Looking in: Robert Frank’s The Americans
In October 1955 Robert Frank left New York City in a Ford Business Coupe and headed south to Miami Beach, before cutting west to St Petersburg, and on through Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. The journey was the first major road trip of the project that resulted 10,000 miles later in The Americans. Frank would drive to Memphis, New Orleans, Las Vegas and up the coast to San Francisco; before returning to the East Coast through Salt Lake City, Chicago and Indianapolis.
But only one month into the journey, he was arrested and jailed by Arkansas police. Frank’s crime, it seems, was foreignness. They queried the foreign names he had given his children, Pablo and Andrea; they were suspicious of his foreign-sounding contact, Alexey Brodovitch. They threatened violence and asked if he was a Communist, before fingerprinting him and insisting that he sign his name under the heading “Criminal”. When he had first arrived in New York eight years earlier he had written to his parents in Zurich, “Never before have I experienced so much in one week as here. I feel as if I’m in a film.” In that same letter home he had added: “There is only one thing you should not do, criticise anything.”
The episode is detailed in Sarah Greenough’s monumental Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans” (Expanded Edition) – an exhaustive publication marking the 50th anniversary of one of photography’s most famous and controversial books. Greenough’s volume draws on vintage contact sheets, work prints, letters, manuscripts and interviews to compile a rich and meticulous examination of Frank’s project. Her own chapters outline both the photographer’s early career and the book’s anointed afterlife, while contributor essays cover his relationships with supporter Edward Steichen, friend and mentor Walker Evans, publisher Robert Delpire, and collaborator Jack Kerouac. In 500-plus pages variant crops are comprehensively illustrated; modified sequences are thoroughly explained; itineraries are painstakingly mapped. The whole has been made possible, we are told, by the support and co-operation of (the not-always-co-operative) Frank himself – the irony being that his original hope, he wrote, was to produce a work, “the visual impact of which should be such as will nullify explanation”.
Judging by the amount of comment and interpretation The Americans has since generated, it could be argued that the book has emphatically failed to do any such thing. Initially many of the work’s critics reacted with vitriol, branding it “A Degradation of a Nation!”, “a slashing and bitter attack on some US institutions” and a “wart-covered picture of America”. The photographer was no better: “a joyless man who hates the country of his adoption”. But the emergence of an enduring, now orthodox, re-assessment was evident even by 1967 when one curator wrote to the publishers requesting they reprint the title, describing it as “the most significant book in the history of photography”.
As well as providing an authoritative account of many such developments, Looking In collates a full set of chinagraphed contact sheets to accompany the frames in The Americans. Some caution is needed as Frank – cultivating spontaneity, immediacy and intuition – would snip away unwanted negatives on the hoof. Nevertheless, what remains constitutes an unparalleled insight into his working methods and editorial decisions. Some sleights of hand are laid bare: the shot of a New York cowboy seemingly lost in concentration now looks complicit, not stolen; and the repeated compositional effacements and decapitations appear even more pronounced and calculated. In the main though, the impression is of an offhand restlessness, haste and impatience. That said, there are at least 14 frames of the famous elevator girl from Miami – the one who caught Kerouac’s eye. Not even Frank could move far in a lift.