Raymond Harding, who lives in Paris, has been on several of my workshops and is a keen street and travel photographer. He’s a passionate consumer of street photography books and here you can read his take on ‘The Americans’ by Robert Frank – an essential book in any street photographer’s library . . .
Engaging with Robert Frank’s The Americans
As a relatively new street photographer, I have been trying to widen my understanding of the history of the subject in order to refine my palate. Not so long ago, I purchased Robert Frank’s book ‘The Americans’; considered one of the seminal and founding works in street photography.
Robert Frank’s The Americans is the result of a Guggenheim Fellowship grant in the 1950’s which enabled Frank to spend two years traveling across America and capture what he saw. O’Hagan notes that “Frank set out with his Guggenheim Grant to do something new and unconstrained by commercial diktats……[which resulted in] a now classic photography book in the iconoclastic spirit of the Beats.”
My engagement started when I picked up The Americans after having spent some time on Instagram over my morning coffee. Today’s ‘best’ Instagram accounts contain a wealth of amazing street photography: vibrant reds, neon greens, crisp images and strong composition (at least some of the time). By contrast, Frank’s images are often dour, seemingly poorly composed with key parts of the images often out of focus.
My initial thought was that photography has come a long way since Frank’s work and that it was clear that there was something I was missing. Thanks to some insightful discussion with some other members on the StreetSnappers forum (thanks to all those who were part of the discussion and gently challenged me in my understanding), I was challenged to think again about Frank’s work.
To engage better with this book, I took a weekend to spend some quality time with The Americans, to savour each image in the book and to try to reflect on what it was saying and not flick through the images with a cursory glance, as one would an Instagram feed. I read around the book, to see what Frank and others said about it, and watched some videos to expand my perspective.
I came out of my weekend with seven thoughts:
Thought One: The Americans reflects Robert Frank and his engagement with America
When I first read The Americans, I didn’t know enough about America of the 1950’s and how many of the mainstream images in circulation in America at that time depicted optimism, hope, and commercialism and minimised the social inequalities, segregation, and poverty of the day.
I also didn’t know enough about Robert Frank in general; I didn’t know that he was an immigrant to the US, with Jewish parents who had been de-stated by the Nazis and moved to Switzerland as aliens; I didn’t know that as a young man Frank moved to the US without his family and had to build his life from scratch. I didn’t know, until I watched interviews with Frank, his pessimistic/dour/curmudgeonly view of the world in general, and of America at the time specifically.
And therefore I didn’t understand the clash between the American self-portrait of the day: bright, hopeful, commercial, with the dour outsider with a background of real suffering and pain. I didn’t understand the clash of the rose-tinted view of the 1950’s with the glass half-empty view of Frank. As Frank said: “I wanted to follow my own intuition and do it my way, and not to make any concession – not to make a Life story… those goddamn stories with a beginning and an end.”
Understanding more about Frank, who he is and how he saw the America of the 1950’s and his reaction to (and against) it, made more sense of the images he chose to present and the narrative he put forward.
While it is not possible for me to recreate the counter-cultural experience that an American of the 1950’s would have had when seeing their culture through Frank’s lens, understanding the clash helped me better engage with The Americans on its terms.
Thought Two: The Americans is deliberate selection
Robert Frank took 28,000 images as part of his road trip across America. He chose to show 83 of them in The Americans. The book is highly curated. It’s a very deliberate selection of specific images, specifically laid out in a certain order to tell a narrative.
As I read around The Americans I discovered, for example, that Frank separated the book into four sections, and each section started with an image where the American flag was central. This challenged me to think about each photo in the book: What was the photo before? Why did Frank choose to put this image after the previous image but before the next one? What story is reinforced by this order and the specific image in that order?
This approach is in contrast to my own and, I think, the social media approach more generally, of looking for the ‘one image I am going to share today’. Of course, social media is a different medium than a photo book, but my experience has been that my photobooks are more about collecting my favourite images; Frank challenged me to think about building a cohesive story with my images. As I put together my next photobook, which image will I put first? And why should that image go before the next image? What story is told by how I place these images? I suspect that the process will now take a lot more time but I suspect the end result will be more fulfilling.
Thought Three: The challenge of composition
As I said above, I started with Frank after looking at Instagram, where a lot of the images are often super sharp. I had assumed that some of the imperfections in Frank’s photos were due to technical issues: we have better cameras now, photography has moved on…..
However, after engaging more with Frank, I have learnt to appreciate that Frank’s decisions are deliberate. Where he has ‘missed’ focus on (what I had assumed is) the main subject, that Frank has made a deliberate choice to throw my attention to somewhere else in the frame. I found that Frank’s images bear thinking about – stopping a little longer than you think is necessary to see where he draws your eye and what that means; it is story-telling through composition. It is designed to tell a specific story and to make me think.
For me, the point of my photography has been to find the subject and make it sharp; my challenge from Frank is to think more carefully about the composition: what story do I want to tell and what does that mean for my composition? How can I take my composition from the main subject being front, centre, and sharp, to a more nuanced approach to composition where other factors might be front and centre in the image because they tell a better story?
Thought Four: Post-processing to tell a story
Frank deliberately used post processing to add to his story. He wanted a dark mood to advance his narrative; where photos were taken on a bright sunny day, he post processes the images to achieve a dark moody feeling.
Again, Frank challenges me to think outside the box in terms of a larger post-compositional elements. Once I have taken my image and the composition is done, what mood do I want this photograph to convey? And what tools do my sliders give me to contribute to that story? On a larger question, am I happy to change the mood of a photograph to fit in with a large narrative?
Thought Five: The larger narrative
One of the questions that I have often thought about with street photography is the ‘so what’ – another random photo of a stranger with a nice hat, or someone walking through a shaft of light, or doing something funny. But, ultimately, what is the point and what do you end up with in the end?
If The Americans taught me anything, it was a challenge to think about a larger narrative.
Frank’s work is an organised holistic work with a clear perspective and a clear narrative. Maybe some of the images, if viewed out of the larger whole, are not going to get a ton of Instagram likes, but taken together, they were a challenge to the worldview of the day, and in hindsight create an important historical record.
I think, if asked about Instagram likes, Frank may not be so polite.
I found The Americans challenged me to try and think on a much larger scale: A long term large project with a clear message and looking for how I could best tell that story. And at the same time, to be less worried about creating a single image that tons of people may like or appreciate for 20 minutes, but rather to consider my street photography work in the longer term – what will this image say in 2 years time, or 20 years time, or 200 years time.
Thought Six: Finding the treasure
I often walk around my city to see what I can see. I take photos as I wander, but I am not the type of photographer who waits around to see what might come into a scene.
Looking at Frank’s contact sheets (which you can find images of online), some of his photos are indeed luck – a single powerful image taken at just the right moment as he turned around. However, for the most part, the photos in The Americans are the result of Frank taking a large number of photos and he has chosen his preferred image from a selection. And it’s not just that he has taken a lot of images of the same scene, there are some times when it seems like he has worked with people in the image to make the image what he wanted (specifically the iconic ‘girl in the lift’).
Frank (along with some other photographers more recently) has encouraged me to set my camera on burst and take more than one photo when something captures my eye to give me a better chance to getting a better image. A good image is more important than a false expectation that I can also capture it in one press of a button; no one asks how many frames you needed to take to get an image.
Thought Seven: The Americans took time
Today’s prevailing ethos is that you can be a superstar today. Pick up your camera, build a social media following and get a lot of likes instantly.
Frank’s journey to The Americans was long. He was already an established photographer before he applied for the grant that funded the work. He had a solid body of work behind him already. He envisioned a project, refined it, rescoped it, and then he pitched it to others who saw the value of it. He secured funding for the project and then he devoted two years of his life shooting the images for this one project, and then more time developing, more time post-processing, and more time triaging, and then more time compiling the images.
The Americans was not a quick win.
Nor was the initial publication the end of the story; Frank has re-processed the images for each re-print, constantly refining the images to better tell the story he wants to tell.
I find this a challenge for how quickly I should expect to progress – my images tomorrow will be better than my images today (as long as I take images today and tomorrow and in between). A project should take time: how much time do I spend scoping a project and thinking about; how much time to I spend taking images for the project; how much time I spend editing an image; selecting images for putting in a photobook and laying it out?
After my weekend spent with The Americans, I came out thinking that I still wanted to know more about The Americans and about Robert Frank. Therefore, while these thoughts capture where I got to today, I am sure tomorrow my perspective will change.
Some resources I found interesting