'What a poem this is... the gray film that caught the actual pink juice of human kind.' Jack Kerouac,
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This review is from: Robert Frank: The Americans (Hardcover)
Note: I posted this review appended to the attractively formatted Scalo hardback edition I have, but it'll probably appear connected with other editions as well, as is Amazon's way.
If you come to this book, as did I, via an interest in 'Beat' America - the book has an enjoyable foreword by none other than Jack Kerouac, from which I get my banner quote - I might perhaps urge a little caution: the Beat-era vibe of what Ginsberg memorably called 'snapshot poetics' is something Frank is lauded and celebrated for, but, as most Beat authors conceded, either tacitly or directly, there were aesthetic filters through which experience and observation would need to pass before being alchemically transformed into arresting and worthwhile art. That this is to be seen as a kind of Beat photography's made clear by Kerouac, in his introduction, where he also says: 'the faces don't editorialize or criticize or say anything but "this is the way we are"'
I feel I have to confess that I was somewhat disappointed by both this book and Ginsberg's Snapshot Poetics when I first got them, both of which I bought from Amazon around the same time (some years ago now). Looking at them again I think I marginally prefer the latter, which seems to live up to its own descriptive title a little more. For one thing, there's a kind of rampant, generous fecundity to much of the writing of the Beats, and both the books mentioned, Frank's Americans and Ginsberg's Poetics, seem ever so slightly miserly in terms of amount of content (there are 85 black and white photographs in The Americans), suggestive of a slightly precious 'art book' vibe at odds with the rich generosity so evident in Beat writing.
Ginsberg's pictures, as much as they are quite humble and even in some ways banal, are elevated above the everyday by being, largely, a pictorial documentary of emergent artists in their milieu. Frank's book is by contrast filled with the everyday grist to the mill of writers like Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, et al. For me, whilst there undoubtedly some great pictures here, a fair chunk of the images here seem to have slipped through the aesthetic sifting that a philosophy such as the famous Beat dictum of 'first thought best thought' disingenuously obscures: despite claims to immediacy much of the best of Beat produced or influenced culture is more often than not highly wrought, even stylised, much like the apparently free-flow of jazz improv, a point ably made by David Sterritt in his recent Beat-themed instalment of the Oxford Very Short Introduction series.
There are plenty of photographers who successfully pull off what I think Frank was going for, and what he occasionally succeeds in capturing. Perhaps he really is more akin to the Beats due to the hit and miss nature of the less mediated working methods they share? These others I'm thinking of range from the reportage of Weegee and Capa to the more recent and self-consciously stylised work of people like Bruce Weber and Anton Corbijn. Having just read Sterritt's slim synopsis of Beat culture I'm looking at The Americans again, and I have to say that in returning to I do find it somewhat better than I initially remembered it as being. There are some terrific pictures, like the wiry cowboy in NY ('Rodeo, New York'), the deserted New Mexico filling station where four pumps stand like tombstones beneath a sign saying 'Save' (which seems to take on an almost religious meaning in that bleak, arid context), and the iconic white lines of the highway ('US 185, New Mexico').
One thing I noted when I went through noting my favourite photos is that by and large I like the more abstract and composed pictures, in which the figures are either partially obscured (as in 'Rooming House, Bunker Hill, LA'), small parts of the whole image (such as the ragged baby dwarfed by a giant shiny jukebox in 'Cafe, Beaufort, South Carolina'), or only suggested by an object (as in 'Covered car, Long Beach, California'). Perhaps this says more about me than the book? Maybe I'm more attracted to slightly abstract ideas of America than the messy everyday banality of ordinary lives? Certainly Frank captures this latter aspect of American life in The Americans, but I have to say that, as good as it can also be, this side of his work doesn't appeal to me as consistently. Having said that, some of the crowd scenes - people snapped passing on a bus, a busy cafeteria, a factory of toiling workers, a convention of besuited conformity - capture a feeling of the teeming multitude that is intriguing, and there are also some more intimate (if strangely alienated) pictures of individuals or small groups that seem quite poignant.
'Anybody doesn't like these pitchers don't like potry, see?' So sayeth Kerouac near the close of his intro. I'm glad I went back to look at this book again after reading Sterritt's book, because I did see more depth and poetry in it this time. Before doing so I would've given it, based on my memories of it, just three stars. Perhaps to really 'dig it' one needs to have some personal connection with those particulars of 'The Americans' that he captures? If that's so, I find it odd that writers like Kerouac and his fellow Beats were so easily able to make someone like me - an Englishman born long after and far away from the heyday of the Beat era, i.e. 40's-50's America - feel so connected to their experience. I have to say that this book, even though I liked it better returning to it now, doesn't have the same powerful effect on me as does some of the Beat writing it was contemporary with.
So, whilst there's some five star work here, overall it's a bit inconsistent. The Kerouac intro moves me towards five stars, but the mixed quality of the work itself, and the fact that the image captions are all kept separate at the back leave me feeling it's a four star deal for me.