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Looking In Robert Frank's The Americans

In the late forties and fifties the problem of American art had been in the subject matter – we painted portraits of ourselves when we did not know who we were, we painted landscapes as fast as we could strip mine the forest, we painted indians as fast as we could kill them and in the time of the industrial revolution we painted ourselves as rustics, it had become clear that a unique brand of American art was being discovered – not just in paint and on paper (as well as sculpture) but in a “newer” form – photography.

It is this “Americanism” that becomes really interesting to me. It is clear to everyone that the influx of European artists help turn the art of that time around in a way that was forward thinking, and put to an end the idea of the french school of easel painting. The “American Painters” such as de Kooning and Rothko, who are clearly immigrants, but are considered “American Painters” led this revolution in the painting world, but photographically it was Robert Frank (Swiss) with his publication of The Americans. It is clear that the role of the European immigrant played as big a role in the art of that time as it has played in the role of industrializing the United States as a whole.

With the publishing of The Americans fifty years ago, Frank establishes a new iconography for contemporary photography that is still in use today, bits of bus depots, lunch counters, cars, anonymous faces, movie stars and the land mass of the sea shore and the great plains, in essence “America” is the subject in all of it’s warts and glitter.

In Hollywood, the publication of The Americans would be the end of the story, it’s success celebrated. However this was not to be with The Americans, in fact it was considered a commercial failure. Later with every passing day (or year) a critical drumbeat was being heard and it became obvious that The Americans, with it’s positive and negative views was as complex as the country it was named for. By the 1970’s it was clear the The Americans was the most influential, and the most important book of photography published in the previous 30 years. This personal political approach would become a standard in how we view photography for the years to come.

To bring this full circle, it was Robert Frank that taught us how to see ourselves as “Americans”.

Currently on view at the National Gallery, Looking In, Robert Frank’s The Americans, marks the Fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Americans, with an exhibit of the book, as well as earlier books and contact sheets from the Frank Archive. I’m thrilled that the show was more than just plowing forward with a linear view of the book (think page one, two, etc), instead it breaks the work into four distinct groups and presents the material in a way that allows for a reading of the work understanding that you will never be able to enforce the linear flow of a book when a show is staged in multiple rooms. The work is as strong and as fresh feeling to me as it was the first time I saw the book in 1983.

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