NEW YORK – The Americans is an overwhelming work of art. Seemingly shot from the hip and almost casually, its 83 iconic black-and-white images completely revolutionised the art of photography with their revelatory power and technical prowess. Absolutely brimming with information, emotion and grace, they are as compelling today as they were in 1959, when they were first published as a book. In advance of its 17 December sale of 77 of these images, which Californian collectors Ruth and Jake Bloom collected as photographic prints over more than two decades, Sotheby’s Photographs department head Christopher Mahoney will be discussing the seminal series with independent photography historian Stuart Alexander, an expert on The Americans; collectors Ruth and Jacob Bloom; and photographer Ralph Gibson. As a young photographer in search of a visual voice, Gibson assisted Frank on two of his films in the 1960s. Following are some of Gibson’s thoughts about Frank’s influence on photography and on himself.
GIBSON GETTING A HAIRCUT IN OAXACA. PHOTOGRAPHED BY ROBERT FRANK WITH GIBSON'S OWN LEICA. 1968
Christine Schwartz Hartley: When did you first discover The Americans?
Ralph Gibson: Oh, it was in 1960, when I was in art school–I couldn’t believe it. I never knew that a photograph could have so much content. That it could be so existential, so exacting. You see, Robert was a social critic in the great tradition of [Honoré] Daumier and people like that. You have to understand America in the ’50s and what McCarthyism was really like: The truth is that it was very harsh, unjust and self-righteous, and that it took considerable effort to dislodge [that posturing]. When [The Americans] came out, nobody dared take pictures like that, and so his courage as a social critic at such a time was very real. Robert went places that nobody would even think of going and would have dared to go had they thought of it.
Why did Frank become such an icon of American photography?
There are a lot of reasons why Robert ascended to such importance as a photographer from 1970 onward. It’d be too long to explain here, but it’s not a mistake: He is a great American treasure, and as an artist, he’s made a huge contribution to the history of the medium. I mean, there’s photography before and photography after Robert Frank. Prior to that time it was all centered around, essentially, Cartier-Bresson, Man Ray and an earlier generation with Stieglitz and people like that.
With The Americans, Frank said things about America that nobody dared say before. But how did he “speak,” as you put it?
When he was making The Americans, there was a stronger relationship between the nature of the photographic frame and the nature of the cinema frame. Robert made much more reference to cinema because it’s narrative. And he did have a message; he was trying to convey something–his anger against America. People didn’t like it. You have to remember the media of the time: Pop Photo, etcetera–he was maligned. They found him anti-American; they called him Commie; they called him all kinds of stuff. Fortunately, he had the enthusiasm of Steichen and MoMA, things like that, and Walked Evans, which is well known.
Other than his choice of subjects, how did he accomplish that?
I’ll give you this much, and I will discuss it on the panel, when I have more time: In order to make the pictures that he made for The Americans, Robert had to invent a lot of camera-handling moves with the Leica that were previously not in the lexicon of how the camera was handled. I’m not going to just throw these out now, but I will discuss them on the panel because I’ve given this a great deal of thought.
Do you have a favourite picture from The Americans?
I think the one picture that I love very much is “Butte, Montana,” the view out the window. The reason I like it is because it tends to suggest a cinematic narrative.
ROBERT FRANK, 'BUTTE, MONTANA' (VIEW FROM HOTEL WINDOW). ESTIMATE: $70,000–100,000.
When did you meet Robert Frank and how did you end up working for him?
First of all, when I was a student in San Francisco, I met him very briefly when he came in 1960 to give a talk at the museum. I said, “I’d like to show you my work,” and he said, “Well, if you’re ever in New York, come see me.” Then in 1967 I moved to New York, and I ran into him at Max’s Kansas City. And so I reminded him [of the 1960 encounter], and he said, “Well, come see me tomorrow and bring your work.”
So I went up to his apartment on 86th Street, and I showed him my stuff, and he said, “Well, now I’m working in movies. I’m not doing still [photography], but if you like you can help me because I have a project.”
How did The Americans and Robert Frank influence your own work?
As a young student, like everybody else, I had imitated his work when I was 21. Ultimately, all I wanted to do was make photographs that had a similar amount of content [to The Americans]. If you look at my work from the early ’60s, it’s very much in that genre. It took me a few years to discover that that was not where my voice was going to be found–my visual voice was not going to be as a street shooter.
Did your working with Frank help you come to that realisation?
You know, it’s very funny. I came to New York and I was in the Magnum office. I had wanted to be accepted there, and I was–and it was quite an honour. But the fact was that after I started working with Robert, I realised that I had no real interest in being a commercial photographer. I’ll tell you a story, but you better get it right: I was in love with a very beautiful girl, and she was very ambitious and very bourgeois, and I didn’t have any money. I was living at the Chelsea Hotel, I owed nine months’ rent about that time–you know, I was really, really searching. I was 27, 28… And so I was riding in [Robert’s] car with him up Park Avenue, I remember, and I was telling him about this girl, and he said, “Well, you know, you could be a commercial photographer and get successful very quickly, or you could be an artist.” And then he said, “You only have one choice.” You see, that’s the kind of encouragement he gave me.