Where were you when you first saw Robert Frank’s The Americans?
I first saw The Americans as a graduate student. Steve Bliss, my professor at SCAD, projected Frank’s images while remarking upon the significance of the work at the time it was published. I vividly remember the image of a covered car, wedged between two palm trees, in front of a concrete house. The light was so golden; it must have been California. It was a modest home by American standards, spare, minimal and functional. It reminded me of the houses I had often seen in Latin America, where poured concrete is a common building material. The prized possession for the occupant of this home was not the house, but the car- covered by a protective cloth, illuminated by the golden light, it was the coveted manifestation of the American Dream. Here, in America, a young man could fulfill his greatest desires, attaining status and success. And yet there is a simultaneous sadness to the scene, a spiritual emptiness. The land of milk and honey offers a twisted promise. Frank’s critique of America, his articulation of its painful ironies, is subtle but insistent. This image, an illuminated silhouette of a shrouded car, reminds one of another image - a bleak mound of dirt bulging from the sandy earth; a modest grave and a pomp-less funeral. There are true stories in Frank’s pictures, but they are ambiguous tales connected by the threads of a shared human condition.
What is the importance of The Americans to you?
Frank’s book is seminal in so many ways. It is a testament to the power of one man's conviction, and a commitment to that truth. These images bear witness to a reality that Frank saw and felt, at a time when such critical candor was silenced. His work and his commitment to having it seen against the tide of popular opinion is a reminder of the responsibility and importance for the artist to remain true to a core self.
How has The Americans affected the way you practice or think about photography today?
I returned to The Americans when I began thinking about the structure of Snowbound. I was not interested in a narrative, or even linear, sequence.
Instead, I sought a comprehensive relationship between ideas that were manifest in the images themselves. This same dynamic is at play in The Americans. There is power in ambiguity and resonance in empty spaces.
Frank demonstrates this over and over again in his images and the way they relate to each other in the book.
In a more abstracted sense, Robert Frank’s The Americans is like T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, or Picasso’s Guernica. It is an epic visual poem, at once specific and universal, historical and metaphorical, personal and political. One cannot encounter such work and not be changed by it, though the precise nature of such impact may never be fully known or understood. It strikes a chord that becomes part of one’s own resonance, from somewhere deep within.