Venetian Red Notebook: Robert Franks’ The Americans

By LIZ HAGER

Robert Frank—Americans 72, San Francisco, 1956

Robert Frank, Americans 72. San Francisco, 1956

“Looking In: Robert Frank’s Americans,” which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication, opened at the National Gallery in Washington just days before the Inauguration of our 44th President. In town for the latter event, I stole an hour to see the show, thinking at least it would be enough time to visit with a few old favorites. But I had forgotten the power of Frank’s work to arrest.  They compel you to stop and consider; across time and space, a Frank photograph has an uncanny ability to capture a shared piece of all of our American histories.

Nearly the hour had passed before I realized I was still in the first room. Unfortunately, I had to leave. Fortunately, there will be many more opportunities to see the show, as it will be at SF MoMA until August 23.

It’s hard to believe that the work for The Americans almost didn’t happen. Frank arrived in New York as a working photographer from Switzerland in 1947.  By 1953 he was deeply discouraged, frustrated that, after years of wandering and shooting images, he had been unable to publish his photographs more widely. In the midst of this dispair, he nevertheless recommitted himself to his photographic work.

In 1955 Frank received a Guggenheim fellowship, the first European-born photographer to be so honored. This allowed him the freedom and means to resume documentation of life in the United States. His output, The Americans, published first in France (1958) and then in the US (1959), consisted of 83 photographs culled from the thousands he made largely in 1955 and 1956 while traveling around the country.

As a foreign-born photographer,  Frank was uniquely positioned to peer into post-War American culture and capture its significant features. Among the scenes of everyday life, Frank recorded the particularly American penchant for cars, jukeboxes, gas stations, diners, and the open road. These photographs are compelling statements about what defined us then; in most respects their legacies are with us still.

Americans 72 captures the essence of place, both geographically and emotionally. Although the photo was shot 50 years ago, its location is instantly recognizable to anyone living in San Francisco, for that Victorian corner (like many others) has remained largely unchanged. Today, with no ethnicity a majority, we might lose sight of the fact that the Western Addition was once an African American enclave. The composition and tonality of the image mimic that segregation—the dark figures in the foreground separated by the park walkway from the lightness of the city beyond—although it’s not clear that this was Frank’s intention. The couple’s expressions define the emotional landscape. Unlike many of the subjects of Frank’s photographs, this couple has caught him in the act of photographing.  The woman turns in alarm, worry perhaps; someone has snuck up behind them. Her companion gives Frank a look that might be interpreted as a territorial warning (“back off buddy!”). Or maybe he’s simply scanning the scene, sizing up the potential danger posed by an intruder. With the benefit of hindsight, a lot could be read into this photograph.

Along with cars, jukeboxes, and diners, this scene also defined America in 1956. The Inauguration reminds me that we’ve come a distance since then.

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