(Note: The grammar and misspellings in Kerouac quote are intentional on his part and accurately portray how his text appears in The Americans.)
Robert Frank is generally not interested in being profiled in print. Publicity is a double-edged sword and when you've had your fill—it can often cut the other way—even a mohel's hand can slip.
In 1947 Robert Frank arrived in New York from Switzerland with his camera. His first photo job was shooting Moe, Larry and Curly—The Three Stooges—on a bus tour from high school to high school in Queens.
At each stop the Stooges disembarked to a throng of high school students and the Stooges would play their antics—punch each other's eyes out, pratfalls—etc. Back on the bus, Frank told me, the Stooges would speak of the boys and girls with absolute contempt.
Welcome to America.
Maybe it was this early exposure to the duplicity of success that framed Robert Frank's vision of America—and success—and gave him the necessary tools to remain an enigma sixty years later.
Frank received a Guggenheim grant on the recommendation of photographer Walker Evans in the ‘50s. With this honor in hand Frank set off on a road trip around, across and through the 48 states of the United States of America. Cameras were still not an everyday item for an American in the 1950s. Frank photographed with impunity—few sour glances—although several times he was asked to leave—once at the Ford Motor plant at River Rouge, Michigan where a supervisor feared he might be a Communist.
After all, Frank did speak with an accent.
Father Coughlin, the Catholic priest in sync with Wisconsin's Senator Joe McCarthy, was based in Michigan and had a weekly radio address where he preached many of McCarthy's fears.
The Guggenheim introduction didn't look proper to people who listened to Father Coughlin or Senator Joe McCarthy. Frank was hustled off Ford's premises but not before he took some timeless portraits of life at River Rouge. It should be noted that at River Rouge Ford Motor Company incorporated all phases of auto production. Iron ore was shipped in to make steel, there was a glass making plant on premise and River Rouge had its own power and cement plants. Chemical by-products were sent to another part of the nearly 16 million square feet of plant space to produce paint. Over 90 miles of railroad track and conveyor belts connected the facility. Nearly every aspect of making an automobile was on-site.
Welcome to America in the 1950s.
Frank assembled his photos into a book with the simple title: The Americans. Robert Delpire, a French publisher, published The Americans in Paris in 1958. Frank asked Jack Kerouac to write an introduction for the American edition, published one year later by Grove Press:
"The gasoline monsters stand in New Mexico flats under big sign says SAVE—the sweet little white baby in the black nurse's arms both of them bemused in Heaven, a picture that should have been blown up and hung in the street of Little Rock showing love under the sky and in the womb of our universe the Mother—And the loneliest picture ever made, the urinals that women never see, the shoeshine going on in sad eternity –
Wow, and blown over Chinese cemetery flowers in a San Francisco hill being hammered by potatopatch fog on a March night I'd say nobody there but the rubber cat—
Anybody doesnt like these pitchers dont like potry, see? Anybody dont like potry go home see Television shots of big hatted cowboys being tolerated by kind horses.
Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.
To Robert Frank I now give this message: You got eyes.
And I say: That little ole lonely elevator girl looking up sighing in an elevator full of blurred demons, what's her name & address?"
-- Jack Kerouac
Excerpt from The Americans
The photos in Robert Frank's The Americans are almost inseparable from Kerouac's introduction. At no point were two artists—one visual and the other literary—such a perfect match.
At the time of publication Kerouac's fame was skyrocketing from On The Road though his relationship with Frank was probably more grounding than what he had with others in his peer group. Frank and Kerouac were both outsiders. They were both second to the English language, yet they found themselves immersed in New York's premier literary society of the day—and quickly surpassed their peers.
After initial criticism, The Americans went through the cultural roof and has since become the standard from which all other photography books are judged.