Robert Frank – The Americans
By Jonah Folbe
Robert Frank, influenced by Walker Evans, aimed to capture America in the most honest way a street photographer could. The Americans, by Robert Frank, portrays American tendencies and culture in the 1950s through the eyes of a foreigner. Robert Frank came to America as a photographer eager to be assimilated by the discovery of the country through photography. He traveled around the country to forty-eight states to form The Americans, and his willingness to do so allowed him to capture the country as a whole. (1) Robert Frank is considered one of the greatest photographers of his time because he was able to find people unaware of how they looked when no one was supposed to be looking. His photographs are so powerful and indicative of the 1950s because the subjects are not of importance, but what they emanate is.
Robert Frank was born in 1924 in Switzerland to a Jewish family. His mother was Swiss and his father was a wealthy German business owner. Lacking interest in business, Frank turned to photography to escape the pressure of his parents’ expectations. As a teen, Frank lived through World War II and although he was safe from Nazism, he learned about the realities of oppression. Frank was raised in a secular home, yet he was exposed to some anti-Semitism because he lived in a fairly predominate German neighborhood growing up.(2) His contact with oppressiveness affected Frank and later influenced his work in The Americans. Frank learned photography from local professionals in his town, which allowed him to create and publish his first photo book, 40 fotos. As soon as he could, Frank immigrated to New York in 1947 to pursue photography.(3) While he lived in New York, Robert Frank worked for different magazines, including Life. After working in the magazine industry for some time, Frank applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship.(4) Once he was accepted, Frank was sent on an expedition to photograph American society. The project was a perfect opportunity for an immigrant and outsider to learn and understand America’s cultural norms.
It is important to discern between Frank as a foreigner and as an immigrant to interpret his perspective. In essence, he is both, but each part of him influenced him in different ways. Growing up in a German town during World War II, as a Jew, made Robert Frank feel foreign even to his own home. Then when Frank came to America, his feeling of foreignness was amplified by having an accent and cultural differences. This greatly influenced his work in The Americans and can be seen through his connection and relation to the ostracized, largely his African American subjects. One of Frank’s most powerful photographs, “Charleston – SC,” exemplifies his congruency with his African American subjects as well as his nature as a foreigner. “Charleston – SC” is of an African American maid holding a white child.
This photograph would have never been taken by an American at the time because of the contentiousness surrounding race segregation. But Frank, not interested in America’s cultural barriers, photographed an embodiment of the bond between working African American women and their employers’ white children. Moreover, Frank became an immigrant when he made the conscious decision to make America his home over any other country. Frank’s right to choose his own home showed that he was attracted to America and its people. As an immigrant, Frank was able to photograph America with an unbiased lens and an ethnographic eye. In addition, Frank, as a foreigner and immigrant, had a hankering to assimilate into American culture and planned to do so by exposing himself to all facets of American life. This led him to take on the forty-eight state trip sponsored by the Guggenheim Fellowship.
On his trip Frank took photos of overlooked happenings and mannerisms in America. These types of photographs are common throughout his photo book and are part of its attractiveness. Furthermore, Robert Frank’s fascination with America’s diverse group of people led him to photograph African Americans, whites, and religious and non-religious Americans. In addition, Robert Frank photographed the clear class differentiation in cities and in rural settings, which was a major part of life at the time. Moreover, on his trip, Frank became attracted to American objects like the jukebox, gas stations, and automobiles. His ability to aesthetically photograph these mundane objects helped turn them into symbols of the 1950s. Robert Frank was able to connect all of his photos together in The Americans with a common theme, which speaks to his intelligence as a photographer. In all, Ann Arbor, in my mind, can be captured in a similar way to Robert Frank. Ann Arbor, as a college town, is filled with interesting people, places, and events. When captured, Ann Arbor will be exposed by the relationships people have with each other and their surroundings. Around every corner are eye-opening happenings that are taking place, whether the pedestrians walking down the street happen to notice them or not. Ann Arbor will be captured with the Robert Frank mentality of documentary photography, seen through a foreigner and immigrant’s curious eye.
Below is a video of an interview with Robert Frank. In the interview, Frank touches on how he took his photographs, how he came to structure “The Americans,” and how it became the inspirational photo book it is today.