An Octogenarian at Fifty — Robert Frank and “The Americans”

Grafted onto the tony visual conceits of the 50s as seen by TV’s Mad Men (the era of the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and the perfect martini, of Elvis and Buddy Holly, Pat Boone and Johnny Mathis, of Detroit’s sweeping tailfins and James Bond’s double entendre)—there is another America. It is the America of Kerouac’s On the Road, Ginsberg’s Howl and a critical, if not dystopian, vision of America most truly visible in the haunting images captured by the lens of Robert Frank in The Americans.

During a recent phone call, friend and producer John Fiedler recalled for me his more than 20-year near-archeological excavation to collect all 83 photographs of The Americans. I say “excavation” because despite the mythic reputation of this body of work and the book published from it, Frank was a more than reluctant printer and made few copies. For a single individual, rather than a fully staffed museum, to amass an entire set required a near forensic dedication.

There was also general disdain for the work when it was published in 1959 and by the time the brilliance of The Americans was acknowledged, Frank had moved on to filmmaking with Pull My Daisy, as a leading voice of the New American Cinema. He returned to photography years later but in a more personal, introspective, even confessional way. But I’ll write more of that work later in this piece.

Once Fiedler had obtained all the photographs in as close to vintage prints as possible, he entrusted them for about five years to the Photography Collection of the National Gallery and its director, Sarah Greenough, for research and scholarly study.  However, the 50th anniversary exhibition of the photos of The Americans initiated by that august institution earlier this year (and which opens this month at the Met in NYC and then at SFMOMA) is not the same set that John Fiedler had so methodically assembled.

I have known John since he was Skip Nicholson’s assistant as a film dailies contact man at Technicolor in the late 70s. This was back in the days when film dailies were still the norm, back when you proved your bona fides as a cinematographer by having one-lights, back when a neophyte like me sweated through every day’s work in a dark and tense studio screening room.

At that time, I had been collecting photography for a few years and had gifted John with a photogravure by Edward Curtis.

Sioux Chiefs by Edward Curtis from “The North American Indian”

Little did I suspect that John would soon be a collector and toward what work he would be drawn.

By the late 60s even, history seemed to have passed Frank by.  Mainstream American photography had gone in a more overtly hip and political direction. Frank’s films had stubbornly remained mired in the east coast underground.

Here is a brief Wikipedia entry of Frank’s films:

Among his films was the 1959 Pull My Daisy, which was written and narrated by Kerouac and starred Ginsberg and others from the Beat circle. The Beat philosophy emphasized spontaneity, and the film conveyed the quality of having been thrown together or even improvised. Pull My Daisy was accordingly praised for years as an improvisational masterpiece, until Frank's co-director, Alfred Leslie, revealed in a November 28, 1968 article in The Village Voice that the film was actually carefully planned, rehearsed, and directed by him and Frank, who shot the film with professional lighting.

In 1960, Frank was staying in Fluxes artist George Segal's basement while filming Sin of Jesus with a grant from Walter K. Guttmann. Isaac Babel's story was transformed to center on a woman working on a chicken farm in New Jersey. It was originally supposed to be filmed in six weeks in and around New Brunswick, but Frank ended up shooting for six months.

His 1972 documentary of the Rolling Stones, Cocksucker Blues, is arguably his best known film. The film shows the Stones while on their '72 tour, engaging in heavy drug use and group sex. Perhaps more disturbing to the Stones when they saw the finished product, however, was the degree to which Frank faithfully captured the loneliness and despair of life on the road. Mick Jagger reportedly told Frank, "It's a fucking good film, Robert, but if it shows in America we'll never be allowed in the country again." The Stones sued to prevent the film's release, and it was disputed whether Frank as the artist or the Stones as those who hired the artist actually owned the copyright. A court order resolved this with Solomonic wisdom by restricting the film to being shown no more than five times per year and only in the presence of Frank. Franks' photography also appeared on the cover of the Rolling Stones' album Exile on Main St.

Other films by Robert Frank include Keep Busy and Candy Mountain which he co-directed with Rudy Wurlitzer.

There is a beautiful “tribute” book published in Tokyo by Yugensha (1972) titled Lines of My Hand but it attracted little notice beyond the photo book community. Four years later, Aperture published a small monograph in its Aperture History of Photography series with a brief introduction by Rudi Wurlitzer, screenwriter of the film Two Lane Blacktop. Wurlitzer’s incantatory preface seemed to channel that fellow writer of the American road, Jack Kerouac, who wrote the haunting opening of the first American edition of The Americans. It was this Aperture edition from 1976 that was my introduction to Frank and it has been a source of confusion for me ever since. While many of its images are taken from The Americans, there are pictures from Paris and London that are antecedent to it and a few that were taken later. To my still impressionable eyes they all became The Americans, and years later, if you know this book you may experience the same conflation.

John Fiedler did meet Frank several times during his “excavations” but often his contact with the artist was done through intermediaries. Here is a typical anecdote he relates: "I was offered a print of a long sought after image from a dealer who indicated the print was unsigned.  Unusual for prints of Robert Frank.  I accepted the purchase of the print and forwarded it to Frank for signature via his dealer.  Weeks passed.  Then, a call came to me inquiring about the provenance of the print.  Obviously, I had no idea of the history of the print but connected the respective dealers and, a few weeks later, I received a new print of the same image made for me by Frank.   What of the previous, unsigned print? Who knows?"

This anecdote is not the least odd one John recounts. I told him he should write a book about his decades-long odyssey. It would be its own “road movie”. When John had 82 of the 83 prints, I gave him my own beloved Frank as a small acknowledgement of his perseverance. The title is “Motorama, Los Angeles,” a murky picture of three pre-teen boys sitting in a new sedan, their heads barely visible.

Motorama, Los Angeles
Motorama, Los Angeles

Last year, Frank received an invitation from the Chinese government to attend a major retrospective of his work at the Pingyao International Photography Festival. The city is about 450 miles southwest of Beijing, an industrial outpost of grime and pollution—at least according to Charlie Leadoff who has written a revealing account of the travails of the then 83-year-old artist. His piece in the April 2008 issue of Vanity Fair “Robert Franks’ Unsentimental Journey” is an intimate account of the Learesque winter years of an American icon. The article opens with a shocking yet Chaplinesque account of Frank’s collapsing into unconsciousness while seated in a dinky noodle shop, his ever-present Dunkin’Donuts cap close by. LeDuff’s account details an intimacy with a man who is well known for his candidness, gruffness and emotional distance. You can read the full story here:

Vanity Fair article

obert Frank and his wife, June Leaf (right), at the opening of the Pingyao International Photography Festival, in Pingyao, China. Photograph by Edward Keating.
obert Frank and his wife, June Leaf (right), at the opening of the Pingyao International Photography Festival, in Pingyao, China. Photograph by Edward Keating.

If you scroll about one third down the article you’ll find a link to a minute and a half video of Frank called Pull My Donkey, shot by Leadoff in what appears to be an office in NYC.  In virtual silhouette, with traffic passing outside the window, Frank intones a kind of Beat poem. His wife, pictured next to him in the photo above, is also featured. The mood of the video is grim indeed.

The critic Janet Malcom once dubbed Frank “the Manet of photography.” Manet, like Frank, was a loner and while not himself ever an Impressionist, he was godfather to the entire free-brush movement, much as Frank was godfather to the 60s and 70s loose-limbed photo style that he early on abandoned. (I know it may seem a digression to reference Eduard Manet in a piece about Frank but in this blog I often will wander about like this.)

Manet’s work seems to me to be almost an analogue of Frank’s style, though a full century before it. There is a formality and flatness of perspective that haunts much of Manet’s work. Most of his figures look two-dimensional, subsumed into undefined backgrounds. Even in larger social groups, his people seem solitary, the scene fragmented. His subjects often engage the viewer with a dispassionate yet intense regard as if they are indifferent players in their own drama, a kind of deadpan aesthetic. You can see it clearly in this video made by a Manet devotee.

All of these characteristics also can be applied to many of the images in The Americans. Both of these solitary artists cast an unblinking, unsentimental eye at their societies and were initially castigated for it.  The very best analysis, as well as biography, of Manet and his social, artistic milieu, can be found in one of the most compulsively readable books on art ever, Ross King’s The Judgment of Paris.

Amazon link

Even if you don’t have time to read the book, scroll down to The Washington Post thumbnail review at the bottom of the Amazon page. You will read the disdain that the self-absorbed Manet faced as he led, unwittingly, a slightly younger generation of painters into an art revolution, as did Frank almost a century later. A footnote to this book is that it documents not only the careers of Manet and the Impressionists, but the parallel one of the most famous salon painter of the era, Ernest Meissonier, whose magisterial canvases epitomize the grand French tradition of the Salon.  (A Wallace-esque footnote to a footnote: Two of Ross King’s other wonderful books on art read like thrillers: Brunelleschi’s Dome and Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling. Indulge yourself. Read all three.)

To speak of the Frank of The Americans as a “loner” is no trope. In conversation with Le Buff he reveals that in his Guggenheim Foundation sponsored odyssey back and forth across America (three trips in a battered Ford, sometimes with wife and two kids) he remained a voyeur. “I only ever spoke to one person, the woman who got married in Reno… She called up her father (to tell him) and he hung up on her.” Frank’s style in shooting The Americans, if you can call such an anomalous technique “style,” was one of a quick-footed stalker. He would scope out a situation, shoot some quick shoots from different angles, and then move on in his Ford “to the next shot.” A review of some of his contact sheets, which are displayed in the upcoming 50th retrospective, confirms this. It’s too bad this work precedes the time-code record so common today. Meta-data is a privilege of the digital age. One would suspect that Frank hates it.

The catalog of the National Gallery/MET show is said to be definitive. Here is a glance at it with an editorial review below:

Amazon link

Published to accompany a major exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of this prescient book. Drawing on newly examined archival sources, it provides a fascinating in-depth examination of the making of the photographs and the book's construction, using vintage contact sheets, work prints and letters that literally chart Frank's journey around the country on a Guggenheim grant in 1955-1956. Curator and editor Sarah Greenough and her colleagues also explore the roots of The Americans in Frank's earlier books, which are abundantly illustrated here, and in books by photographers Walker Evans, Bill Brandt and others. The 83 original photographs from The Americans are presented in sequence in as near vintage prints as possible. The catalogue concludes with an examination of Frank's later reinterpretations and deconstructions of The Americans, bringing full circle the history of this resounding entry in the annals of photography.

This richly illustrated expanded edition of Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans contains several engaging essays by curator Sarah Greenough that explore the roots of this seminal book, Frank's travels on a Guggenheim fellowship, the sequencing of The Americans and the book's impact on his later career. In addition, essays by Anne Wilkes Tucker, Stuart Alexander, Martin Gasser, Jeff L. Rosenheim, Michel Frizot and Luc Sante offer focused analyses of Frank's relationship with Louis Faurer, Edward Steichen, Gotthard Schuh, Walker Evans, Robert Delpire and Jack Kerouac, while Philip Bookman writes about his work with Frank on several exhibitions in the last 30 years. This edition also reproduces many of Frank's earlier photographic sequences, as well as all of the photographs in The Americans and selected later works.

In addition, Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans–Expanded Edition includes a wealth of additional materials, essential information for all interested in twentieth-century photography. It contains all of Frank's vintage contact sheets related to The Americans, a section that re-creates his preliminary sequence and presents variant cropping of the first and subsequent editions of the book and a map and chronology, along with letters and manuscript materials by Frank, Walker Evans and Jack Kerouac related to Frank's Guggenheim fellowship, his travels around the United States in 1955-1956, and his construction of the book. This groundbreaking 528-page catalogue is certain to be the definitive source of information on The Americans for years to come.

This outsider stance came naturally to Frank. He was born and grew up in Switzerland, an historically standoffish country. He first came to the United States in 1947, as a young man. Before being awarded the Guggenheim Grant, he had done important work in Paris, London, Wales, Spain and Peru. He also had assisted the mandarin-like Walker Evans who was instrumental in Frank’s being awarded the Guggenheim.

During Frank’s cross-country journeys he maintained a low profile. Despite this, he was often challenged by skeptical law enforcement officers, especially in the South, where he photographed in rural black enclaves such as Beaufort and St. Helena Island, So. Carolina. I know this country well as I had trained for the Peace Corps in 1967 near there, at a former civil rights training center outside Frogmore.  Our lawns were regularly set ablaze in the middle of the night, large flaming crosses lapping at the ghostly hanging moss. We went into Beaufort only under police escort. I re-visited the area in 1982 when we made The Big Chill in a grand house along the Beaufort River.  Much had changed in the intervening 15 years, though I still got a frisson when, one Sunday, I drove over to Frogmore, turned off the highway and saw the outbuildings of the Penn Center, bastions of another era.

Below are two of Frank’s most famous photos from The Americans, taken within a short hike of where I had spent three turbulent months a short time before the King and Kennedy assassinations. This is just the kind of carpetbagger snooping that got Frank “escorted” out of town by suspicious police, cries of “commie” ringing in his ears.

Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston, South Carolina
Café, Beaufort, South Carolina
Café, Beaufort, South Carolina

Over the course of his three cross-country trips Frank exposed more than 28,000 frames that were edited down into the canonic 83. As you examine the contact sheets you can already see the proto-filmmaker at work. He shoots coverage, coverage. The “editorial” layout of the book sets off a brilliant dialogue with itself as the eye moves from one image to the next, one page to the next. There is an intense narrative and visual rhythm at work here not just a loose assemblage. I believe that in addition to the cumulative power of the images one at a time, their juxtaposition intensifies Frank’s vision of a nation that, while stretching three thousand miles across a continent, has a disquieting melancholic unity.

A friend recently sent me the link to an NPR story I had missed in its initial airing. It is about the young girl in the photo below, one of the most famous in The Americans and about whom Kerouac writes in his introduction:

“And I say: That little ole lonely elevator girl looking up sighing in an elevator full of blurred demons, what’s her name and address?”

Elevator, Miami Beach, 1955

Her name is Sharon Collins and she lives in San Francisco. She has remained unknown by Frank scholars for 50 years. Here is her story:

NPR Story

There is an insightful look at this image as well as numerous other key photographs from “The Americans” in a current New Yorker story by film critic Anthony Lane. It is somehow appropriate that a movie reviewer hooked this assignment. The narrative line that pervades his article is much like that of a still photo movie. It was no accident that Frank so soon after turned toward cinema to continue his exploration of the American psyche. In this article Lane follows with a close scrutiny Frank’s travels in his Ford. He cites locations and dates, as well as gleaning information from contact sheets, in bringing to life the stories behind the photos. For the first time I realized that his shot of “Motorama,” which I cite above, was made at a GM auto show March 3-11, 1956 at the now demolished Pan Pacific Auditorium on Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. I remember that show; I was there with my dad; I was only a few years older than the three boys sitting so adult-like in that car.

The very human challenges that surrounded Frank’s cross-country odyssey are outlined in Lane’s review “Road Show”.

The New Yorker article

The 1972 Japanese book The Lines of My Hand pointed the direction in which Frank’s work would go. Critic Andy Grundberg in a 1989 release of a new edition of the book wrote for the NY Times:

At last Robert Frank's legendary but seldom seen book, originally published in a limited edition in 1972, is available in a trade edition with additional material. It brackets The Americans, the 1959 book for which Mr. Frank is most famous, starting with snapshots of Swiss village life from 1944-46 and ending with inscribed black-and-white Polaroids from the 1980's. In between are photographs taken in New York, Paris, Spain and the British Isles and even a smattering of pictures that appeared in The Americans.

Mr. Frank intended this book less as a retrospective of his career in photography than as an autobiography; to that end he has included brief notes about his state of mind and a section consisting of frames from some of his many movies. (After The Americans, he pledged to give up photography for films.) But most self-revealing and moving are the Polaroids he began making after the death of his daughter in 1975. With words of pain scratched, stenciled or written directly on them, these pictures give The Lines of My Hand the emotional resonance that is characteristic of Mr. Frank's best work.

The pain expressed in the new images from Lines of My Hand seems now to be prophetic. Frank’s beloved daughter, Andrea, dies on Dec. 28, 1974 in a plane crash near the Mayan temple at Tikal, Guatemala. His long-troubled son, Pablo, commits suicide in 1993. Here is a deeply haunting photo of them in the family Ford, stopped at the side of the road at the time of The Americans.

At the end of the Vanity Fair article Leadoff gives a window into the winter mood of this photographic lion:

“Robert Frank is an enigma: hard and empathic and melancholic at once. He abhors schmaltziness and syrup. I asked him if he would like to see a photograph of my baby, He answered, ‘Why should I want to see that?’”

The initial printing of The Americans sold about 600 copies. Today, if you can find a copy:


This is what it will cost you, though the one offered below claims to be in better condition than the one here pictured.

The Americans

by Frank, Robert; Kerouac, Jack

price: $6,503.05

Ships from PA, USA

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Edition: First American Edition Binding: Hardcover Publisher: Grove Press, New York Date Published: 1959

Description: Near Fine. Hardcover. Illus. Stated First American Edition. With Introduction by Jack Kerouac. Near Fine in Very Good dustjacket. Light shelfwear. Some wear to very scarce dustjacket, heavy brown spotting to front, occasional chipping to edges, slight loss to spine-ends, creasing and tears to rear do with 3x3-inch loss. Contents unmarked.

I found a signed copy on the internet last week for $22,000.00… but it’s no longer available.

In 1996 the Swiss publisher Scalo published a small paperback for the 10th anniversary of Pace-McGill gallery on 57th St., NYC, Frank’s gallery. It is titled Thank You, an assemblage of 73 inscribed and drawn-on postcards from friends and admirers, addressed to Frank. This avowedly unsentimental man had kept them. There is no text in the book save his endnote:

“I have saved these cards over many years

I was touched how many people wanted to tell me

Their appreciation of what I was doing

Without asking anything in return

This small book is my way of saying Thank You”.

And we say thank you, Mr. Frank, you hardheaded old softie, for the mirror you held us to us and for the new eyes you gave us—50 years ago.

Avedon: Robert Frank, 1975
Robert Frank, 1975 by Richard Avedon


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