I feel a little intimidate in front of the idea to write some comments about this book, because of the great amount of information, essays and articles and even books that you can find on the Internet about this masterpiece of photography. I read some of them, and browsed through the Internet reading some blogs to have a better approach to the book. However what I’m going to write here are my feelings as a photography student with no further intention that leave evidence of my learning progress.
I bought this book as a Christmas present for myself which is great… I already knew some of the emblematic pictures of the book that you can easily find googling. But when I look through the book for the first time I can’t avoid to ask myself: why is this book so famous? Yes there are at least a dozen of photographs that are interesting, but most of them are blurred, not focused, bad exposed, grainy, etc. How is it possible that a photographer commissioned during an entire year could produce such a kind of work? So I decided to leave apart the book and tried to learn a little more about the author, the context and the meaning of this book.
The first article I read was from the photography blog Oscarenfotos.com written by Oscar Colorado. Here a find a brief introduction to the work that tells a little story about a photography student that visits the exhibition of “The Americans” with his teacher. Because the student got to the exhibition earlier that his teacher, his first reaction was similar to mine: He didn’t understand the pictures and had a similar feeling that I had. When the teacher arrives, he explains that precisely that reaction was the same that American editor had when they saw the Frank’s work.
The teacher explains to the student that Frank’s intention was to photograph the quite America, that was far away from the grandeur of the American Dream, and that didn’t live according to the pattern of the American Way of Life. That dream and that way of life weren’t for everybody. There was (is) another America that struggled to survive, that lived everyday life like, not like everyone everywhere, more sordid because they have to confront their ordinary realities against the gleaming fantasies of the American Dream.
The article is fantastic and goes further explaining some symbolism use by Frank along the book (the American flag, the jukeboxes, the counters,…). But before to get back to book I read Eric Kim amazing blog which has an article/essay that explains very in depth a lot of questions related with the book, including the background of Robert Frank, early years and education and influences, the genesis of the book, how a Frank applied for the scholarship, technical details, the editing and production process, the meeting with Kerouac, and even the criticisms to the book. The article summarises an existing book about Frank’s work titled: Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans: Expanded Edition
As all the posts of Eric Kim, it’s worth to read it, it has a lot of valuable information, very well organised and documented, and includes the take away points that offer practical information to you as a practitioner photographer.
With all these reading and context, I took again the book and look at it more careful, with a new different perspective. The first interesting idea that I’d like to point out is that the book work as a whole, each picture is like a small piece of a mosaic, and all together reveal the idea of America that Frank had.
I’d also like to mention that this isn’t a neither a documentary book nor a social photo essay, I think it expresses the personal vision and opinion of the author, intention that is confirmed by Frank himself in the application for the Guggenheim scholarship:
To photograph freely throughout the United States, using the miniature camera exclusively. The making of a broad, voluminous picture record of things American, past and present. This project is essentially the visual study of a civilization and will include caption notes; but it is only partly documentary in nature: one of its aims is more artistic than the word documentary implies.
Finally, I’d like to add that the book conveys a certain sense of fluidity and movement as the viewer goes on through the pages. The image of that quite America begins to resonate inside the viewer and you can feel a kind of depressing feeling that grows as you advance through the book. But I found a couple of pictures that interrupt the natural flow of the book movement (Luncheonette – Butte and Salt Lake City – Utah). I found them, let’s say, out of place, at least from my perspective as a viewer.
This is the first photography book I’ve commented for the course (not counting The Family of Man that it’s a kind of exhibition brochure) and I have to say that it was a pleasurable experience, and from a learning point of view it’s a good resource of information and knowledge. Reviewing other photographers’ work through Internet offers a partial view of their work because it’s not easy to find all the pictures together in a single place, so you have to go through multiple sites, and you can’t get a coherent and structured idea of their artistic production.