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The Americans by Robert Frank

First published in 1958, Robert Frank’s The Americans, ushered in a new era in documentary photography. There may be no single book in photography that has had a more significant influence on how we look at photographs and how photographers look at subjects than The Americans.

That might sound like hyperbole, but it isn’t.

Frank’s seemingly casual approach to seeing was unlike almost everything that had gone before. Rejecting neat, formally composed scenes, Frank’s deceptively haphazard images instead focused on capturing the emotions of the moment.

Before Frank, photography was defined by careful compositions, including the stunningly subtle uses of light and shadow that characterized the work of Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and the f.64 Group, as well as the Decisive Moments of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Robert Frank’s casual, in-the-moment photographs laid a foundation that photographers would build on and take in nearly uncountable new directions well into the 21st century.

Many of Frank’s photos were taken surreptitiously in dimly lit jukebox joints, casinos and stores, along highways, at parades and political rallies, and on urban streets. The individuals who were photographed are often oblivious to the camera; others are acutely aware that he is taking their picture and are seldom happy about it. Regardless, all are only nominally the subjects of the pictures. Bit players in a much larger world.

The images, taken together, became a kind of group portrait of America in the late 1950s. It’s a portrait that still resonates today, even if the signs show jumbo hot dogs at 18 cents and Memorial Day decorations at 69 cents.

Frank was born in Zurich and emigrated to the United States in 1947. Most of the photographs were taken after he received a Guggenheim grant that enabled him to drive across his adopted homeland.

Seeing America through the eyes of an immigrant no doubt helped sensitize him to a society that those born here took for granted. The portrait can be bitingly critical at times and at the time of its publication it drew more than a little outrage.

Stylistically, Frank’s work might be seen as the beginning of the “snapshot aesthetic.” It is a personal journey reflecting what Frank chose to see and chose to say about what he saw. There are no portraits of famous Americans. There are no grand vistas of the American West. No shining skyscrapers towering over great cities.

The camera does not care who it photographs. It treats everyone with equal indifference. Frank understood that and used the sometimes brutal objectivity of the lens to level the players, whether he was photographing a movie premiere in Hollywood, a charity ball in New York, a political convention in Chicago or an elevator operator in Miami Beach.

The list of photographers whose visions are a direct outgrowth of what Frank saw is nearly limitless. The street photography of Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, the portraits of Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe, the profoundly different but both deeply personal chronicles of Nan Goldin and Emmet Gowin and the landscapes of Lewis Baltz and Stephen Shore are just a few examples of photographers whose work can be traced to what Frank saw and created.

Every serious photographer should own a copy of The Americans.

Robert Frank page on Amazon.