There is perhaps no better time for the 50th Anniversary release of Robert Frank's "The Americans" than now. America is on a slippery slope quickly approaching a cross roads that will surely be marked by change as many issues which have been brewing on the back burner and swept under the carpet can no longer be ignored. America's place now in many regards mirrors a time and place in America ('55-'56 to be precise) when Frank made "The Americans" images as underlying issues of race and gender inequality and war and fear of foreign power sparked a fire that would soon erupt and impact a nation for years to come. The despairing gap between the American identity and the American reality fueled Frank's vision. In his Guggenheim Fellowship Proposal that would support the work Frank expressed his intention to:
“To photograph freely throughout the United States, using the miniature camera exclusively. The making of a broad, voluminous picture record of things American, past and present. This project is essentially the visual study of a civilization and will include caption notes; but it is only partly documentary in nature: one of its aims is more artistic than the word documentary implies.”
“'The photographing of America' is a large order—read at all literally, the phrase would be an absurdity. What I have in mind, then, is observation and record of what one naturalized American finds to see in the United States that signifies the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere. Incidentally, it is fair to assume that when an observant American travels abroad his eye will see freshly; and that the reverse may be true when a European eye looks at the United States. I speak of the things that are there, anywhere and everywhere—easily found, not easily selected and interpreted. A small catalog comes to the mind’s eye: a town at night, a parking lot, a supermarket, a highway, the man who owns three cars and the man who owns none, the farmer and his children, a new house and a warped clapboard house, the dictation of taste, the dream of grandeur, advertising, neon lights, the faces of the leaders and the faces of the followers, gas tanks and postoffices and backyards . . . "
The honesty of Frank's images is what set them apart. The book of 83 images first published in 1958 by Robert Delpire in Pairs would eventually set its self apart from all other photography books of its kind for the next 50 years as it has gone on to influence future generations of photographers from Shore to Sternfeld to Soth. In an essay about his time spent with Frank in Germany at the Steidl printing press Joel Sternfeld remembers:
"When I was becoming a photograper in the late 1960's, Frank's book, 'The Americans' was already a landmark-that's much too weak a word but what other word for a body of work that changed the course of the river of Photography in a way that it could never take the old course again.
I would look at it before I went to sleep and in the morning I would reach for it like a smoker reaches for a cigarette. I needed to see it again. The country was so bleak in those sooty pages, each one an artifact ripped from the landscape and brought straight to the bindery. Frank had found a way to give form to the formless lives that went unmilled in America."
The Steidl catalog notes that: "Since 1959 'The Americans' has been reprinted by different publishers, in multiple languages and formats. Frank has had varying influence on these editions: some were printed without his input, approval or knowledge. When the Steidl edition of "The Americans" was printed, Frank' was involved in every step of its design and production. The 83 photographs were scanned in tritone from vintage prints in Frank's collection, which revealed that many images in past editions were actually crops of the originals. For the Steidl book Frank studied revised these crops and in many cases included the ful photographs. Frank personally oversaw printing on July 18, 2007, inspecting and approving each sheet at Steidl's press in Gottingen."
The new edition of "The Americans" published by Steidl and National Gallery of Art, Washington and distributed by D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc. comes out May 15th and its precious small size makes it a treasure in your hands. Get yours now at the getting place.
This marks the first of a new series of book reviews that I will doing on this blog. I think it is always interesting to hear photographers talk about the books that have impacted their work and why a particular title is meaningful to them. Some books will be new and fresh off the press while others will be old and out of print. There is nothing greater than spending hours at the book store or in bed surrounded by all your favorites, running away and escaping into another world, each title a passageway to a new journey, each page a new and thrilling experience.