Like most photographers I have been aware of Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ for a long time – I haven’t avoided it, rather just edged my way round it – not wanting to feel exposed to it, thinking that it might confuse me or leave me cold, when perhaps I would have wanted to ‘get-it’. Looking at prints in any order has been a contrarian habit of mine for a long time, often starting at the end of an exhibition and working to the front and I was aware that Frank spent a long time working the order of his photographs. I also knew about Kerouac’s introduction, and I don’t usually read introductions, I once did and not only did it tell the ending it told me of the ending that was originally written, but then discarded by peer and agent pressure. I read the book; I read the introduction first; I looked at the images in the order of – front to back.
Kerouac’s medium was one of words, his talent was to pull and shape words into a palette and then use them to paint them into picture in a way that perhaps only poets have, because that’s the reason they are poets. The introduction was a joy to read itself, the metering set the tone for the experience of the photographs, if I had not known of Frank’s work I may have fell for them because of this introduction. Kerouac’s verbal imagery sits as beautifully on the page as each of Frank’s images, these words set the tempo for the book and their inclusion seems so important. Frank talks about his book and Kerouac’s involvement here in this Jeu de Paume interview; fascinating.
Consider this single sentence from this beat poet towards the end of the introduction: “ Drain your basins in old Ohio and the Indian and the Illini plains, bring your Big Muddy rivers thru Kansas and the mudlands, Yellowstone in the frozen North, punch lake holes in Florida and L.A., raise your cities in the white plain, cast your mountains up, bedawze the west, bedight the west with brave hedgerow cliffs rising to Promethean heights and fame – plant your prisons in the basin of the Utah moon – nudge Canadian groping lands that end in Arctic bays, purl your Mexican ribneck, America – we’re going home, going home.” It reads like a lyric poem, because I think it is one. A verse to these wonderful pictures that tell a compelling story of an ‘outsider’ in a land discovering the Americans for the Americans to muse at, it’s interesting to note that in the Jeu de Paume interview he reckons he couldn’t have made this work in his home country of Switzerland – and maybe no-one has ever dared to complete an “outsiders’ view of that particular Nation State, but that discussion is for another place and time. This book enabled Americans to see their reflections in these images that tell their story in a moment in time.
Perhaps unfortunately I looked at the photographs with the association of Tom Wood’s exhibition still echoing in my mind, which is perhaps particularly unfair on Wood, but Frank’s titles are no more than statements of fact – ‘Elevator – Miami Beach’, ‘Car accident – U.S. 66, between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona’, Bar – Gallup, New Mexico’. These images are left to us, the viewers, to make of them what we will. We provide most of the contextual narrative with our personal cultural baggage that seems to have been towed around most of the States in the Union in the trunk of Frank’s beat up “old car”. We look at photographs like “Assembly line – Detroit” and we are invited to consider the one man whose head is held in focus, in stasis in a moment of ponderous thought, and then looking across that ‘Assembly line’ we see a uniformed man – we can guess at what our subject is thinking, we are allowed to project a sense of how that man is feeling at that time in “Motor-City”. Another, “Charleston, South Carolina” is such a poignant image as to wonder how America lasted as long as it did without the rivers of blood that it witnessed in the decade that followed this photograph being taken, more literal than Parks’ ‘American Gothic‘, but just as telling.
Each image in the book conjures these types of thoughts for me, and perhaps that’s what has made this a seminal work, it is a partnership between reader and writer, between the free scope of Frank’s lens and the society that existed then, but does not do so now. A society, like all societies, that was beset with troubles then but which are altogether different now. In Frank’s images not a single gun on view, but this piece from Der Spiegel looks at how guns were promoted during the time that Frank was collecting his Americans. I wonder what a contemporary Frank might make of the panorama today, one that didn’t need the directing titles of Tom Wood, but the subtlety of a Frank lens shining light on a troubled people.
I will leave the last word to Kerouac, his closing sentences from the introduction.
Anybody doesn’t 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.