THE AMERICANS: THE BANAL MADE GREAT


The fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Robert Franks seminal 1958 book The Americans has spawned a plethora of exhibitions around the world and a re-issue of the book. I had wanted a copy for a very long time and last Christmas I was given a copy of the new edition as a gift. In the intervening months I have looked through it many times,

Jack Kerouac’s introduction captures the  mood of the times and flavour of the book as do the photographs. It is a BIG book so far as impact is concerned but few of the individual shots are stand outs. Most are banal images of banal subjects which when added together creat a remarkable document simply because of the ordinariness of the people and the places.

They are snapshots of the real America of the late Fifties not filtered through the glamour or the grit of the Hollywood movies so familiar to most of us outside of the United States.

The Americans is a black and white vision of Americans both black and white captured by a dispassionate outsider who looked at things that contemporary Americans did not see … the humdrum; the ordinary fragments of ordinary life. I suspect that is why the book had so much impact.

What The Americans brings home to me, a non-American, is the diversity of the people; the occasional glimpse of some of the country’s icons – a kitted Harley Davidson or  Stetson hat on a bebooted cowboy – juxtaposed with the normal sorts of images one could take anywhere.

In the end it is a book about  a particular place steeped in its own myths, at a particular time made by a photographer with a flawless eye, who revealed the reality behind the myth, and in doing so produced one of the photographic master works of the mid-Twentieth Century.

His genius, in my view, lay in his editing rather than his shooting. At first glance I’d have left most of the  photographs in the book sitting on the bench. Robert Frank did not and created high art from the banal.

Exhibitions of The Americans seems to be on tour – it is showing in New York now; it was in Melbourne a couple of months ago and the book. published by Steidl in conjunction with the National gallery of Art, Washington.www.steidl.de

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