Influences: Robert Frank’s “The Americans”


Robert Frank – Trolley, New Orleans, 1955

There are two book that I’ve read that have changed the way I live.

I’ve read a lot of books, and many have had a profound influence on me.  Some have shown me different ways of seeing situations, many have given me new insight on historical events, a lot have introduced me to people I’ve never known, or shared something about familiar people I had no idea about.  But there are two specific books that have physically changed the way I live my life.

One is the Holy Bible, and the other is On The Road by Jack Kerouac.

I first read On The Road in the summer of 1991.  I had finished my Associate of Arts degree and I was working in Downtown Los Angeles as a file clerk at the Federal Reserve Bank.  On my resume, that job reads “Records Distribution Coordinator”, no joke.  It was all the stale, dry, lifeless office work that you would expect, Office Space writ large.

There was actually part of me that actually was drawn to staying there, trying to make that job last. I was making more money than I had ever made before, or would make again for a long time.  It gave me stability, and I found comfort there.  Then I began reading On The Road.  I kept the used paperback in my back pocket, pulling it out on my lunch hour, and on the commute to and from work.  I inhaled that book.

“Whooee!” yelled Dean. “Here we go!” And he huched oveer the wheel and gunner her; he was back in his element, everybody could see that.  We were all delighted, we all realized wee were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move.  And we moved! We flased pas the mysterious white signs in the night somwhere in New Jersey that say SOUTH (with an arrow) and WEST (with an arrow) and took the south one.  New Orleans!  It burned in our brains.”

It burned in my brain, too.  Suddenly, my life wasn’t about safety, it was about freedom. It wasn’t about staying in one place, it was about seeing as many things as possible.  Settling down verses not settling for anything less than everything.  That book lit a fire in me, as it has done for a couple of generations now.

Robert Frank did well to ask Jack Kerouac to write an introduction to “The Americans”.

In 1955, Swiss born photographer Robert Frank scored a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation and went on the road himself, across America to capture this great and spacious land.  What he produced, a book entitled “The Americans”, also burned in peoples brains.  It was an atomic bomb in the Atomic Age, a document that both enshrined  and damned the population.  It holds the very foundational tenants of the United States up for review, where they are tried and found wanting, but without any of the mocking, self-referential, bombastic tone that would be used today.  And that is because, underneath those obvious layers, therein lies the very foundational experiences about life itself here, birth and death, success and failure, the powerful and the powerless, all in glorious black and white.

And, it was very, very cool.

It was a book that could have only been produced in the mid-1950’s.  When segregation was still the norm in many parts of the country, when the road was still a ribbon of highway through vast spaces of undeveloped lands, and when people weren’t so (falsely) self-aware.

Then there are the cars.  Classic, cool cars that obviously weren’t “classic” at the time, the Packards and the Buicks, hoods lined with chrome portholes, that were just the daily drivers of the time.  Same with the jukeboxes, those toys that get all the hipsters trembling nowadays were a dime a dozen back then.  And the lunch counters, once ubiquitous but now just another lost tradition from a bygone age.  I’ve said before that photography is the closest thing we have to a time machine.  Looking through The Americans, I’m more convinced of that then ever.

Robert Frank broke a lot of rules with The Americans.  And he pissed a lot of people off.

When I first laid my hands on The Americans, I got the exact same rush, same fire that was ignited in me when I read On The Road.  After spending time with these pictures, I just wanted to get out, to MOVE, to go and find out what is out there now.  What is left from Robert Frank’s time, and what is still lingering on.

The Americans isn’t just about great photographs, it’s about people trying to find out what this life is about.  People trying to get ahead, and people just trying to get by.  And, it’s about how ridiculous it all is.  And it’s about people who, even in the midst of that, still have hope.

On The Road and The Americans are two works that really shake me up, out of my stupor.  To this day.  Together they affirm for me that when I finally come to my death bed, when at last they lay me down on that bed I won’t get up from, I am confident that one of the thoughts that won’t run through my head is, “You know,  I should have watched more television.”


One thought on “Influences: Robert Frank’s “The Americans”

  1. Pingback: Influences: The Bikeriders by Danny Lyon | Generator Photography

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