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  Sunday  September 14  2008    10: 00 AM

book recommendation

The Americans
by Robert Frank

The Americans is legendary. It's been out of print for a while and I had never seen it. Now we have a 50th anniversary edition that is probably the best edition yet. Beautifully printed. And what images! I can see why this has been called the most influential photo book ever. Anyone with any interest in photography must see this book. Now. From Amazon:

In this 50th anniversary reissue, celebrated photographer Frank maintains the format (left page: brief caption, right page: photo) and introduction (Jack Kerouac: "with the agility, mystery, genius, sadness and strange secrecy of a shadow Frank photographed scenes that have never been seen before on film"), the images themselves have been re-scanned, re-cropped by Frank and, in two cases, changed. Frank's images, taken all across the country, leave the viewer with a solemn impression of American life. From funerals to drug store cafeterias to parks, Frank recorded every shade of everyday life he encountered: the lower and upper classes, the living and dead, the hopeful and destitute, all the while experimenting with angle, focus and grain to increase impact. Preceding an exhibition that will tour U.S. galleries in 2009, this volume will no doubt introduce new generations to Frank's inimitable record of daily life fifty years ago. Kerouac says, fittingly, that "after seeing these pictures you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin"; those who don't comprehend Kerouac's comment have yet to experience this classic collection.

Photo-Eye has several articles on The Americans.

The Americans 50th Anniversary

Robert Frank's The Americans is vital to the here and now—as vital to the present moment as it was fifty years ago upon first publication. This is all you need to know. The rest, as they say, is commentary. Around the time I turned 40 in 1985, I began to read classics I had not gotten around to, was never assigned, or could not penetrate as a reader with no agenda. Books become classics not because teachers assign them. A book becomes a classic when it speaks to readers or viewers, across time, across politics—when it is the rare enduring expression of a unique consciousness so rooted in its own time and place that time is transcended: a voice from the past that speaks to a reader in the present. The Americans is such a book, no less so than Moby Dick or Madame Bovary.


Robert Frank, Gunslinger with Camera

Robert Frank is generally not interested in being profiled in print. Publicity is a double-edged sword and when you've had your fill—it can often cut the other way—even a mohel's hand can slip.

In 1947 Robert Frank arrived in New York from Switzerland with his camera. His first photo job was shooting Moe, Larry and Curly—The Three Stooges—on a bus tour from high school to high school in Queens.

At each stop the Stooges disembarked to a throng of high school students and the Stooges would play their antics—punch each other's eyes out, pratfalls—etc. Back on the bus, Frank told me, the Stooges would speak of the boys and girls with absolute contempt.

Welcome to America.


Robert Frank
by Walker Evans

Assuredly the gods who sent Robert Frank, so heavily armed, across the United States did so with a certain smile.

Photographers are often surprised at some of the images they find on their films. But is it an accident that Frank snapped just as those politicians in high silk hats were exuding the utmost fatuity that even a small office-seeker can exhibit. Such strikes are not purely fortuitous. They happen consistently for expert practitioners. Still, there remains something mysterious about their occurrence, for which an analytical onlooker can merely manufacture some such nonsensical phrase as "the artist’s crucial choice of action."

But these examples are not the essence of Frank’s vision, which is more positive, large, and basically generous. The simple picture of a highway is an instance of Frank’s style, which is one of the few clear cut signatures possessed by any of the younger photographers. In this picture, instantly you find the continent. The whole page is haunted with American scale and space, which the mind fills quite automatically—though possibly with memories of negation of violence or of exhaustion with thoughts of bad cooking, extremes of heat and cold, law enforcement, and the chance to work hard in a filling station.


Members of the photography world on Robert Frank and The Americans

Robert Frank’s Unsentimental Journey
Published in 1958, Robert Frank’s photographic manifesto, The Americans, torched the national myth, bringing him such comrades as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and—for a controversial documentary—the Rolling Stones. On a trip to China, the 83-year-old rebel of postwar film still defies expectations.

Robert Frank, the photographic master, the last human being it’s been said to discover anything new behind a viewfinder, collapsed in a filthy Chinese soup shop and no one had thought to bring along a camera.


They didn't know they were famous
51 years later, Indy couple ID'd as faces in iconic photo

Robert Frank, meet Mack and T Smiley.

The mystery couple in the photograph taken in Indianapolis 51 years ago by Frank for his seminal book, "The Americans," have been identified as Matthew and Telester Smiley, known to all their friends as Mack and T.

Several relatives and acquaintances recognized them in the photo published in Sunday's Indianapolis Star and brought it to the attention of Telester Smiley, now 76.

On Tuesday, she pored over pictures of her husband at her Northwestside home, showing him with his beloved Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Mack Smiley passed away in 1996 at age 69. They were married for 47 years.

"He was crazy about that motorcycle," she said.