I n the six decades since its publication, Robert Frank’s The Americans has become one of the most influential and enduring works of American photography. Made over a period of three years, and guided by an uncompromising vision, Frank’s singular take on the United States is imbued with layers of social commentary that never give way to easy meaning. Structured as a cross-country documentation of everyday American citizens, the project slices through the country’s national iconography to present its stark reality.
In 1954 Frank successfully applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship to fund the project. Walker Evans – whose own work of social realism chronicling the Great Depression, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, made with James Agee, was an influence on Frank – wrote a letter of recommendation in which he called Frank “the most gifted of the younger photographers today.” Grant in hand, Frank set out to see the country for the first time, channeling his perspective as a Swiss-Jewish immigrant looking in from the outside. He relentlessly photographed his exhaustive travels – from New York to Detroit, Salt Lake City to Butte, Montana, and New Orleans to Houston – which, in his own words, almost brought him to his knees. While traveling through Arkansas, due to his shabby dress and foreign accent, Frank was arrested and questioned for hours before being released. The dehumanizing experience affirmed his commitment to representing individuals marginalized by their own country.
Made on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, Frank’s photographs candidly present racial inequality in the United States. These images are so iconic today that their radical influence is sometimes forgotten. One of the most famous photographs, Trolley—New Orleans (1955), shows four white passengers seated in the first three rows – a man looking outwards, an older woman staring with a look of contempt and two young children in the third window with quizzical yet oddly guarded expressions. In the back, a Black man also stares out, his body exuding a curious and relaxed demeanor, while a Black, bespectacled woman is seated behind him. The shot is formally gorgeous in its still, gridded composition but also decisive in its confrontation of segregation.
“He brought his incisive outsider’s vision to America, penetrating the placid social veneer to get at the messy and uneasy underbelly of the country’s relationship with itself.”
Coincidentally, Frank took Trolley—New Orleans just a few weeks before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in her act of civil disobedience. According to the contemporary photographer Dawoud Bey, whose work also deals with the history of racism in the United States, Frank “brought his incisive outsider’s vision to America, penetrating the placid social veneer to get at the messy and uneasy underbelly of the country’s relationship with itself.” Diane Arbus said he captured the “hollowness” of the American Dream.
Perhaps most poignantly, The Americans records this gap between myth and reality by critiquing and subverting the nation’s distinct iconography: flags, jukeboxes, cars, factories, parks and crowded urban spaces all permeate his images, mesmerizing in ways that are simultaneously different yet strikingly similar.
In 1956, Frank began going through the 767 rolls of film and 27,000 frames he’d accumulated. The rigorous distillation, editing, cropping and extra capturing of photographs resulted in a sequence of 83 images first published in France in 1958 and then in 1959 by Grove Press in the United States. This first American edition featured an introduction by Jack Kerouac, the Beat poet and author who’d just published his own ode to American disenchantment, On the Road.
While Frank’s work initially received a lukewarm reception, the book gained traction after 1968, becoming a bible for artists such as Gary Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Danny Lyons and Joel Meyerowitz. Photographers Larry Clark and Nan Goldin have cited Frank’s work as influential to their depictions of social outcasts in the 1980s. Today, the prints are regularly exhibited and widely collected by prominent museums worldwide, and are some of the most highly sought-after photographs to come to auction. Even with this institutional pedigree, The Americans still resonates through a combination of its nearly acerbic atmosphere and the deep humanity that Robert Frank instilled into his celluloid.