Robert Frank’s The Americans is acclaimed as one of the most important and influential photographic books of the 20th century. It resulted from Frank’s project to photograph the United States with the support of two successive Guggenheim Fellowships in 1955 and 1956. First published in 1958 in Paris by Robert Delpire, it was finally issued in America by Grove Press in January 1960 with a foreword by Jack Kerouac, a pioneer of the Beat Generation, author of On the Road (1957). More than simply a collection of eighty-three black-and-white photographs, it is a synthesis of formal innovations with a shift in attitude that, taken together, form a coherent and powerful statement.
The Americans combines an innovative approach to technique and subject matter in both the individual pictures and in their combination in book form. Frank exploited the unique characteristics of 35-millimeter black-and-white photography such as blur, tilt and graininess in a new and expressive way. He allied the documentary style with a personal viewpoint. The Americans introduced new subject matter to fine art photography—banal things and places never deemed worthy of considering before. He created new symbols or invigorated old ones through his depictions of mundane subject matter. The meaning of symbols, such as the American flag, is significantly altered throughout the book by the context—either through the repetition and sequencing of two or more images, or both combined.
Unlike so many books of the fifties, The Americans does not fall back on a simplistic chronological or geographical arrangement, nor on sets of paired facing images. The basic format is simple and classical, recalling the earliest photographic books that simply consist of prints bound into an album with the blank left-hand page being the back of the preceding print. Franks’ innovation is to convey meaning solely with the images, without words, narrative or explanatory captions. It is done entirely through the juxtaposition of subjects and forms within the frame and between pictures within the book. This method depends on the viewer’s memory of form and content of pictures seen earlier in the sequence. Each picture must be scrutinized individually, but while turning the pages, the images retained in the mind create a resonance with those on the page at hand. Through frequent repetition of certain motifs it functions like a refrain in music. Frank’s masterful handling of sequencing to imply movement and create new meanings make his turn to filmmaking, following the publication of The Americans, to appear as a logical step.
Executed with irony and compassion, The Americans is an incisive critique of American society. Frank revealed a nation that was racially divided and spiritually bankrupt. Highly criticized and qualified as Anti-American, at the height of the Cold War, it was soon taken up by young photographers as something of a cult book. Through the sixties it obtained a kind of legendary status that only continues to grow. First republished in 1968, and in several subsequent editions in at least eight languages, the most recent reprint of the French edition has just been issued by delpire & co.
By Stuart Alexander, Editorial Director at delpire & co.