Few photographers have managed to capture the American life and culture as honestly as Robert Frank. Described as one of the most influential photo books of all times, his seminal series The Americans provided a fresh and nuanced outsider’s view of post-war American society. Created in the 1950s during a series of road trips through the United States, these images uncovered a side of America that differed from the country’s self-image at the time.
In a newly bought Ford, the Swiss-born photographer went on three separate road trips across the country over the course of two years, photographing American society and all its strata. Cruising around public parks, bars, luncheonettes and factories, he captured ordinary people doing ordinary things: black passengers on a segregated trolley in New Orleans, a cowboy pausing to roll a cigarette in midtown Manhattan, a man in front of the jukebox with an empty dance floor behind him. He photographed parades, diners, postcard racks, drugstores, highways, cars, gas stations, hotel lobbies, strip developments and other meaningful and telling symbols of contemporary American culture.
Simply showing things as they were, Frank illuminated the reality of the post-war era. Scratching beneath the surface, his images revealed a profound sense of alienation, angst and loneliness, highlighting the gap between the American Dream and everyday life. As Jack Kerouac famously wrote in an introduction to the first American edition of the book, Frank “sucked a sad poem right out of America on to film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.” At the same time, he found a new sense of beauty in simple overlooked corners of American life.
Intuitive and immediate, Frank’s images broke many conventions of the time. They challenged the documentary tradition where photography was understood as something simplistic and transparent, showing that it can be informed by the photographer's thoughts, emotions or viewpoints. At the same time experimenting with composition, blur, exposure and grain, he rebelled against the aesthetic of photography that championed technical perfection.
After almost 60 years, this body of work remains just as powerful and provocative. The Americans redefined what a photobook could be—personal, poetic and real—ultimately changing the course of 20th-century photography.
Photos: Public Park - Ann Arbor, Michigan and Trolley - New Orleans, © 2008 Robert Frank.