"Looking In: Robert Frank's the Americans"

By Tully, Nola | New Criterion, December 2009 | Go to article overview

"Looking In: Robert Frank's the Americans"


Tully, Nola, New Criterion


"Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans" The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

September 22, 2009-January 3, 2010

In 1955, the Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank, then a slightly disillusioned thirty-one-year-old expat living in New York City, bought a used Ford coupe and took to the highways in search of the real America. With letters of reference from the artist Walker Evans, the photographer and curator Edward Steichen, and the Harper's Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch, Frank received a Guggenheim Fellowship and later a second Guggenheim which gave him the freedom to explore what was then uncharted territory. Frank wrote on his Guggenheim application that he sought to portray Americans as they live at present: "Their every day and their Sunday, their realism and dream. The look of their cities, towns and highways." Four years later Frank's 10,000 mile road trip culminated in The Americans, a book that changed the course of twentieth-century photography.

First published in France in November 1958, Les Americains received little attention. Robert Delpire had agreed to publish Frank's work as part of an educational series, rather than as an artist's book. To Frank's dismay, his photographs were reproduced on right-hand pages facing text excerpts--Alexis de Tocqueville, Simone de Beauvoir, Richard Wright, and other critics of the United States. Then Les Americains caught the eye of Barney Rosset of Grove Press, who had just published D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, previously banned in the United States. In 1959, Grove published The Americans, an American edition with an introduction by Jack Kerouac--and Frank's photos on the right opposite blank pages. Twenty-six-hundred copies were printed, Frank received a $200 advance, and Kerouac received $30 for his introduction.

The Americans is as powerful today as it was fifty years ago, and it represents a turning point in how we look at our world. A haunting and extremely complex portrait of an emerging cultural landscape, the pictures are both lyrical and brutal in their presentation. Critics decried the work as un-American, sloppy, and drunken, but a half-century later Frank's style has been adopted into our visual language. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and The Metropolitan Museum have organized exhibitions to honor the publication's anniversary. The Metropolitan show, now on view, is comprised of the eighty-three prints that the photographer edited from 767 rolls of film--over 27,000 images--and 1,000 work prints culled from the two-year road trip. Many are vintage prints never exhibited before. They line the walls of four galleries, and are numbered in order of the book's pages. Twelve contact sheets give viewers a look into the artist's method. Other documents include letters, grant applications, and various drafts of introductions by Walker Evans and Jack Kerouac, including the Guggenheim applications that funded the two-year project.

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