The Americans – the Book – Robert Frank’s Lessons for all Photographers

“I want to do a big project on America, and I’d like to apply for a Guggenheim grant.  You would need to sign a paper for me, agreeing to publish a book with my photographs.  I think that would allow me to get the grant.”

Robert Frank to Robert Dalpire, 1954, Artist and Publisher ‘The Americans’

Much has been written about the photography book that defines the genre; ‘The Americans’ by Robert Frank, published by Robert Dalpire.  I am interested in this book for three major reasons.  One; of course because it is a wonderful collection of photographs by a Swiss photographer seeing America for the first time.  Two; the building of a book of images, none of which dominate the others.  Three; the origin of the layout and how it came to be.

Let me address these three points in order. 

There is something wonderful about seeing a place for the first time.  There is something even more wonderful about being a photographer and seeing for the first time.  America in the 1950s was a place that experienced unprecedented growth.  Prosperity and the development of the suburbs, grilling on the barbeque, big – no massive – cars with fins and all manner of chrome and engines so big, a small village could run for a week on the gas alone.  There was advertising everywhere and progress looked like it would go on forever.  Optimism was the American way in the 1950s. 

Against this excitement of a new era, Robert Frank traveled to the United States and got in a car and drove, and drove, and drove and made pictures all along the way.  One could say he looked behind the veneer of what appeared to be endless happiness, freedom and hope.  He saw, as only an outsider can, which is what makes ‘The Americans’ such an incredible book.

On my second point, I have written before about how when you make a book you cannot have one or two home-run photographs, you need to have a balance of images that are complementary, without a single stand-out image dominating.  There is a fine art to acknowledging that you may not want to take your best photograph and put it on the cover of a book, because it has a tendency to dominate everything in the book, to the point that nobody sees anything but the incredible image on the cover.  In short, you need a different approach to making a book than making a photograph.  Robert Frank understood this.  He decided on one image per double-page-spread.  Letting each image speak for itself, without a context, or a story.  Just an image.  No image dominates the others, and no image stands out as being better, or more successful than the others.  There is an elegance and balance here, which every book-maker and photographer could learn from.

On the third point; In an interview Robert Dalpire, Frank’s publisher, says that he and Frank laid out the photographs on the floor, with no pre-determined number of photographs.  Dalpire is quoted as saying:  “….There was no problem in terms of the selection.  As for the sequence, we did it just like that, intuitively.” Dalpire and Frank ended up with 174 pages.  What they did that day changed how photography books are made and has set a standard rarely achieved since.

Finally, I would like to address the critic.  In ‘The Photobook; A History, Volume 1’ by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger (Phaidon, 2005), there is a description of how ‘The Americans’ is structured around four segments, or ‘chapters’, as Parr/Badger call them.  Each section introduced by the American flag.  Parr and Badger say the book has…“an internal logic, complexity and irresistible flow that moves from the relatively upbeat pictures at the beginning to a final image of tenderness….”.  To this Roger Dalpire responded: “I say it is non-sense. It is a very subjective remark that has no relationship to what we did.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat is quoted as saying: “I don’t listen to what art critics say. I don’t know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is.”  Yet, we place great emphasis on what is good and what is bad, according to a few people, who in many cases are powerful influencers, who can make or break a career.  We cannot all be like Basquiat and not care, mostly because we all need to make a living doing whatever work we do.  Artists are no different, they may work for themselves, or in collaboration with a gallery, but there are still influencers out there that can make or break their career with the stroke of a pen.  A nasty review and the buyers and public stay home with their wallets tightly shut.

All this said, it is great to see now and again that the critic, who takes himself seriously and writes eloquently about photography, in this case photography books, is completely overthinking the work and is outright wrong, creating context that simply is not there.  Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Harbel

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