The Americans / Edition 1

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Overview

First published in France in 1958, then in the United States in 1959, Robert Frank's The Americans changed the course of twentieth-century photography. In 83 photographs, Frank looked beneath the surface of American life to reveal a people plagued by racism, ill-served by their politicians and rendered numb by a rapidly expanding culture of consumption. Yet he also found novel areas of beauty in simple, overlooked corners of American life. And it was not just Frank's subject matter--cars, jukeboxes and even the road itself-that redefined the icons of America; it was also his seemingly intuitive, immediate, off-kilter style, as well as his method of brilliantly linking his photographs together thematically, conceptually, formally and linguistically, that made The Americans so innovative. More of an ode or a poem than a literal document, the book is as powerful and provocative today as it was 56 years ago.

First published in 1958, Frank's most famous and influential photography book contained a series of deceptively simple photos that he took on a trip through America in 1955 and 1956. Several generations later, these pictures of everyday people still speak to us today.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this 50th anniversary reissue, celebrated photographer Frank maintains the format (left page: brief caption, right page: photo) and introduction (Jack Kerouac: "with the agility, mystery, genius, sadness and strange secrecy of a shadow Frank photographed scenes that have never been seen before on film"), the images themselves have been re-scanned, re-cropped by Frank and, in two cases, changed. Frank's images, taken all across the country, leave the viewer with a solemn impression of American life. From funerals to drug store cafeterias to parks, Frank recorded every shade of everyday life he encountered: the lower and upper classes, the living and dead, the hopeful and destitute, all the while experimenting with angle, focus and grain to increase impact. Preceding an exhibition that will tour U.S. galleries in 2009, this volume will no doubt introduce new generations to Frank's inimitable record of daily life fifty years ago. Kerouac says, fittingly, that "after seeing these pictures you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin"; those who don't comprehend Kerouac's comment have yet to experience this classic collection. 83 tri-tone plates.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The Barnes & Noble Review
In 1955, a 31-year-old Swiss émigré photographer named Robert Frank loaded his wife and two children into a rattletrap automobile and set out to discover America. Financed by a Guggenheim fellowship, over two years Frank took more than 28,000 shots, which he gradually winnowed to the 83 images he arranged in The Americans, his groundbreaking book of photographs.

"Robert Frank established a new iconography for contemporary America," said John Szarkowski, the influential curator at the Museum of Modern Art; "bits of bus depots, lunch counters, strip developments, empty spaces, cars, and unknowable faces." In his attempt to replicate Walker Evans's celebrated documentation of the Great Depression, Frank abandoned the sharp focus, even framing, and careful lighting characteristic of postwar photography, a style Frank had mastered in his work for clients such as Vogue, Fortune, Life, and Harper's Bazaar.

For his haunting representations of empty highways, desolate houses, and alienated individuals, Frank created a moody chiaroscuro: shadowed lighting, unusual angles, abrupt cropping, grainy texture, and deliberately blurred focus. The combination of subject and style seems a visual summary of the decade: The Lonely Crowd meets On the Road. (Indeed, Jack Kerouac wrote the introduction to the book.)

So revolutionary was The Americans that Frank had to publish the book in France; the first American edition appeared a year later, in 1959. The photography establishment, perhaps unsurprisingly, condemned it: Popular Photography, for example, disparaged Frank's work as "meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness"; sales amounted to only 600 the first year. However, for a young generation of photographers, The Americans was a revelation. Frank's style of personal documentary, his "irony and detachment," as Walker Evans put it, is evident in the work of Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, Danny Lyon, Bruce Davidson, and Nan Goldin, among others. Frank himself received his first individual show in 1961, at the Art Institute of Chicago and first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art the next year. "You can photograph anything now," Frank declared; as John Szarkowski commented, his "iconography has become a common coin," discernible in fashion advertisements, films, and rock music -- perhaps Frank's most widely seen work is the cover for the Rolling Stones' album Exile on Main Street.

Appearing at the close of the 1950s, The Americans has commonly been interpreted as a covert political judgment of the United States (random examples: "The Americans represented a significant challenge to America's image of itself"; the book is "a critique of America"). Fifty years on, it may -- at last -- be possible to appreciate Frank's achievement for its artistry, especially in Steidl's beautiful new edition, which uses modern reproduction techniques and which enjoyed Frank's close collaboration: he recropped some images and changed two of them from the original edition. And now that the aesthetic of The Americans is what most of us think of as the look of art photography, we no longer are disconcerted (or exhilarated) by the shock of the new. Rather, it is possible to confront, and to be confounded by, the sheer force of Frank's vision.

A driven, uncompromising artist (shortly after finishing The Americans, he abandoned photography and devoted himself to filmmaking; his 30 movies include Pull My Daisy and a documentary about the Rolling Stones), Frank invests the subjects of his photographs with a psychic unease difficult to describe and impossible to evade. He depicts the ordinary -- a political rally, a funeral, a college graduation, a cafeteria -- yet imbues each with an uncanny malaise, the banality of the uncanny. His vision contrasts tellingly with that of a photographer who might seem a kindred spirit, Diane Arbus. However, Arbus's choice of the outré -- the nudists, the freaks, the eccentrics -- betrays her self-conscious self-satisfaction: what an arty outcast am I! Frank's isolation is far more profound; his estrangement from the mundane is not a matter of choice but almost a psychic penance. And his craft is cunningly concealed. His snapshot aesthetic may appear casual, the images seemingly taken on the fly, but their composition serves to anchor as well as capture a fleeting moment, which, now recorded, becomes emblematic. (This technique of imposing artistic discipline on random contingencies recalls the work of another émigré master artist of the'50s: Alfred Hitchcock, cinema's premier expositor of psychological subversion.)

Frank rigorously organized the sequence of photographs in The Americans. Each "chapter" begins with an image of the flag: obscuring the windows of a tenement, hanging on the wall of a Navy recruiting office, at a Fourth of July picnic, adorning a tavern between paintings of Washington and Lincoln. What follows may be a platform orator, a blunt depiction of racial segregation on a southern bus, a rodeo cowboy, a Yom Kippur service, a television studio, a sharecropper's cabin. What story do these pictures tell? Who can say? Meaning seems to be just beyond comprehension, frustratingly present but tantalizingly out of reach. "I do not anticipate that the onlooker will share my viewpoint," Frank wrote in 1958. "I feel that if my photograph leaves an image on his mind -- something has been accomplished." What is left by The Americans is an uncertain discomfiture, the quiet anxiety that one has beheld more than one has absorbed, let alone understood. And yet, one also feels that one knows more than one can express. The vision of Robert Frank is relentless but not dispassionate, penetrating but not cruel, witty but not cynical. Most of all, it is distinct, unitary, mastered by a determined exercise of artistic control. To view The Americans is to surrender to the exemplary power of artistic accomplishment. --Michael Anderson

Michael Anderson, a former editor at The New York Times Book Review, is writing a biography of the playwright Lorraine Hansberry.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9783865215840
  • Publisher: Steidl, Gerhard Druckerei und Verlag
  • Publication date: 11/21/2008
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 180
  • Sales rank: 49,748
  • Product dimensions: 8.50 (w) x 7.42 (h) x 1.05 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Frank was born in Zurich in 1924 to parents of Jewish descent. He immigrated to the United States two years after World War II ended, and since then he has produced work that changed the history of art and photography. Groundbreaking projects include The Americans, Lines of My Hand, Black White and Things, Pull My Daisy and Cocksucker Blues. Frank was the subject of a major retrospective organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in 1994. He was the recipient of the Hasselblad Award in 1996. A major exhibition organized by The National Gallery of Art, Looking In: Robert Frank's "The Americans," will tour nationally in 2009, with stops in Washington, San Francisco and New York.
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 8, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Buy This Book!

    This is the 50th anniversary of the publication in America of The Americans. At the time, the pictures were criticized as unflattering. Ten years later, they were recognized as exceptional. Words are inadequate. Buy this book! (And if close to DC, San Francisco or NY City, please make it to the exhibition. Yes, a museum show had been prepared to commemorate the anniversary.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 19, 2014

    If you're a serious photogapher, "The Americans" MUST be in your library

    When Robert Frank's "The Americans" was published in the late 1950s, it signaled a sea change in photography. Until that time, the vast majority of photography was driven by extreme attention to formal composition and technical expertise. Frank, as he criss-crossed the U.S. capturing the images that became "The Americans," worked in a much looser style compositionally. From a technical standpoint, many of the images were taken in situations (e.g. very low light) that tested the limits of the cameras and black-and-white films of the day. I sense that in these instances all Frank could do was pray he had captured "something" on film. Fortunately, in many cases he did, but I'm sure he lost at least some great images to the vagaries of the era's photo technology.

    "The Americans" set the American viewing public on its head when it was published in the U.S. in 1959 (it was first published in 1958 in France). Frank presented, for essentially the first time, an unvarnished portrait of Americans and their lives. Up until that time, most of American photography presented a romantic view of the U.S. True, the Farm Security Administration images of the 1930s and '40s included many showing hardship and poverty, and as great as these images are, the harshness at times is offset by the photographs' formality. As a Swiss citizen traveling the U.S. Frank was discovering the country through fresh eyes and was unaffected by any notion of American romanticism. His iconic images, now more than 50 years old, have significantly influenced an entire generation of photographers and American culture at large.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 29, 2003

    The most amazing photo-documentry EVER!!!

    Well, maybe not EVER, but it is amazing. Raw, dirty, kick-ace images with more depth than I can handle. Every photographer should at least look through the book, but it is probably better to own it. Whether you like his perspective or not... his work is powerful. It has influenced my photography more than I would like to admit.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2002

    A must!

    Before you buy a camera, you should buy this book. With this publication,Robert Frank, reinvented photography.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 8, 2001

    Essential for any photography library

    Anyone interested in what it means to be an American should be familiar with this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2000

    A Classic!

    One of the most important photography series ever.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 11, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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