Essays

John Szarkowski On Robert Frank’s Book ‘The Americans'” (1986)

By The ASX Team on May 23, 2013


I saw it I suppose very shortly after it was published, when I was still working as a photographer myself, and it was, frankly, shocking. I sensed the power in it, and the authority about it but there was much about it that I didn’t like…

The Americans was received with mixed critical reaction. Not primarily because of its subject matter, although many people thought so at the time. There had been many people ¬†who clearly disliked it or hated it. Looking back on it now, if you analyze the subject matter of The Americans, it in fact is subject matter that has been recorded, described with considerable depth by a good many other photographers. It was something in the very bones of the photographs themselves – something about the look of the pictures that suggested that, whereas what was being described had to be described because it was there, it didn’t have to be described according to the rules and formulations that were thought of as being good photography…

We all knew those things existed… but the way in which they were depicted made them seem more difficult to accept, more pessimistic. There was something approaching a sharp edge of bitterness in the look of the pictures. And of course what was eventually learned from that it was not necessarily the sensibility that gave the pictures their bitter taste, but rather the knowledge that the medium itself was much more plastic, and was open to a wider range of invention that we ever realized.

– John Szarkowski, in Brookman and Brookman 1986: video

ASX CHANNEL: ROBERT FRANK

(All rights reserved. Text @ John Szarkowski Estate)