A photography book by Robert Frank, titled "The Americans." It is propped up on a wood floor with a black background.

Robert Frank and The Americans

I had never heard of Robert Frank, although I was familiar with his Trolley – New Orleans image (on the cover of the 50th anniversary Steidl edition).  He died in 2019.  I really enjoyed this reading of a 2015 article about him – it was featured on The Daily (a podcast from The New York Times). 

Listening to the hour-long podcast inspired me to borrow The Americans from the Denver Public Library.  The Introduction by Jack Kerouac is under six pages, and the rest of the book features photographs taken by Robert Frank as he traveled across America in 1955 and 1956.

The most memorable parts of the podcast/article:

  • Bruce Springsteen talking about The Americans
  • Frank’s experience in an Arkansas jail and his “missed photograph” 
  • The photographer’s realization that he liked black people much more than white people
  • There is an unwillingness to accept that some artists contribute significantly to the evolution of more than one art form (in Frank’s case, Indie films and photography)

Photos from The Americans that I found myself thinking about, hours or days after putting the book down:

  • the rodeo images:  Rodeo – Detroit and Rodeo – New York City (I don’t think of rodeos in these locations)
  • Hotel lobby – Miami Beach (it’s as ostentatious as it sounds)
  • Bank – Houston, Texas (it left me feeling empty)

For many photographers, single images are memorable.  I guess that is the case with Frank’s Trolley – New Orleans photo, too.  However, as I perused this book on several occasions, it occurred to me how so many of these images wouldn’t be exceptional by themselves – it was his commitment to driving throughout America in a certain time period and then presenting us with a select number of images that makes his photography impactful.  

I’ve always thought of famous photographers as individuals who repeatedly produce single images that become popular.  Frank is the first photographer I have encountered who made me realize that sometimes the magic of photography as an art form is in the collections (and the presentation as a collection), not the individual images.  

Some may wonder if a book that was first published over half a century ago is still relevant.  I was surprised how much.  

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