Today, when I pulled out my copy of The Americans and opened it, that musty smell filled the air. I had not looked at the book in perhaps twenty years. And I have the 1969 edition. When I bought The Americans, I was a newspaper photographer for the Livermore Independent; I made my living by taking images of Americans living in suburbia. Frank’s images were of the other Americans somehow left over from The Grapes of Wrath, lonely and alienated.
I knew his book was a total counterpoint to National Geographic’s view of the world: color, wheat fields, home, flag, new cars, the good life. Frank’s image, for example, of the elevator operator in Miami Beach shows a woman whose job was pushing buttons to take people up and down -- a job without hope. There are shots of lonely highways, lonely bars, and lonely individuals trying to find their way in society; a society built on homeownership, “men” with responsible jobs, and children having birthday parties at ice cream parlors. Frank somehow was never a part of this culture.
50th Aniversary Edition of Robert Frank: The Americans, Steidl, 2008
Frank’s image of the Adlai Stevenson supporter playing a tuba under the American flag at a political rally in Chicago is a beautiful image, and all three people in the image remain faceless. Again, National Geographic would not publish this type of image, as their view of America was up-beat, as they had advertisers. Frank photographed the American lonely souls who were living in the shadow of Jack Kerouac.
The Americans is an important book to me because it was a monograph, the first of its kind to be published showing a photographer’s point of view about America. I knew I also wanted to publish a monograph showing America as I saw it. I would draw inspiration from FSA photographs by Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Russell Lee, as well as W. Eugene Smith, Bruce Davidson and Robert Frank. I wanted to make photographs that communicated something about the human condition; Frank was able to communicate this in a clear and decisive way.
Now, 50 years later, the world is changed. For example, I know of a woman photographer who published a photograph of her black eye after her boyfriend beat her up. I wonder what Frank would have to say about that image. I personally want to move on and take images of Americans as they are today, at the mall, at the ballpark, at home, or at NASCAR races. We live in a fascinating culture.