Assuredly the gods who sent Robert Frank, so heavily armed, across the United States did so with a certain smile. - Walker Evans
I have been frequently accused of deliberately twisting subject matter to my point of view. Above all, I know that life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference. Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love. It is important to see what is invisible to others. Perhaps the look of hope or the look of sadness. Also, it is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph. - Robert Frank
(Maloney, ed., US Camera 1958, pp. 90, 115)
Since before World War II no book by a single photographer has had a greater impact than Robert Frank's Les Américains ("The Americans"). Frank, a Swiss emigré with an incisive eye and a devoted mission at heart, traveled the length and breadth of the United States in 1955 and 1956 under the auspices of two Guggenheim Fellowships. In Eisenhower's America, during Senator Joe McCarthy's reign, this diminutive man with a strong accent traversed the barren landscapes of the West's deserts visiting cowboy bars, riding with truckers and exploring Detroit, Los Angeles, New York and Sandusky, Ohio taking pictures that would reflect America in a mirror not many cared to view themselves in.
While Frank's project was essentially documentary in feeling, taking its cues from his friend Walker Evans' 1936 American Photographs catalogue, Bill Brandt's vision of England and Dorothea Lange's photographs for the Farm Security Administration, Frank's project was uniquely his own. Conceived of as a book from the very beginning, The Americans is a cinematic sequencing of still images, linked snapshots that flow cohesively. Frank brought a plasticity to his images that was painterly and rough, tender but dark so that his appeal to his contemporaries in the Beat Movement and New York School in painting is easily understood. The flexibility of the Leica and the inherent qualities of 35mm photography when combined by Frank result in images that are insistent in their lyrical authenticity.
City Fathers, Hoboken is a timeless image of political machinery, a theme that is often repeated in the book. The flat, cardboard cutout figures, the uniform and quintessential costuming and the way each alderman is seemingly fishing in the pocket of the man in front of him creates a sense of perpetual corruption captured. In the oversized print offered here, with its almost Pointillist effect of high grain, the figure group seems that much more unreal, that much more an interpretation of something quite familiar. Like Jimi Hendrix's recording at Woodstock, a decade after the book's publication, of a highly amplified and distorted (The) Star Spangled Banner, Frank similarly conveys America, playing the medium of hand-held photography like a left-handed electric guitarist with 10,000 watts at his ready.