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The Americans Hardcover – December 30, 1993
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Armed with a camera and a fresh cache of film and bankrolled by a Guggenheim Foundation grant, Robert Frank crisscrossed the United States during 1955 and 1956. The photographs he brought back form a portrait of the country at the time and hint at its future. He saw the hope of the future in the faces of a couple at city hall in Reno, Nevada, and the despair of the present in a grimy roofscape. He saw the roiling racial tension, glamour, and beauty, and, perhaps because Frank himself was on the road, he was particularly attuned to Americans' love for cars. Funeral-goers lean against a shiny sedan, lovers kiss on a beach blanket in front of their parked car, young boys perch in the back seat at a drive-in movie. A sports car under a drop cloth is framed by two California palm trees; on the next page, a blanket is draped over a car accident victim's body in Arizona.
Robert Frank's Americans reappear 40 years after they were initially published in this exquisite volume by Scalo. Each photograph (there are more than 80 of them) stands alone on a page, while the caption information is included at the back of the book, allowing viewers an unfettered look at the images. Jack Kerouac's original introduction, commissioned when the photographer showed the writer his work while sitting on a sidewalk one night outside of a party, provides the only accompanying text. Kerouac's words add narrative dimension to Frank's imagery while in turn the photographs themselves perfectly illustrate the writer's own work. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
In this 50th anniversary reissue, celebrated photographer Frank maintains the format (left page: brief caption, right page: photo) and introduction (Jack Kerouac: "with the agility, mystery, genius, sadness and strange secrecy of a shadow Frank photographed scenes that have never been seen before on film"), the images themselves have been re-scanned, re-cropped by Frank and, in two cases, changed. Frank's images, taken all across the country, leave the viewer with a solemn impression of American life. From funerals to drug store cafeterias to parks, Frank recorded every shade of everyday life he encountered: the lower and upper classes, the living and dead, the hopeful and destitute, all the while experimenting with angle, focus and grain to increase impact. Preceding an exhibition that will tour U.S. galleries in 2009, this volume will no doubt introduce new generations to Frank's inimitable record of daily life fifty years ago. Kerouac says, fittingly, that "after seeing these pictures you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin"; those who don't comprehend Kerouac's comment have yet to experience this classic collection. 83 tri-tone plates.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Finally I held this book in my hands. Kerouac's five-page introduction is indeed fantastic! It's a true representative sample of his stream of consciousness, grammatically challenged, writing style. I loved this short sample of his work. However, his opinion of these photos is much more generous than mine.
These are all black & white photos. There is no text, except for a few descriptive words. We are given no technical information as to how these photos were taken or reproduced. The year each photo was taken is not even mentioned. Most of these photos seem unposed. Were they? I'm not thrilled with the quality of these photos. Many have too much shadow. Many just seem so drab. Kerouac's writing seems so uplifting. These photos don't mirror his enthusiasm.
I thought this was supposed to be one of THE greatest of photography books. Sorry, but I don't see it.
RF is a great or a near great photographer, and, if it had a different title this work would be a near-great photo book. It's use of sequencing of unposed photos is a tour de force and important in the history of photography.
Is it as great as the mind-blowing multi-leveled sequencing in Homer's Iliad created 3,000 year ago? Let's be serious, children. There is great art and mind-blowing, unimaginable, enduring and seminal great art. RF is very far from the latter.
As an avid street photographer in my retirement (www.sidewakshadows.com), I am forced to think about American society and how it presents itself every day. And I'm old enough remember the 50's well, and how we intellectuals preened about its failings. As a personal statement by a typical alienated, deracinated European snob, the book is excellent. He presents his biased and unloving personal vision very well. That would be worth 5 stars.
Please remember that this selection was edited down from over 18,000 images he took on his fellowship. People who have compared the selection to the other photos he rejected have noted the profoundly negative bias in the selection, and how unrepresentative the photos selected were of the the photos taken. People who have tried to retrace his steps and take similar images have also been defeated in their quest, since the people they found were so friendly and smiling. Put simply, the man was a European bigot who hated us for thriving while Europe went down in flames. He was not alone, by any means. For every PG Wodehouse who dug American culture, there were 100 Europeans who felt distressed by our love of the common man and his aspirations.
So what is documented in The Americans is not really America, but a nasty, narrow view of America that was shared by many Europeans and also American intellectuals and artists. The initial reviews in the US were all negative, not because the reviewers did not understand photography, but because as contemporaries, they understood RF's intent and shortcomings.
As I said, as a teenager I shared some of this prejudice against American prosperity and culture. Then I grew up.
The book is a fine book, if you just change the title to The Bigots -how angry foreigners thought of our country.
If you want to 'see' the 1950s, you can do it. You don't need a time-machine. The 85 photographs in this famous collection, taken 'on the road' by the German-Swiss Robert Frank, are worth at least 85,000 words. All in black-and-white, eclectic and experimental in darkroom technology, almost none of them of 'famous' people or familiar sights, these carefully and thoughtfully sequenced photographs reveal more of the shadows upon the American Dream than the sparkling spot lights, but they are as uncompromisingly honest as a dental X-ray. Not a speck of caries can be hidden. Frank saw through the superficial smiles of the 1950s to the cavities of core city and rural poverty, racism, sexism, crassness, and forced conformity - the grotesque 1950s that Flannery O'Connor depicted in Wise Blood and other works, that James Dean and Marlon Brando portrayed in films, and that Jack Kerouac tried to flee by taking to "the road."
If you want to understand Kerouac - or the appeal of Kerouac to a generation of young Americans - you couldn't do better than spend some hours looking at these photos of the culture he fled from. And in fact, Kerouac himself played a role in getting Frank's work recognized and published. The introduction to the first edition of The Americans is possibly Kerouac's most intelligent and coherent piece of social analysis, almost a manifesto of dissatisfaction with the stifling mediocrity of his contemporary USA.
Robert Frank was above all a photographer. A camera artist. The compositional and technical innovations that he achieved in this and other thematic collections of photos nudged the aesthetic of photography in directions that are still evident even in commercials during football games or in fashion shots for auto ads. The huge touring exhibit of his work, now on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has reminded me of his powerful impact both as a visual artist and as a social commentator. Don't miss it if you have a chance!