had photography in mind as a target, then The Family of Man would stand as the perfect center to that target. But although Jack Kerouac’s introduction signals the casual irreverence with which the disassembly of the magnum opus in photography might have been undertaken, it is a false lead, for the parody is not completed. The possibility is suggested, and then rejected. The target, after all, was larger than Steichen’s catalogue. Parody disappeared into the body of the book like the armature of a sculpture, there to await discovery: the sudden shock of recognition, the scramble for reconstruction. The implications of Steichen’s show — as the epitome of the condition of photography — were not neglected, however. The book fully addresses the questions it raised: questions about authorship, about unity, and about the representational power of images. Thus, elements of parody reappear at all levels of the book, including many specific images and sequences.  Much of this is unavoidable, too, for in Frank’s shift from ideal to real The Americans repeatedly highlights the antithetical results. It is this switch, in fact, that made the book socially significant. In the presentation of images so antipodal from what had become the representational model, The Americans became a prophetic symbol for the rethinking of America — something which would become a universal consciousness and critical awareness of a younger generation within ten years of its publication.
Unified in intent — as an experience, as a disdainful gesture, as a critique of photography, and superimposed on a critique of America — the combined power of these images voiced that something was wrong, that changes had to be made.
Unified in intent — as an experience, as a disdainful gesture, as a critique of photography, and superimposed on a critique of America — the combined power of these images voiced that something was wrong, that changes had to be made. Often more felt than rationally understood, the message became a radical point of departure for the work among a generation of photographers. Even for those more inclined to the opaque formal qualities of Frank’s photographs, it was the circumstances of publication of the book which informed any understanding of the photographs, rather than a meaning derived from the content of the book. Since its publication in 1958 there has been no consensus on a single interpretation of The Americans. A long list could be made of how individual photographers have understood the book in different ways and how each was differently influenced. We would conclude that understanding is a key issue in any discussion of The Americans; but where did an understanding of it lead Robert Frank?
It led to film, where (as he said) there are no decisive moments, and where (again as he said) one doesn’t turn away after the click. With film the whole of existence can potentially be made over into a continuity of cinema frames: after completing his third film and recognizing that the technical obstacles he had faced as a beginner in film had been overcome, Frank wrote, “I will have to express without fear my feelings about the world of which I am a part.” In photography the ability to express his feelings had already been achieved, although perhaps not with the precision of his later films and photographs. What is more significant about this statement, however, and indicative of a general background attitude for all of Frank’s work, is his identity with the world — the assumption that the world includes him, at least for the moment, an assumption which many Americans do not come to realize in a lifetime. It is an attitude generated from a Calvinistic determinism: pragmatic in the confidence that what is observed of the public world is exactly what it appears to be, ultimately unaffected by the desires and wishes of the self. There are no alternatives to seeing the world as it is; there is no better world lurking behind this one waiting to break in at some future moment. The genuine belief in this is fully expressed in The Americans. No unwarranted wishes for a better world-order get in the way of these pictures.
What first struck me about The Americans was the refusal of any of the images to adhere to recognizable stereotypes. None of them had a look of familiarity about them. This was a genuine hindrance, for the readability of photographs is always a matter of recognition, of familiarity. What we see in each new photograph is what we recognize as having been seen before in all other photographs. But the images of The Americans were not familiar, and at the same time they were all too familiar. For most readers they presented a surrealists’s view on life: absurd, ambiguous, and inconclusive. In 1958, it was totally unexpected, and totally new. Frank, however was not pretending to art through ambiguity, as if subtlety might be suggested with vagueness, for the images of The Americans are anchored in a bedrock of specificity and careful intent. Each meant something, each was taken for a reason, and each was purposefully included in the book. Many of the reasons are as simple as the experience of things wholly American by a stranger from a foreign land; outside his ken, and overlooked by us, it was a new look at America seen through European eyes and taking Europe as the standard of judgment. Most viewers never penetrated to this level of meaning: for many the simple question of why any particular photograph was taken was never answered, for the answers were obviated by the specificity of the pictures (which were understood simply as an act of seeing), or subsumed in a variety of surrealist understandings of Frank’s vision. 
The cinematic sequencing  of the pictures also contributes to the ambiguity of the individual images. The use of a single photo for every two-page spread which progresses unrelenting through 83 photographs is a device totally out of character with editing techniques of the fifties. The photographs are both equalized and disconnected from each other. Seen as a miniature exhibition the book presents the photographs as evidence in an argument about America, but an inconclusive argument, for nothing seems to be proven. The pervasive display of malaise, however is powerful and frightening just the same. The effect is totally different from the thematic illustrative use of photographs in Steichen’s book. Frank’s ability to build a series of single unrelated images to a crescendo of unnerving feelings is perhaps the most masterful aspect of the book.
Spend enough time with the book and you will learn that there is nothing random about the order of the photographs — that each has been selected for a specific place in the series…
The question of how this is accomplished requires a closer look at The Americans. You may start to notice how the images interact, how they seem to talk to each other. You may notice, for example, whole series of photographs when each subsequent image reverses the implications of the previous one, or smaller groups which carefully build up a point of criticism only to have the following photographs disassemble it. Spend enough time with the book and you will learn that there is nothing random about the order of the photographs — that each has been selected for a specific place in the series, that groups reiterate specific themes like carefully chosen words in a poem, and that each photograph is usually a direct response to its predecessor, at least to the point of maintaining visual links between subsequent photos, at times as many as four or five simultaneously. Look at the titles too, for as often as visual connections can be found there exist verbal relationships — in English, in French, in German.
The specifics of the infrastructure of The Americans can get in the way: you get lost among the multiple cross references, me allusions to the work of others, pointed references to The Family of Man, punning irreverent art-historical allusions, and me just-plain-fun things the series of bottles, or stripes, or trees, or prints (fabric print, fine print, newsprint, photographic print — the “nothing- scape”). This Varronian monologue of me book — which mixes wit, black humour, and pathos in a series of rhymes, asides, contradictions, and seemingly irrelevant interludes — will intrigue and confound the minds of all but the most casual readers. The whole enterprise makes little sense unless you understand it as an element in an established mode of expression — established, that is, in literature and art, but unheard of in photography.
One understanding of how Frank came to such complex methods lies in seeing The Americans again as a parody in direct opposition to its target. The parallel to the critique of America would be to counter Steichen’s premise that photography participated in a “universal language.” In 1957 Frank voiced his disagreement with the proposition that photography was assumed to be understood by all, “even children.” It becomes obvious then that the hidden argument of The Americans is that photographs are in fact generally misread and misunderstood. Ample proof lies in the concordance of organized disharmony of the book, a fabric of intricate connections woven into a jubilant display of intellectualism which almost displaces the grim subject matter at the surface.
But mere were other reasons for the bewildering sequencing, for the form of The Americans is not derived from parody, but from a form with a classical tradition of its own, thee Anatomy. This form has affinities to satire and social criticism, but transcends their topicality. Its aim is the promotion of common sense but this is achieved not through the use of reason, but through exaggeration, satire, thee amassing of evidence, thee disregard of stylistic conventions, and the failure to propose answers. Underlying these methods is an attitude which dismisses its immediate target as not worthy of reasoned consideration; and the ultimate target often (and with the lapse of time) is no more than our own mediocrity, insensitive attitudes, and pretentious concerns. The strength of this form lies in the convictions of the artists and their ability to select the permanent from among everyday reality. Just as it takes an extraordinary talent to make these distinctions, it takes courage to present them. The result is a polemic beyond thee ordinary: a passion held in check with a vigorous display of knowledge and radical insight. It is a form which demands a sophisticated audience and demands much of them. Seldom put forth as high art, such work is recognized as art when, removed from its original target, it remains an experience in its own right. 
But mere were other reasons for the bewildering sequencing, for the form of The Americans is not derived from parody, but from a form with a classical tradition of its own… Anatomy.
Walker Evans was among the first to recognize how unusual Frank’s photographs were. In 1957 he wrote about Frank’s photography, “It is a far cry from all the woolly, successful ‘photo-sentiments’ about human familyhood.” (How much closer could he have come to writing “family of man?”) He followed this with the characterization of “irony and detachment,” and the completely unjustified presumption that America would welcome a critic.  Frank’s ascribed role of critic-in-our-midst may be explained as inadvertent, however. For one thing, the irony in Frank’s photographs came from his willingness to acknowledge the commonplace. Since the real world cannot be approached too closely in any literature without evoking a sense of unreality, Frank’s photographs inadvertently took on a mode of low irony. When Frank, with photos taken at the level of life which we fail to see or otherwise ignore, cut through the protective barrier of stereotypical sentiment and romanticized ideals which we use to insulate ourselves from reality, it was like a laceration to the eyeball and bound to produce angry reactions. Frank could have expected little else, for implicit in low irony (to the extent that it does not produce the laughter of recognition) is the certainty that the work will be received as insult and injury. What Evans had identified as detachment was more likely an overtone of hesitancy in those photographs, an uncertainty in the presentation of the experience — Frank’s experience — of America. Hardly detached, Robert Frank saw America and condemned it. Little wonder he was hesitant.
Rather than irony and detachment, what I feel better characterizes Frank’s work is an honesty and authenticity which is firmly grounded in his own experience of life and the world, along with a keen ability to detect anything in the least bit phony, and abhor it. This is an uncommon critical sensibility which, if firmly believed in, also leads to questioning one’s own work, which in turn leads to doubts and fears that the expression of one’s own feelings has little effect or relevance. It is directly down the center of this path of greatest resistance that Frank, as an artist, was forced to go, and for this he must be admired. Few of us are able, much less allow ourselves to bring experience continually to the foreground of expression, and fewer still make others alive to it. What more can a man do, a character of André Malraux asks, but to translate into consciousness the largest possible experience? 
If Evans chose to see Robert Frank’s work as ironic and detached, there was, then, a double irony, for this might better be applied to Evans’ own photographs. Frank’s work was already a step beyond what Walker Evans had done with photographs. But just the same, the presentation of pictures in The Americans could have taken a hint from Evans’ books as an antidote to the panegyric overtones generated by Steichen’s methods.  Evans’ manner of presentation was one of clear rational exposition, where photograph after photograph was presented as so many data points which graphed for the viewer an inevitable conclusion, a conclusion which could be reached without once contacting the emotional stance of the photographer. But this is precisely what Frank could not have accomplished, for Frank’s photos were very different from Evans’ open and transparent 8x10s. Frank’s images, laced with criticism, cynical, harsh, and disapproving, could never have been used in the clear rhetoric of a syllogism in the manner of Evans. Additionally, Frank’s interest did not lie in an assertion of the dignity of man which Evans’ period might have called for. Frank’s purpose, as stated in the Guggenheim application of 1955, was “to produce an authentic contemporary document.”
The maze of misunderstandings of The Americans also suggests that the fault with America lies in attitude, and not, as was originally understood, with a flaw in the American character.
The concern with contemporaneity was already evident in Frank’s attempts to move his photography ever closer to the present. It is here, in their agreement on me importance of the present, that a correspondence lies between the work of Frank and Evans. For Evans the present was wholly defined (and therefore foreclosed) in its slippage into the past; Frank’s sense of closure in the present came from a determined future. For both the task of art was to clearly recognize the elements of contemporaneity: Evans rescued these from oblivion, but Robert Frank brought into view the unavoidable tomorrow. As Frank roughly paraphrased from Malraux, the task was “to transform destiny to awareness.” 
And what was that destiny for Frank? Look toward your own future: excepting under the most hopeful conditions, expressed, for example, as the typical American horizon of two years, you cannot fail to glean a sense of foreclosure. Your death looms with absolute certainty, and any extrapolation of the confusion, misunderstandings, and failures of the past point only to more of the same. From the vantage point of direct and immediate experience, it was for Robert Prank a destiny of the order of life as it was, not as it was wished to be. This is precisely what photography had neglected. Those miseries depicted in The Family of Man were supposedly avoidable through good intention and government intervention just as the good moments were selected not from the everyday but from festivities and celebrations — more of those decisively romanticized amalgams of myth and history. “What an epic,” Carl Sandburg wrote in his introduction to The Family of Man.
What then were the alternatives of presentation still open to Robert Frank? Perhaps we should ask, where was the epic American poetry in 1958? It was not in the festive dinners and dancing of The Family of Man. No, it surfaced in a celebration of existence at once more exuberant and hopeless than anyone had expected: in the poetry of the Beats. It was here that Frank could find both form and argument to fit his photographs, while fulfilling Evans’ requirement for a detached exposition. Because inasmuch as the Beat complaint remained open-ended it remained objective, for the Beats offered no solution to the hopelessness of life except to set against it a retreat into the ecstasy of experience. They offend no solutions — only endless enumerations of experiences. And tone and stance as they are derived from experience (rather than from a “developed point of view”) are inarguable in their authenticity as facts. Additionally, the form of an exhaustive enumeration has a logic which allows the matter of narrative or cause (core to the “photo essay”) to be dispensed with, and it was. The narrative of The Americans was allowed to recede into the background as groups of photographs originally assembled as facets on individual themes were disassembled into the spondaic meter of single images. The argument now could be emotional at the same time that it remained clearly intellectual by forcing the reader to his own rational conclusions — to be reached on the basis of the presented evidence.
What did Robert Frank learn from The Americans? He turned to film, and reduced his photographs to haikus of his life that enumerated the losses and failures, as well as the hopes.
And the evidence, all the evidence, was there. One needed only to look at it. The quality of the evidence showed its affinity to the Beat writings in following William Carlos Williams’ maxim, “nothing but in things.” It was this diction of specificity that shocked those who saw The Americans in 1959. “Not my America,” was the report from one art historian. But Jack Kerouac said, “Such a poem!” 
The argument of The Americans, its message, then, is that a certain “mindlessness” is at cause. The headless tuba player is the central image of the book. The maze of misunderstandings of The Americans also suggests that the fault with America lies in attitude, and not, as was originally understood, with a flaw in the American character. Hope is retained, therefore, for a change might still be effected. This, too, is the approach of Swift, Voltair and Goya. To read this attitude, and understand it as a message, we have to look past the visual content of the book and look to its structure. The Americans uses a form completely different from the narrative, the illustrative, even from the diaristic and album type of photographic literature, and certainly from the “photo essay.” The anatomical form has a clear parallel in literature, and had been approached with the encyclopedic presentations of Walker Evans and August Sander. But Prank went further by taking The Americans to me expansive experience of a playful admixture of public and private, by bringing the emotional stance in direct contact with an acceptance of the commonplace, and especially by amassing endless qualifications on themes — the bewildering and dislocating, yet stylized, organization of the sequences, as in the free use of parody, incessant punning and occasional moralizing. The display of an intimate knowledge of contemporary photography, both European and America, turned out with a lively ironic wit, and set amid an overwhelming barrage of images from the American experience, presented a style which cautioned against jumping to conclusions and argued against an exploration of its meaning in any terms. This is a modernist argument; it is existential, ad visually it implies the surreal.
“The visual impact should be such as will nullify explanation,” Frank wrote in his application for a Guggenheim. But if Robert Frank had thought to enter our consciousness through the eyes, to simply leave images in our mind in which we would recognize ourselves, his selection of subjects and the connotations of his camera style were received instead as a visceral attack. The response was almost entirely emotional at first, and then, slowly, came the recognition of how correct the attitude was which supported the venture. The explanation was nullified when Robert Frank turned from the fact and fiction of the photo essay to poetry. It was a poetry set in the vernacular of vision: specific, concrete, and inseparable from life.
What did Robert Frank learn from The Americans? He turned to film, and reduced his photographs to haikus of his life that enumerated the losses and failures, as well as the hopes. The thread of certainty, begun in a deTocquevillian overview of America, ends here — in Nova Scotia snapshots.
This essay originally appeared in somewhat different form, as “Robert Frank Y La Fotografía” in Artur Heras and Vicent Todoli, eds, “Robert Frank Fotografias/Films 1948/1984” (Valencia, Spain: Sala Parpalló, 1985). The end notes have been added. The illustrations accompanying this essay are from Jno Cook, “The Robert Frank Coloring Book” (Chicago: Artists Book Works, 1983).
(1) The Americans was first published in Paris by Robert Delpire on May 15th, 1958, as Les Américains. The French edition was part of a series of books which presented foreign countries through words and pictures (Encyclopédie essentielle). Les Américains presents Frank’s 83 photographs in the same order as in all the later American editions, and on the right-hand pages. The left-hand pages carried a text of readings from American social and political history, gathered by Alain Bosquet. The following year Grove press published the American edition as The Americans (1959), with the Bosquet text deleted and an introduction by Jack Kerouac added.
Three especially substantive early responses to The Americans were:
* Gotthard Shuh, “A Letter Addressed to Robert Frank” in Camera, Vol. 36 (1957), pp. 339-340. “I do not know America, but your pictures frighten me,” writes Shuh, who also provides a capsule description of Frank’s career up to this time.
* Walker Evans, “Robert Frank” in Tom Maloney, ed, U.S. Camera Annual for 1958 (1957), p. 90. Evans wrote an introduction to a portfolio of 33 photographs by Robert Frank. There was also a statement by Robert Frank that was later reprinted in Nathan Lyons, Photographers on Photography
* Bruce Downes, et al, “An Offbeat View of the USA” in Popular Photography (May 1960), pp. 104-106. The reviews are by Popular Photography editors Les Barry, Bruce Downes, John Durniak, Arthur Goldsmith, H.M. Kinzer, Charles Reynolds, and James Zanuto. [back]
(2) Robert Frank, The Lines of my Hand (Tokyo: Yugensha, 1972), and issued in the US, with considerable changes in the text and photographs, by Lustrum press (Los Angeles: 1972). [back]
(3) See especially the reviews of Downes, et al, op cit. To simply lift from these reviews the words “warped objectivity,” or “images of hate and hopelessness” may be misleading, for there is considerable ambivalence behind the objections of the editors. Some object not a much to the picture content as to the wry insult implicit in the title itself. The editors do not question the “truthfulness” of the images, but only the means by which they were taken — what John Szarkowski called “the standards of photographic style” in Mirrors and Windows. The Popular Photography editors were most concerned with what they perceived as the viciousness of Frank’s subjective vision. “Do such personal statements merit publication?” Zanuto asked. [back]
(4) Henry Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952) presented a photographic approach which suggested that intelligent camerawork could usurp for the professional the candids which so often fell into the lap of the amateur. It became a cul-du-sac, however, in that the professionals were deadlocked in a race for precision, with Cartier-Bresson in the lead. “Frank killed the grandfather of photography,” one freelance photographer commented to me. The fleeting gestures caught in the first three photographs of The Americans are nowhere repeated; one soon gets the feeling that Frank’s sense of timing is based on catching a more general and unlikely gesture. In effect, a stance rather than a gesture is caught. Frank’s method, however, derives directly from the decisive moment syndrome. A look at some of the contact sheets presented in The Lines of my Hand (Yugensha edition, pp. 87-90) frequently shows Frank pouncing on his subject. [back]
(5) I’m indebted to Northop Frye’s analysis of the Menippian satire, and the related forms of encyclopaedic literature, subjective radical critiques, and the use of creative erudition. See Northop Frye Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University press, 1957). [back]
(6) The diminishing frequency of the appearance of the piper in The Family of Man is but one of many subtle techniques which has made the catalogue a model of photographic picture editing. In Hurley and McDougall’s Visual impact in Print (1971) 23 editors, curators, and photojournalists were asked to recommend a basic library of visual books. All but two included The Family of Man among their choices; only one recommended The Americans. [back]
(7) Although the product of 273 photographers, a large portion of the images in The Family of Man were produced by the better-known photojournalists. Frank’s seven photographs ranks him with Cartier-Bresson and Dorothea Lange. It should be noted that Frank accompanied Steichen on a collection trip to Europe in 1953, for an exhibition entitled “post-War European photographers.” The first collection of work for The Family of Man also dates from this time. As an assistant to Steichen, Frank’s tenure could have carried through to work on the exhibition, for Frank spoke three languages, and was well acquainted with European photographers. However, Frank did not continue to work for Steichen; Wayne Miller took over as Steichen’s assistant, and ended up with more photographs in The Family of Man than anyone else. Among the opening pictures hung at “The Family of Man” is a portrait of Robert Frank, by Louis Faurer, which appears on page 9 of The Family of Man. Despite his dislike of the exhibition, it was as if Frank were welcoming his contemporaries to the “Family of Man.” [back]
(8) With the first three photographs of The Americans Robert Frank restates the first thirty pages of The Family of Man, for the infant in the throes of a temper tantrum, shown in the third photograph, is the result of the kiss passed between the city-mothers and city-fathers of the first two photographs.
Frank’s last photograph again returns us to Steichen’ s book, echoing Eugene Smith’s “The Walk to Paradise Garden,” which closes The Family of Man. Steichen’s coda of juvenile bliss, as a dispensation of government, is transformed by Frank into variations on lust. Between the opening and close of The Americans are may other references to themes from The Family of Man, and by necessity many spoofs of the famous photographs of famous photographers. [back]
(9) See Jno Cook, “Robert Frank’s America” Afterimage Vol. 9, No. 8 (March 1982), pp. 9-14. [back]
(10) By cinematic sequencing I do not mean narrative, but the page-to-page visual and verbal connections which hold the sequence together. In film this rule is primarily expressed a the requirement that each “take” follows directly from the previous take. In the broadest sense this maintains a continuity in characters and locations. But takes are also connected with a weaker visual logic, as simple as a similarity (or contrast) in shape or lighting, and as wild as the most inane verbal puns. This form is first seen in Walker Evans’ American Photographs (New York: Museum of Modem Art, 1930), and repeatedly seen in other photographic books after The Americans, as, for example, in Ralph Gibson’s trilogy The Somnambulist, Deja-Vu, and Days at Sea (New York: Lustrum press, 1973, 1974). It matters little the photography or film audience fails to comprehend these connections consciously, for the suggestion of a connection is accomplished anyway, and works well in books like the ones cited above where the turning of pages acts like the wipe in cinema. When the photographs are placed two to a spread, or in larger groups, such connections become all too obvious and often trite. [back]
(11) For Frank’s comment on understanding photography see “Statement” M. Lyons, op. cit. I do not maintain that The Americans should be seen solely as an intellectual product. I would argue, however, that what Frank has in common with the tradition which includes Rabelais, Swift, Voltaire, and Burton, is that they all dealt with ideas: large idea or ideas held by large groups, or stupid ideas, or worthless ideas held in high esteem, but at any rate, ideas which needed to be dismissed, exposed, or blown away, whether by humor, satire, argument, or anger, or some combination of these. [back]
(12) Frank’s attitude toward the USA a captured in text of The Lines of My Hand, and again in Photography in the Humanities (eds. Eugenia Parry Janis and Wendy McNeil, p 56). The strongest indication comes from a biography at the back of The History of Photography Series, Robert Frank (Millerton: Aperture, 1976). Under the heading of “Chronology” Frank summarizes the work of The Americans in two lines:
1955. Trip across the States, and Delpire publishes
Ich bin ein Amerikaner.
The last line, in Frank’s Zuriçois tongue, conveys a spitefulness to any adult who spent World War II under Nazi occupation and for whom the words ” Ich bin ein Deutschlander” still raise hackles today. [back]
(13) André Malraux, Man’s Hope (New York: Random House, l938), p 396. The line in the Random House edition reads, “By converting as wide a range of experience as possible into conscious thought.” A similar phrase is found in Malraux’s Man’s Fate: “Every man is a madman.. but what is human destiny if not a life of effort to unite this madman and the universe.” [back]
(14) Walker Evans American Photographs, but especially James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1941), which Frank singles out in an interview between Walker Evans and Robert Frank at Yale University published in Still No. 3 (1973), p.2. [back]
(15) I am indebted to Alex Sweetman’s insight and his (as yet unpublished) research on Walker Evans for what is here so rudely condensed into a few sentences. [back]
(16) Recall Jack Kerouac’s wording in his introduction to The Americans, “The humor, the sadness, the EVERYTHING-ness and American-ness of these pictures!” [back]
ALL ROBERT FRANK ON ASX
(All rights reserved. Text @ Jno Cook)