NEW YORK – Acclaimed as one of the most important and influential photographic books of the 20th century, Robert Frank’s The Americans resulted from his project to photograph the United States with the support of two successive Guggenheim Fellowships in 1955 and 1956. First published in 1958 in Paris by Robert Delpire as Les Américains, it was subsequently issued in America by Grove Press in January 1960 with a foreword by Jack Kerouac. More than simply a collection of 83 black-and-white photographs, the book is a synthesis of formal innovations with a shift in attitude that, taken together, form a coherent and powerful statement.

The Americans combines an innovative approach to technique and subject matter in both the individual pictures and in their combination in book form. Frank exploited the unique characteristics of 35-millimeter black-and-white photography such as blur, tilt, and graininess in a new and expressive way. He allied the documentary style with a personal viewpoint. The Americans introduced new subject matter to fine art photography: mundane things and places never deemed worthy of consideration. He created new symbols and reinvigorated old ones through his depictions of the quotidian. The meaning of these symbols, such as the American flag, shifts significantly throughout the book, through repetition and Frank’s deft sequencing.

ROBERT FRANK, 'JAY, N. Y.' (FOURTH OF JULY). ESTIMATE: $100,000–150,000.

Unlike so many photography books of the 1950s, The Americans does not rely upon a simplistic chronological or geographical arrangement, or on sets of paired facing images. Frank’s approach to sequencing is based on the sophisticated scheme employed by Walker Evans in the first section of his 1938 book, American Photographs. The basic format is straightforward and classical, recalling the earliest photographic books in which prints were bound into an album with the blank left-hand page being the mount of the preceding print. Evans’s innovation, that Frank extended, was to convey meaning solely with images, without words, narrative, or explanatory captions. The photographer’s message is conveyed entirely through the juxtaposition of subjects and forms within the frame and through connections between pictures within the book. This method depends on the viewer’s memory of pictures seen earlier in the sequence. Each picture must be scrutinized individually, but, while turning the pages, the images retained in the mind create a resonance with those on the page at-hand. The frequent repetition of certain motifs functions like a refrain in music. Frank’s masterful handling of sequencing to imply movement and create new meanings makes his turn to filmmaking, following the publication of The Americans, a logical progression.


Executed with both irony and compassion, The Americans is an incisive critique of American society. Frank revealed a nation that was racially divided and spiritually bankrupt. Highly criticized by the American photographic press at the time of its release, it was soon taken up by young photographers as something of a cult book. Through the 1960s it attained a kind of legendary status that only continues to grow. First republished in 1968, the most recent of five subsequent editions of The Americans appeared in 2008.

Lead Image: Robert Frank, 'Motorama, Los Angeles.' Estimate: $70,000–100,000.

Robert Frank: The Americans The Ruth and Jake Bloom Collection

17 December 2015 | New York