The Americans: The Photographic Perspective of Robert Frank

Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955
Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955

Walking through the galleries of photographs of America by Swiss-born Robert Frank, Lin looked at me and said “He doesn’t like America.” As an American, looking at the photos, I didn’t get the idea that Frank didn’t like America. I saw America, probably not the way he saw it, or the way anyone sees it, but America from my own, perhaps somewhat provincial, perspective.

Frank had reason not to like America. Traveling on a fellowship, he was arrested in Arkansas for no other discernable reason than being a foreigner. It also appears he thought of the U.S. as a lonely place, with a fast life and an overemphasis on money.

Frank came to the U.S. in 1943 and with a Guggenheim fellowship traveled around and took 28,000 shots, 83 of which were selected for his most notable book, The Americans. In 1957, Frank met Jack Kerouac and showed him the photographs from his travels, and Kerouac agreed to write about them.

The photo of a statue of Saint Francis looking over a gas station and car lot in Los Angeles; a grocery store display of cemetery wreaths with a sign that read “remember your loved ones, 69 cents.” Sure, I can read criticism or sarcasm into those photos, but while I’ve not traveled abroad, I hadn’t imagined I would be unable to find sarcasm, or things to be critical of elsewhere.

Journalists and photojournalists know it’s very difficult to remove yourself from a story or a composition. Objectivity is often an unobtainable goal, akin to the words “all men are created equal.” We know it’s not literally true, but by saying it we’re defining a place where we want to get to.

Through his photos of Detroit, San Francisco, Savannah, New York, and elsewhere, Frank doesn’t show us where we want to get to, as much as he shows us what’s preventing us from getting there. In doing so one can presume it as something that’s not ideal, a part of our own selves and a place as a nation where we shouldn’t be.

I walked through the galleries, and when finished, went back and gave my response to the statement. “I don’t think he hates America. It’s really hard to be this intimate with something you hate.” Frank became a naturalized citizen in 1963.

Here are a few of his own words on the photographs and what they mean:

I have been frequently accused of deliberately twisting subject matter to my point of view. Above all, I know that life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference. Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love. It is important to see what is invisible to others—perhaps the look of hope or the look of sadness. Also, it is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph.

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