Robert Frank (born 1924), along with Diane Arbus and others, was one of the founder members of the New York School of photographers in the 1940s and 50s.
The Americans, by Robert Frank, was a highly influential book in post-war American photography. With the aid of his major artistic influence, the photographer Walker Evans, Frank secured a Guggenheim Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. In 1955, he set out on a two year journey across America, during which time he took 28,000 images of American society.
Frank’s journey was not without incident. While driving through Arkansas, Frank was arbitrarily thrown in jail for three days after being stopped by the police who accused him of being a communist (their reasons: he was shabbily dressed, he was Jewish, he had letters about his person from people with Russian sounding names, his children had foreign sounding names – Pablo & Andrea, and he had foreign whiskey with him). He was also told by a sheriff elsewhere in the South that he had “an hour to leave town.”
Only 80 or so of these images actually made it into Frank’s book, The Americans. The book was first published in France in 1958. In 1959, The Americans was finally published in the United States by Grove Press, with the text removed from the French edition due to concerns that it was too un-American in tone. The added introduction by Kerouac, along with simple captions for the photos, were now the only text in the book, which was intended to mirror the layout of Walker Evans’ American Photographs.
The photographs were notable for their distanced view of both high and low strata of American society. The book as a whole created a complicated portrait of the period that was viewed as skeptical of contemporary values and evocative of ubiquitous loneliness. Frank found a tension in the gloss of American culture and wealth over race and class differences, which gave his photographs a clear contrast to those of most contemporary American photojournalists.
Frank’s images also challenged established photographic values. His use of unusual focus, low lighting and cropping that deviated from accepted photographic techniques. His images had blurred people and sloping horizons and asked questions of the viewer. They didn’t open up easily but required careful reading; for this reason, Frank’s work is seen as a major step forward for photography and its ability to communicate in new and different ways.
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the book’s original publication (15 May 2008), a new edition was published by Steidl. Robert Frank was deeply involved in the design and production of this edition, in which most images are recropped and two slightly different photographs are used.
Robert Frank discussed with his publisher, Gerhard Steidl, the idea of producing a new edition using modern scanning and the finest tritone printing. The starting point was to bring original prints from New York to Göttingen, Germany, where Steidl is based. In July 2007, Frank visited Göttingen. A new format for the book was worked out and new typography selected. A new cover was designed and Frank chose the book cloth, foil embossing and the endpaper. Most significantly, as he has done for every edition of The Americans, Frank changed the cropping of many of the photographs, usually including more information.
Frank’s photographs were on display at the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill until January 4, 2009. A celebratory exhibit of The Americans were displayed in 2009 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.