What a poem this is, what poems can be written about this book of pictures some day by some young new writer high by candlelight bending over them describing every gray mysterious detail, the gray film that caught the actual pink juice of human kind. Whether ’t is the milk of human kindness, Shakespeare meant, makes no difference when you look at these pictures. Better than a show.
– Jack Kerouac in the introduction to The Americans.
Artists, like ethnographers, train their eyes to see things other people don’t see. They try to present what they see so that we, the audience, can glimpse something where we have looked a thousand times and failed to find anything noteworthy.
“Nothing exists until or unless it is observed,” wrote William Burroughs, in his 1992 Painting & Guns. (Painting & Guns … oh, what a brilliant title for a book!) He continues: “An artist is making something exist by observing it. And his hope for other people is that they will also make it exist by observing it. I call it ‘creative observation’. Creative viewing.”
Robert Frank’s radiance – similar to that of many other great artists – lies in the apparent simplicity of his gaze, “apparent” because it isn’t simple, it just appears so in the hands of a master.
“Frank’s The Americans is a fundamental text,” says Jay Ruby, retired professor of anthropology at Temple University in Philadelphia. In an email exchange he describes how Robert Frank’s book relates to the field of ethnography: “While he did behave like a field worker he knew nothing about ethnography. His contribution to photography was the virtual invention of a photographic narrative. Few have been able to equal it and in many ways it should be a model for ethnographic photographers to follow.”
In a 1974 article Howard Becker writes:
Photographers have also been concerned with the discovery of cultural themes, modal personalities, social types, and the ambiance of characteristic social situations. Thus, Robert Frank’s (...) enormously influential The Americans is in ways reminiscent both of Tocqueville’s analysis of American institutions and of the analysis of cultural themes by Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. Frank presents photographs made in scattered places around the country, returning again and again to such themes as the flag, the automobile, race, restaurants – eventually turning those artifacts, by the weight of the associations in which he embeds them, into profound and meaningful symbols of American culture.
(You can read Becker’s article, Photography and Sociology, in this issue of American Ethnography.)
Did you ever see Star Wars? It was very accurate.
– Jazz musician Sun Ra speaking to music critic Francis Davis.
Most photographs are deceivingly realistic in form; they are very precise documentations of a scene, and we see them as truthful depictions with little room for interpretation.
“There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph,” photographer Richard Avedon once pointed out. “All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”
And Diane Arbus expounds: “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.”
Sometimes the most accurate account is the least factual.
Henry Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank were our heroes,” writes photographer Annie Leibovitz in Annie Leibovitz at Work. Leibovitz was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute in the late 60’s and early 70’s: “Robert Frank was probably the most influential figure among the photography students. A new edition of The Americans had (...) just been published, and I fell in love with the idea of working like Robert Frank. Driving around in a car and taking pictures. Looking for stories.”
His method – how Frank worked to get his pictures – plays a beguiling supporting role, as the presence of the photographer shines subtly through (very subtly) in some of the images. Leibovitz describes one of Frank’s photos from the book, and how it conveyed to her a romantic attitude to the process. It’s the last photo in the book:
Robert Frank’s wife and two small children are in the front seat of their car. It’s dawn. They’re parked across from a truck stop in Texas. You can imagine that they have been driving all night. The picture is from one of the trips Frank took across the United States, making a record of the country as if, as he put it, he were someone who was seeing it for the first time.
Robert Frank was born in Zurich, Switzerland in 1924, and came to the United States in 1947. The Americans was first published in Paris in 1958 (as Les Américains). Steidl and the National Gallery of Art’s reissue of the book in 2008 follows the same setup as this first publication 50 years back, with the same 83 photographs in the same sequence – all photos taken by Frank in 1955 and 1956 while traveling around the United States on a Guggenheim fellowship. Also included is Jack Kerouac’s introduction text, which was written for the first American edition in 1959.
The 2008 edition was designed by Robert Frank, Gerhard Steidl, and Class Möller.
This book … this book is a beautiful thing.
Martin Hoyem is a cultural anthropologist and the founder, publisher and editor of American Ethnography. Doing fieldwork among lowriders in Los Angeles and writing about outlaw aesthetics, he received his graduate degree in Social Anthropology from the University of Oslo in Norway. Hoyem has also done ethnographic fieldwork in fast food restaurants in Phoenix and Miami.
He spends a lot of time reading, and as a result he is outstandingly reflective when watching TV. All that education has—as we say—finally paid off … like, totally.