In 1955, Robert Frank climbed into the driver’s seat of a Ford coupe and took off on a road trip with a couple 35-millimeter cameras and some boxes of film. Although his gear was modest—especially for a photographer who customarily published in Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue—his ambition was as big as the continental United States.
“The photographing of America” was Frank’s stated goal, as written on a grant application to the Guggenheim Foundation. The grant gave him the funding he needed to pursue it. Over the next several years, during which he shot some 27,000 frames in cities from Hoboken to Indianapolis to San Francisco, Frank surpassed all expectations, creating one of the most influential books in the history of photography.
With The Americans, Frank—who died on Monday at the age of 94—simultaneously redefined both the nation and his medium. He revealed a country that was deeply divided by class and race, visually contradicting the image of affluence and equality that most Americans wanted to see and show off. (Little has changed in six decades.) He achieved this feat with disarming frankness, an aesthetic informality new to photojournalism. With off-kilter framing and inconsistent exposure, he effectively communicated that the scenes were personally witnessed by a spontaneous observer.
It helped that he was traveling light. With minimal equipment, he could move quickly and unobtrusively. He could be places and see things that might not have been accessible with a more professional camera. It may also have helped that he was a stranger, a Swiss who emigrated to New York at the age of 23, and who had spent time documenting places ranging from Wales to Peru. The spontaneity suggested by his photography was not entirely legit—he spent time getting to know each city in order to recognize what was most characteristic—but at least he didn’t have to overcome the blindness of familiarity. He had experience documenting the exotic, a capacity to be astonished, and retained the ability to see American commonplaces in that light.
Although Frank was embraced by fellow travelers such as Jack Kerouac (who wrote the preface to the first edition of The Americans in 1959), his novel view of America and approach to photography were initially vilified by the mainstream. For instance, Popular Photography complained of the “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons, and general sloppiness” of “a joyless man who hates the country of his adoption.” Opinion changed with the zeitgeist. By the mid-60s, he was deemed a pioneer of street photography, and by the late ’70s he was lionized as an outsider who exposed his adopted country with the perceptiveness of Alexis de Tocqueville. Along the way, he influenced major artists including Garry Winogrand and Ed Ruscha.
On the surface, it appears that the artist he influenced least was himself. Following publication of The Americans, Frank devoted much of his career to film (starting with the Beat classic Pull My Daisy), and to photography that looked inward instead of documenting whole nations. Yet the later work also reveals aspects of The Americans that might otherwise get overlooked, but that are as central to its impact as the obvious rawness.
Comprising 83 of the 27,000 images, The Americans was conceived as a sequence instead of a compilation. The photographs were effectively frames in a film, the arc of which was Frank’s own discovery of his adopted country. Making the book, he became an American, and provided a way for every American to become an outsider like him.