on 10 October 1998
In 1955, Swiss photographer Robert Frank traveled around the United States on a Guggenheim Fellowship. The images he created were published first in France in 1958, and then the following year in America. Highly controversial in its day, "The Americans" gave us a much needed outsiders view of who we are as a people.
Frank is an incredibly skilled image maker, able communicate on many different levels with a single image. Jack Kerouac is the perfect person to write the intro to this book. Both artists worked in a similar way, using travel, speed and chance to communicate fleeting, yet deep, feelings about our complex culture.
Perfectly enjoyable by anyone with an interest in American culture, but essential for those practicing documentary photography.
on 3 July 1998
when I first got this book, it was one of the five books I had to get for a history of photography class. At first, I thought it was just another photo book with images that were not very spectacular to look at. Then my eyes were opened by my teacher. In the midst of these photographs of all different kinds of people doing what we call ordinary events, lied the human spirit.America as it was , when frank set out for his journey.In the most subtle way, he is able to tell us great stories of the conflicts, and the happenings of a country that was about to go through some major changes. It is a highly recommended book, and it is very rewarding, even for the photographer at heart.
on 8 February 2012
In 2010 I went to see a talk by Germain Greer at Nottingham Contemporary about the Photographer Diane Arbus where instead of praising that photographer for the humanity in her images she compared them with photographers who came before her who she said had much more humanity in their pictures, one of the photographers was Robert Frank.
I love this book so much because it attempts to distill a country as geographically and culturally huge as the USA into 83 images taken from the 28,000 that Frank took while shooting for the book. And what you get is a rough, always shifting, picture of a disparate society made up of highly emotive slices of the most real people's lives from every strata.
Every single person that you see raises questions about their story, what was the reality of their lives and what became of them because, while Frank is clearly a technically proficient photographer, showing that and showing himself and setting a signature are distant priorities to showing these people's lives and the towns and cities that they live in. He's not afraid to include images that are blurred or limited by conditions if that tells the most emotive story.
The book does have narratives and sets images in order to reflect themes but most importantly you get a sense of a country already bafflingly complicated in it's diversity, an exercise that would be even more unmanageable but equally as revealing to take on today. The reaction at the time was that the book was unflatering, especially when produced by a foreigner but Frank isn't damning America, he may be exploring different beauties to the ones that are explored in other media but he is telling us a lot about people and their lives in the mid twentieth century, things that are in common with our experiences today.
In terms of editions, my advice is to read a borrowed copy of the book, then buy Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans Make sure you get the hardback edition as the paper-back is abridged. Used, this book can be cheaper than 'The Americans' on it's own but either way it is a mind-blowing expansion of the project, countless documents (Kerouac's written introduction) plus not only the highly revealing contact sheets for most of the images used, showing the adjacent images not chosen, but thumbnails of each image showing how each has been cropped for publication to each edition. This book is enormous in physical size and scope and while it contains beautifully printed rendiditons of all of 'The Americans' images, I would suggest having a separate copy (You can pick up a nicely printed Chinese edition for a lot less than the English Language equivalent Robert Frank: The Americans : Chinese Edition)but you really need a side-by-side reference to not keep flipping back in a large book.
In terms of appreciation, The Americans is something I keep picking up and spending an hour or more with at a time thinking about the people in the images. In terms of photography it tells you to think less about what your image will look like and more about what will be IN your image.
What a great idea, re-release an out of print book which in its original form costs hundreds of pounds and make it assessable to the multitudes.
I love the images in this book and I am so pleased it has been republished at a reasonable price. This ranks up there with books by Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Bailey and Ansel Adams, each of whom have or had their own style but this book and its images stand out and proven how good Robert Frank was as a photographer.
When this was first published there was uproar in that The Americans showed Americans how they were in society and it caused anger in some areas. this wasn't a sugar coating of Americans but the real thing. Even, Walker Evans said that this book and Franks images had "a bracing, almost stinging manner" . If you get this book you will identify with that description. The only photographer of social photography who gets close in the States is William Klein, who too shot his images close up and very personal.
If you want to see great timeless images, or to start collecting iconic photographic volumes then this is a great place to start.
on 20 December 2010
These are black and white photographs in the raw, there is very little finesse about them. Technically they are crude. I think you have to be careful not to get carried away by the sort of hero worship that goes with this book and make up your own mind on the photos. I like them, As to the book, it is beautifully produced and well worth the money.
If you like it could i suggest that you also get 'Looking in' published by Steidl, a huge 500 page book that gives you the back ground to 'The Americans' and Robert Frank's life. Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans, again an absolutely beautifully produced book.
The Americans was not well received largely because of the style of photography and I suspect because American society did not want to see themselves as his pictures showed them (in parts) to be.
Out of publication for some time this book is a real beauty if you like that sort of photography, if you like the perfect quality of an Ansel Adams photograph you will find that this is at the other end of the scale.
I think that any one who likes books on photography or who was in or liked the beat generation times of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burrough's will be far the poorer for not having it on their book shelf.
These photographs are an honest, untainted view of America through the eyes of a foreigner. The greatest accomplishment of Frank is not that he has gone to a country and poked gentle fun at the culture or ridiucled ways he doesn't understand. He has captured photographs showing the true America of the time, segragation, poverty, narrative, intrigue. It's all there.
I was first guided to this book by a Screencraft book about cinematography where one of the interviewed cinematographers cited The Americans as a major influence, when on set he lets the book fall open and allows the image to wash over and inspire him.
True enough, so many classic images, the hungover guy at the jukebox. burnt out highlights streaming through the bar door. Your eye keeps going back to the door, expecting it to open. The black nanny with the pale white baby, the middle aged guy in the restaurant/bar, flanked by two huge cohorts. He is barely visible between their distorted, bulky torsos.
I can't believe this book is no longer in print either, what's that all about. If you see a copy, grab it and hold on. It is absoulutely essential for the keen amateur or pro photographer.
on 19 December 2009
Im a lover of photography, not a practitioner. My needs therefore are very much to be moved, to feel and to believe that what I am seeing is honest and representative. On all these counts Frank scores a 10. I have travelled extensively in the US and have always wanted to feel the normal existence and taste American life. In these photographs Frank captures just that. In truth this is plain and simple lovely art.
on 16 March 2014
If you don't own the original edition, which is of course unobtainable nowadays at reasonable prices, then get this one. It's a beautiful reissue and a must have if you are even the slightest bit interested in photography. The book is a bit smaller than I expected, but it is very nicely done with high quality paper and printing.
on 16 June 2008
...but only now is it affordable again.
I've probably seen every photograph in this book a number of times over the years. That fact in no way lessens its impact.
Fortunately re-published while Frank is still around to give it his blessing, this new Steidl edition shows the pictures pretty much in their original context, even Jack Kerouac's intro is there in full. Although I've never handled an original 1950s edition, I would imagine that the printing quality then could not have matched this, if indeed it even managed to approach it. It's not the finest you can achieve - at this price how could it be - but it's certainly fine enough.
I've seen some of the photographs on gallery walls and they really don't have the same impact as they do on the printed page. It's the narrative, the sequencing, that draws you into Frank's vision of mid-twentieth century America. That said, there's barely an image here that does not stand on its own as a iconic reference to the style of photography that he initiated.
For me, this book is on a par with Bill Brandt's 'Shadow of Light', or Tony Ray-Jones' 'A Day Off', as a collection that I can return to again and again and still derive an enormous amount of visual and mental stimulation.
As you probably know, this is one of the most influential books on the history of art and photography.it is also an historic and social statement that gave a push to American and world sensibility. All that can seem a bit forbidding and official, but the reason why it had this effect is because they are great photographs, brilliantly incisive slices of life capturing the DNA of America at the time.
Frank was Swiss (i.e. not an American) and his photographs broke the rules -- they often had slabs of out of focus, they were not aligned to the horizontal and vertical and they focused on aspects of life that were not necessarily pretty and sanitised. At first most Americans were turned off by this Outsider view, but he was catching the zeitgeist; after all the forward is by that revolutionary beatnik, forerunner of Dylan, the Beatles and Obama, Jack Kerouac.
So in due course his work became a touchstone and inspiration and remains so for many. Check out his work in contrast with Cartier Bresson, equally brilliant and much more composed and proper. they are the Dionysus and Apollo of documentary photography.