Robert Frank – The Americans

This exercise is to find five images from Robert Frank’s book ‘The Americans’, and then find and explain how symbols are used.

Not having read ahead in the course book I hadn’t realised we would be looking in detail at ‘The Americans’ before I posted my blog entry from April 28th.
However my research into the comparisons between the introductions in the original French and American versions of the book won’t alter my own interpretations of signs in the images. What may well alter my interpretations is the elapsed sixty five years since the photographs were taken. The world has changed out of all recognition in that time, as has our relationship with American culture.

1. Backyard – Venice West, California
Backyard - Venice West
An elderly white man sits in his garden in a garden chair with a striped towel to shade him. The garden is full of plants and looks to be well tended, but behind the man is an old car that looks like it has not been moved for some time. In the background is a simple house extending to both sides of the frame.
The towel he is using for shade is propped up on something so that is descends around him from a single point. Some objects sit on the towel, possibly leaves falling from a nearby shrub. The stripes are suggestive of the US flag, and the shape of the towel, descending from a point and surrounding the man is similar in shape to a Ku Klux Klan hood. The objects that have landed on the towel look like eye holes cut into the hood. The overall effect is suggestive of the racial discrimination still present in the US at the time. California may not have been at the centre of KKK activity in America but it did have a presence. Wikipedia documents a KKK raid in 1922 that led to the organisation being made illegal in California but it seems likely a presence still remained

2. St. Francis, gas station, and City hall – Los Angeles
St. Francis, gas station and City hall
The title of this photograph says pretty much everything about the visual contents. A status of St. Francis in the foreground, a gas station in the middle distance and Los Angeles City hall in the distance. The angle that Frank used to take the photograph makes it seem as though St. Francis is holding up his crucifix to ward off the gas station and City hall, as though he is trying to stop their progress. I see this as symbolic of the conflict between God and Mammon, with the gas station symbolising commercialism and progress, and City hall indicative of the government. America has long seemed rather undecided the separation of religion and state. The first amendment in the US constitution makes this separation explicit but religion – especially Christianity – has been embedded in American culture ever since.

3. Crosses at scene of highway accident – U.S. 91, Idaho
This is quite a dark photograph, and seemingly taken into the sun so that most of the scene is in shadow. The three crosses are just to left of centre of the image and taken from almost side on, so that they lead away into the distance. The ground rises away into the indistinct background but between the crosses and the hills is a single sunbeam breaking through the clouds, pointing vertically to the ground. The arrangement of crosses and the sunbeam seems to symbolise the idea of souls ascending to heaven, and like the St. Francis photograph points towards the strong Christian beliefs in American society at the time.

4. Belle Isle – Detroit
Belle Isle
Here we see a group of African-Americans in a car, four children and two adults. The car is passing many other cars in the background and the blurring of the background shows the car is moving at the time the photograph was taken. Detroit was the home of the American motor industry and provided employment for many African-Americans moving up from the southern states. In many cases the opportunities that employment in the motor industry offered a better way of life than would otherwise be open to them.
In the car the children are looking out towards the camera, and one is standing up to get a better view of where they are heading. The cars are symbolic of Detroit itself and the freedom shown by the children points towards the better life that they can look forward to. All things are relative though – it will only be a better way of life compared with what they might otherwise get, and will still be less than that enjoyed by the white population.

5. Move premiere – Hollywood
Movie premiere
In the foreground is a glamorous young woman, wearing what seems an expensive dress and jewellery, and in the background is a crowd of people all watching her and others as they attend the film premiere. Although there is a separation between the crowd and the central figure – a starlet perhaps – any actual barrier is not shown. The focus in the photo is totally on the background characters, with the central woman very much out of focus. On the right of the picture a woman in a headscarf is looking towards the central figure with a smile that suggests delight and awe. By focussing attention on the crowd rather than the central figure, the photo suggests that the starlet is not real, but acts as an aspiration for the ordinary populace. Since we cannot see any physical barrier the image is saying that this glamorous life is possible, that ordinary people can achieve this position.

Kerouac, J. (2014) Robert Frank: The Americans. (Special Edition) (s.l.): Steidl.

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