Interpreting The Americans

Notes on Robert Frank – ‘The Americans’

I must own up to not actually having yet read ‘The Americans’. I have ordered a copy but right now I’m not so much concerned with the book itself as with the way it has been interpreted over the years.

Mary Warner Marien describes Frank as seeing “a soul-damaged population, fluctuating through violence, ignorance and despair”(Marien,2014:342), and that the people “seem stuck in one place: the loneliness of their own psyches” (Marien,2014:342). Ian Jeffrey is less critical, choosing to describe the contents in neutral words, describing Frank’s view of America as containing “an aura which is consistently opposed by the photographs”(Jeffrey,1981:206).
‘The Americans’ was produced under a Guggenheim fellowship but could not find an American publisher, so was initially published in France as ‘Les Américains’, accompanied by text and quotes from critic Alain Bosquet. Cook lists several of these quotes, one of which is

“Every year there is a national holiday in honor of new citizens: it is not they who thank you, it is you who thank them. The American, in America, cannot understand that the entire world doesn’t wish to become American. Let’s be fair: Americans who come to Europe after a while can’t imagine that one would wish to remain American. “(Cook,1982:5).

Other are equally disparaging, with the general tone being of cultural snobbery, and that Frank’s photographs reinforce a fairly common view at the time that America was largely a cultural wasteland. A year later the book is finally published in America, but with Bosquet’s quotes replaced by an introduction from Jack Kerouac. Cook reproduces some of Kerouac’s introduction, including

“That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral. That’s what Robert Frank has captured in these tremendous photographs taken as he travelled on the road around practically 48 states in an old used car“(Cook,1982:5).

If Bosquet is an outsider, this is very much the insider’s view of the same set of photographs. The two positions seem diametrically opposed – both cannot be objectively true. Of course they aren’t, and one would not expect them to be objective, but to be so different?

It was several years before ‘The Americans’ came to be regarded as a classic of documentary photography, one that has become hugely influential. Over the subsequent sixty years it has been reinterpreted many times, including as homage to nostalgia. The alternative interpretations supplied by Bosquet and Kerouac for the original publications are just two, but these totally reinforce Allan Sekula’s position that cultural context is necessary in order to be able to understand a photograph. In that sense both Bosquet and Kerouac may be correct, in their terms anyway.

Cook, J. (s.d.) ‘‘Robert Frank’s America’’ At:
Marien, M. W. (2014) Photography, Fourth Edition: A Cultural History. (01 edition) (s.l.): Laurence King Publishing.
Jeffrey, I. (1981) Photography: A Concise History (World of Art). (01 edition) (s.l.): Thames and Hudson Ltd.

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