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Two Thousand Odd Words on Robert Frank’s “The Americans”

Thanks to Steidl & Distributed Art Publishers for facilitating this review of the 50th Anniversary of Robert Frank’s “The Americans”, a new and definitive edition to be released May 15th, 2008.

If Robert Frank’s “The Americans” had a marketing launch in a parallel universe as a cinematic summer blockbuster, the trailer would begin in flat black darkness, with Hal Douglas intoning:

In a world where jukeboxes, drive-ins, and automobiles are more than just jukeboxes, drive-ins, and automobiles, Robert Frank drives a stake straight through America’s heart, revealing a world of unimaginable sadness, a country you’ve never known.”

Hollywood would sell it to death as a gothic set piece, and Frank would be the one-eyed man pointing to the sky, shouting about the apocalypse.

In a sense, that’s what the world has done with “The Americans“. The book (and Frank, along with it) rode the glass elevator straight to the top, in esteem, legend, and sales. For good reason. Frank’s work isn’t just a phenomenal gesture, it’s years of serious work forged into a single, unassailable art ingot that’s completely altered how people (photographers, too) see and interpret the world around them.

So?

So if this were just another review of “The Americans” that took a flat, factual look at the book’s history, then we’d never find ourselves down in the basement, during the rains, hoping the proverbial sump pump will kick-in. Which is where I found myself yesterday, thinking about Robert Frank’s scrotum.

01_Americans
(From the 50th Anniversary edition of Robert Frank’s “The Americans“)

Matthew Barney might say there’s something about how a sump pump works that has a dramatic, recoverable relationship with the muscle that raises a man’s testicles from hanging “mid-femur“, but it was less about the pump and more about the oily black water in my basement’s cement floor that got me thinking about Robert Frank.

The Vanity Fair article didn’t help. It’s not that it wasn’t good, it was too good, too close, too w i d e - a n g l e d. Frank was always front and center, especially when chillin’ in the buff in his hotel room, but the edges were splayed. His admirers; his wife; his Chinese handlers; even the author himself; all were bent toward and leaning into Frank’s gravity, which sucked everything toward his quiet stumblings in the center. Welcome to celebrity, please check your lens correction.

But back to the dark water. In it, I couldn’t see my reflection, nor the bottom of the hole. The more I looked, the less I saw. As the rains came and seeped beneath the house, I knew something was happening, but I didn’t know what it was.

The Americans” followed the crest of Kerouac’s triumph as spontaneous-poet-prophet, preceding Kerouac’s drunken disintegration and failure to change the world in the way that he might have with more discipline. And “The Americans” was years before Dylan changed the world in a way that could never have been achieved without discipline. Frank’s work was a bridge between beat hipster idealism, and Getting Things Done.

47_Americans
(From the 50th Anniversary edition of Robert Frank’s “The Americans“)

Which is one reason why it’s lasted. Because it was capital-W Work. While Frank’s actual journeys may have contained whim and the arbitrary, the selected photographs that comprise the edit are rock solid. Only the captions hint at a great scattering, a shutter blinking in Butte, Boise, Baton Rouge and beyond.

When facing the reflection of its own content, the book doesn’t turn away, and it never coasts. Frank’s pictures squarely confront power, the misuse of power, the failings of power, what power looks like when it’s been drained from the faces of men, how power can be contained by silence, how quiet jukeboxes can be when they contain all the great songs you’ve never heard, and how loud they are when they play all the bad songs you’ll never forget.

Two days ago, I left the city on a quick trip to find an old cheap chair. I was heading to a town far enough away to be country, but close enough to still be a day trip, and as I left the skyline behind I realized I was smiling, and had been, for about twenty minutes, because there was a road ahead, and I knew where the map said it was going, but I didn’t know what it looked like there, and hell yeah I was excited to find out.

On the way there, I pulled over in a small town called Between, because if a small town called Between is an actual town between where you live and the place that sells old cheap chairs, you’re required to pull over and see what it looks like and find out what it all might mean.

.

Robert Frank’s explorations didn’t just try to find out what America might mean, it’s as if each picture had its own double-strand DNA of American Meaning built-in, and the nucleotides came and did their work, and the cell split to form a new page with a new picture wholly unlike the last, each page a generational rebellion, but with papa’s eyes, and mama’s voice. Pure visual fidelity; the perfect sound.

I never owned “The Americans” but it was one of those books that turned me away from sports and toward the potential of art in general, and I remember reading it in the public library in my town, in the room with the old wooden table where Robert Frost used to hold court and teach kids, and I’d sit and look at Frank’s pictures, and each time I looked, I I knew I knew nothing, but I was eager to get out there and find out what a new kind of learning might look like.

Even years later, in my first months in San Francisco, with Ferlinghetti’s handpainted signs still hanging on the walls at City Lights, I’d sit for hours in the rickety chair of the upstairs poetry room, and steal another look at “The Americans“, while pigeons visited the window, and the clotheslines of across-the-alley Chinatown fluttered their laundry on a breeze.

All of this has nothing to do with Frank, or his book, really. Writing about “The Americans” is like writing about air; if you try and define it, you end up saying nothing. Better to say nothing and see where you end up.

82_Americans
(From the 50th Anniversary edition of Robert Frank’s “The Americans“)

Yesterday in the basement, the Spring rains came and went and the sump pump held, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the final sequence in the book, the last eight pictures, and how they make me think Frank was a doctor, trying to take America’s pulse, attempting to diagnose if America loved anything at all, or if it was only in love with itself, and its love for being alone in an emptied picnic ground, for the blurred speed in which families have children, for the boxed-in comfort of cars, and how getting old is a walled-in comfort of its own, and how America loves to drive in two different directions when it comes to race, or how America’s love for religion is so strong it needs to be said twice, in case you missed it the first time, in case you missed it the first time you kissed, when you fell in love beside your car, which was the same thing as falling in love with your car, because your car enabled you to fall in love wherever you needed to, even if you were stuck without a date, holding only your dreams of what your wedding day at City Hall might look like, when your fiancee held you tight, until the day you were together, in balance, on paper, but still very much your own, two as one as two, as well, prepared for speed but looking backward, back at the car that held Frank’s own love, and the children he’d regret regretting, his first wife looking toward him and through him, looking at a man standing on the side of the road with a camera, looking back.

It’s simple, really. Reading Steidl’s definitive reprinting of “The Americans“, where the plates themselves have a true and tangible depth to their murkiness, I’m glad Frank didn’t do anything to clear the water. Sight is rarely well-lit and f22, and when it is, it doesn’t last. When we see, our retinas rarely hold foregrounds and backgrounds together as one. It’s mechanically impossible, the eye’s failing, and it’s another reason why the camera’s succeeded as a way of seeing. A bigger lens can see what we cannot. Which says nothing of our attention, and what we choose to focus on.

Much can be made about what Frank chooses to see, and what he puts into his frames. The overriding arc in “The Americans” is that the pictures feel as if they were made by a feeling, thinking human, rather than someone trying to make photographs that look like art for the Christie’s auction. There’s a quick mind behind the book’s main equation, which is this: how we see is less important than what is seen. The former are questions for a machine; which lens, which film, which speed, which, how, which. The latter includes the most severe and gut-wrenching choices for a dedicated, free-thinking artist.

42_Americans
(From the 50th Anniversary edition of Robert Frank’s “The Americans“)

For a Swiss on an American odyssey, Frank’s imperfectly odd way of seeing is the book’s best asset. It’s both Frank’s way and the highway, with the roads of America yielding an infinite riff of possibilities, regardless of where the end is, and what the air sounds like there. Though the Great American Road Trip is quickly becoming a petroleum-based impossibility, when you look at “The Americans” you get the sense that there’s a wealth of pictures still out there. Unlike many photographers, Frank’s vision wasn’t exclusive - it isn’t cheeky, selfish, or desperate to please. Its inclusiveness makes you think America is still a place where looking and seeing deeply is still allowed, even now, in this parking lot era of Chik-Fil-A, big box stores, and Homeland Security.

Which means even though Christies tells us “Trolly - New Orleans, 1955″ is worth over six hundred thousand dollars, its real worth is far beyond what it costs to be caught with your paddle in the air last October. “The Americans” may have been the result of a man with a Leica and a Guggenheim, or it may have been something larger; a piece of art that asks more questions than it answers, that reveals less than it implies, that suggests more than it establishes, that loves more than it can.

Frank’s book reminds me to hope for more black water. For art that’s less didactic, less like advertising. For a world where artists spend years risking whatever they have to risk (careers, marriages, relationships) to see what might be down that well. It reminds me that someone’s always willing to go further to see what might be seen, and they’ll report back, and we’ll all be better for it.

There’s always a place between where you started and where you’ll finish. That place may be where you’re sitting right now, or it may encompass everything you’ll ever know. Robert Frank had a hunch, and he went out with his camera to track it down. Many have followed. The truth is that while this edition of “The Americans” is the last, and the printing was presided over by Frank himself, it may be his definitive work, but it needn’t be America’s, and it needn’t be yours.

If I glean one thing from the pages of “The Americans“, it’s the suggestion that the road is still there, and it doesn’t belong to Robert Frank, it’s mine and it’s yours, and we’re the only ones who’ll know what’s on it, so let’s go quickly, and soon, before our thoughts slow and stop wondering what the light looks like on an evening when anything seems possible, before the movie’s last reel and the credits unspool, before all the ideas are the same ideas, and especially before we start asking ourselves, “what if…?”

Thanks for reading. Here are other reviews on 2point8, and other mentions of Robert Frank on 2point8. Please see 5B4 for another (more complete) perspective on the book.

Tag: Reviews