‘A wart-covered picture of America by a joyless man’, wrote the photographer and critic Minor White. ‘A sad poem by a very sick person’, snorted Popular Photography.
The object of their scorn was The Americans, a collection of images of American life by the photographer Robert Frank, who died last week, aged 94.
It is difficult today to recognize how revolutionary was Frank’s work when it was first published 60 years ago. His style, his mode of observation, his subject matter have all become so ingrained in contemporary photography that one can gauge its impact only by the derision that rained down upon it from mainstream critics.
Frank’s images broke most of the conventions of photography. They were not artfully framed or carefully balanced. They comprised ‘meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness’ in the dismissive words of Popular Photography.
No American publisher would touch the book at first. It was originally published in 1958 as Les Américains by the Parisian publisher Robert Delpire, in an edition garlanded by commentary from an extraordinary collection of writers – Simone de Beauvoir, William Faulkner, Henry Miller, John Steinbeck. The following year it was finally published in the USA, with an introduction by Jack Kerouac. ‘With one hand’, Kerouac observed of Frank, ‘he sucked a sad poem right out of America on to film’.
The book was the product of a two-year road trip across the nation. Breaking photographic conventions allowed Frank to expose a different America. He shot in gas stations and diners, he photographed cowboys and factory workers, he captured transvestites and newlyweds. There are photographs with smiles; but mostly it is a portrait of the melancholy and loneliness, of the tension and alienation, of the racial violence and class distinction, of the consumer obsession and human frailties, beneath the gloss and self-satisfaction of postwar America. ‘It was an America we refused to look at’, observed fellow photographer Bruce Davidson. They are images that seem as meaningful today as they were 60 years ago.
(A slightly shorter version of this will be published in the Observer, 15 September 2019)
Photographs © Robert Frank