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Looking in on The Americans

By Alan Burdick
1/10/2018 • American History Magazine

Photographer Robert Frank hit the road a half century ago and created a record of daily life that came to define an era.

In 1955 a Swiss-born photographer named Robert Frank set out on a cross-country tour of the U.S. to capture “the kind of civilization seen here and spreading elsewhere.” Two years later, he’d shot more than 27,000 images, which he pared to just 83 and painstakingly arranged into The Americans, an inimitable visual chronicle of the era. “He sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film,” Jack Kerouac wrote in the book’s introduction. The collection of photographs, currently on display in a special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, feels as refreshingly abrasive to view today as it surely did a half century ago. In diners, bars and candid street scenes, Frank revealed an America that it was not quite ready to see for itself: restless, alienated, riven by excess and poverty, and still new to the power of media and the self-awareness that comes with it. The iconic image “Trolley—New Orleans” is a gem of tension: The faces that gaze from the windows of a segregated bus speak of rigid social divisions, while the reflections above them swirl with more fluid possibilities. Indeed, only a few weeks after the photo was taken, Rosa Parks would be arrested for not giving up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala.

Frank aspired to photograph “things that move.” In autumn 1955, he drove an old Ford from New York to Miami, Atlanta, Memphis, New Orleans, then on to Los Angeles, and returned East the following spring. Sometimes his wife and two young children joined him, and in “U.S. 90,” the last haunting image in the book, he photographed them. The image hints at the personal toll that rootlessness exacts. “To live for two months in L.A. is like being hospitalized,” he wrote in February 1956 to his friend and icon, the photographer Walker Evans. In his images of the road—hitchhikers, drive-ins, diners and the pavement itself—Frank seemed to find the nation’s fracture line: between young and old, comfort and loneliness, staid society and the unslakable thirst of the new. The counterculture movement was just dawning. In September 1957, On the Road, Jack Kerouac’s speed-fueled account of his own travels a decade earlier, was published to rave reviews. Without bothering to read the book, Frank approached Kerouac to write the introduction to his own. He initially met Kerouac’s girlfriend to show her some images; the first one was “U.S. 285—New Mexico, 1955.” She thought immediately: “Jack’s road!”

The Americans was published at the height of Cold War xenophobia, and it was not received warmly. “A wart-covered picture of America,” one photography critic spat. Others suggested it should have been titled “Some Americans” or perhaps “Why I Can’t Stand America.” It certainly was not the wholesome fare familiar to readers of, say, Life, a magazine that had spurned Frank’s early work. The images in The Americans are often grainy, dark or offkilter. His subjects—caught in the glare of a jukebox or a movie screen, or alone in a bar or cafeteria—seem estranged from one another and even themselves. Flags appear under dubious circumstances: “Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey,” the book’s opening shot, offers neither a parade nor a celebration, only occluded, anonymous faces; “Political rally—Chicago” hints at a system deaf to the people. But as the ’60s advanced and tensions erupted into social unrest, The Americans began to look prescient, and Frank’s stylistic approach— intimate, emotive and admittedly subjective—was embraced and emulated by subsequent generations of photographers.

In 1995 Sharon Collins was strolling through San Francisco’s new modern art museum when she came across Frank’s photograph “Elevator—Miami Beach, 1955,” which had prompted Kerouac to wax rhapsodic in the introduction to The Americans. “That little ole lonely elevator girl looking up sighing in an elevator full of blurred demons, what’s her name and address?” Collins stared at the image until it dawned on her: The girl in the picture was her. She had been 15 at the time, working a summer job as an elevator operator. Although Collins doesn’t remember Frank, his split-second portrait of her felt unusually true. “He saw in me something that most people didn’t see,” she confided recently in a radio interview. “It’s not necessarily loneliness, it’s, I don’t know, dreaminess.” That vision pervades many of Frank’s images, including “Rodeo—New York City, 1954.” “You got eyes,” Kerouac said of Frank. What his eyes saw was our eyes: hardly starry, rarely interlocked, focused firmly inward and, at any cost, on the road ahead.


Alan Burdick was a National Book Award finalist for Out of Eden (2005).

Originally published in the February 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here

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