A half-century has passed since photographer Robert Frank's book The Americans was first released in the United States and yet, its impact and relevance has proven remarkably resilient despite its age and poor reception from its contemporary viewership. Unlike the uplifting "open and shut" photo narratives popularized by journals such as Life and Look!, Frank's images in The Americans told a decidedly critical and uncertain tale of American culture. Indeed, the photos in The Americans openly evince the spiritual vacuity and veiled desperation of a society overwhelmed by consumerism and compromised by inherited ethnic and class resentment. Frank removes icons of Americana—the flag, the automobile, the cowboy, the Hollywood starlet from the idealized, immortalizing context of history and cinema—and depicts them among the imperfect banalities of everyday life, effectively deconstructing the mythology traditionally attached to these symbols in film and the popular imagination. The public thus found Frank's work demoralizing and confrontational, resulting in meager sales upon its initial American release.
Today The Americans is enshrined in the art history canon, its challenging images and snapshot aesthetic validated in its own traveling exhibition organized by one of the premier American art institutions, The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The exhibition, entitled Looking In: Robert Frank's 'The Americans’, provides a comprehensive look at the conception, creation, and influence of Frank's seminal work. Leading viewers through his narrative solely through image (save for an introduction penned by Jack Kerouac) the book provides a platform for Frank's distinctive voice and style while keeping the specifics of his artistic agency and conceptual ideas at a distance. The exhibition's strength thus lies in the context it provides to round out the back story behind The Americans—including an assembly of images from earlier portfolios, several drafts of Frank's application for the Guggenheim Fellowship, contact sheets and prints that were edited out, a draft of Kerouac's introduction, and a personal photo book/letter Frank made for his first wife, Mary Lockspeiser. These images and documents provide a framework through which viewers can interpret and understand the development of Frank's vision and the decisions he made that led to the final product.
One of the most effective objects employed as both symbol and narrative device in The Americans is the flag. In Fourth of July—Jay, New York (1956), a flag hanging at a Fourth of July celebration dominates the composition. Yet, despite its prominence as both a symbol and as a compositional element, its size calls attention to its worn, threadbare state—it is nearly transparent and shredding at its edges. This sense of neglect is compounded by the fact that none of the figures in the image heed its forlorn state on a holiday intended to celebrate the freedoms that the flag stands for. Furthermore, the most glaring irony of this image lies in the homogeneous, WASP population of this middle class gathering, which signifies by virtue of its conspicuous whiteness, the absence of minorities, particularly African Americans—a community which confronts the ironies and disparities of living as second class citizens in a country founded on the tenet that all men are created equal. The flag, fragmented by the borders of the photograph, mirrors the disintegration of a supposedly unified and equal American population.
Frank's carefully ordered narrative electrifies the photograph that follows, entitled Americans Trolley,New Orleans. Here, the image of a segregated bus emphasizes the social and moral fissures of American society and the disenfranchised status of ethnic minority groups so glaringly absent in the previous photograph. Connecting both conceptually and visually with the preceding photograph, the striated pattern of the window frames mimic the verticals of the transparent flag—drawing a parallel between the flag as neglected signifier of freedom and the segregated bus as the failure resulting from this neglect. Unlike the individuals who populate the previous image, the passengers on the bus directly engage the camera, some with curiosity, some with indifference, and others with mild irritation. The rigid verticals that divide the passengers from the photographer and from one another other allude to the false sense of cohesion so heavily promoted in popular images such as Edward Steichen's Family of Man—here the unyielding partitions between people reveal the unequal, socially constructed hierarchies that pervade the American social system and institutions, suggesting the failure of the democratic experiment so championed by Americans in their international relations during the Cold War. The windows isolate each respective bus passenger—creating a bleak, portrait-like series of the various “castes” in American society, in descending order of privilege from left to right: white man, white woman, white children, black man, and finally black woman. Furthermore, the reflection of the photographer and the bustling street visible in the glass windows above the seated passengers suggest the anonymity, insignificance, and isolation of the individual in a public setting. Thus, this image not only references Frank’s outsider perspective as a Swiss-born photographer, but also suggests the hollowness of American ideals, particularly democracy and unification that have been touted to the rest of the world as an example to follow.
Though Frank's uncompromising images seem to eviscerate American culture, Sarah Greenough, senior curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Art, characterizes Frank's work as hopeful—that perhaps by confronting the nation's demons, one becomes humbled and thus, more receptive toward praxis and redemption. Indeed, the grim images of racism, isolation, vanity, and class disparity from the beginning of the book give way to moments of grace in chaotic times—exemplified by the image of a worshiper kneeling by a littered river bank in Mississippi River, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Though the images in Frank’s book emerge from a distinctly American consciousness, its overarching narrative of spiritual emptiness, hardship, and disillusionment speak to broader human themes, as Kerouac proclaims in his introduction, "Robert Frank...sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world." Like a masterfully composed verse, Frank’s work expresses volumes with a sophisticated simplicity that belies its ambitious and complex message.