Seeing Beauty in Our Shadows Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans,’ unpopular when first published, has shaped the way America looks at itself

Luc Sante – The Wall Street Journal

Copyright The Wall Street Journal
An excerpt.
…Frank essentially abandoned conventional still photography not long after the book came out. He went on to make films, as well as montages and assemblages that employ photographs that are physically altered, sometimes violently. The ultimate success of “The Americans” seems to have cut him much deeper than its transient early failure—he didn’t want to replicate the book, for one thing, and yet every picture he subsequently took would lie in its shadow. Although much of his later work is significant—some of the movies, in particular, are extraordinary, such as “Pull My Daisy” (1959), “Me and My Brother” (1967), and “C’est vrai/One Hour” (1992)—Frank remains so completely identified with “The Americans” that it has threatened to overwhelm his entire life and career. He has been, as they say in entertainment, branded by it, and that’s not necessarily helpful for an artist who wishes to change and grow.
The overt influence of the book on the young may be on the wane these days, in large part because of the different possibilities and demands of digital photography. Among art photographers there may be more interest in manipulation, narrative, scale and deliberate control of the image. In documentary photography, on the other hand, its influence is deep-rooted and seemingly permanent. “The Americans” might be said to have brought agnosticism to photography; it forcefully introduced doubt, as expressed by asymmetry, overlaps, tilts, radical cropping, out-of-focus foregrounds and the use of massed shadows and pulsing glare. That quality has come to be synonymous with truth-telling, even if it has been abused over the years. Until someone comes up with a transformative new way of taking pictures that can convince us it has an even stronger mimetic relationship to the way we actually see, it is likely to stand as such. Even if art photographers are for the nonce more interested in creative ways to concoct falsehoods, the legacy of “The Americans” remains evident and even necessary in journalistic photography. More than a subjective portrait of a particular country at a particular time, the book is an essential treatise of visual vocabulary…
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