The Americans by Robert Frank

One of the things that I am really poor at is filtering down my photos. I end up with hundreds of photos, most of which, I am never going to use for anything. It was suggested that I look at an iconic book called The Americans by Robert Frank that is particularly noted for the way that it has been edited and presented. Of the 500 rolls of film that were used to shoot the photographs, only 83 images made it to the final book.

Rooming House – Bunker Hill, Los Angeles

The photos were taken on three road trips around America that Frank took in the 1950s with his two children and his wife at the time. Many of the photos include shots that are out of focus or had some blur in them which was a bit shocking at the time and upset many traditional photographers. The fact that he has crossed class and race boundaries to take these photos would have been appalling to many.

I also notice that several of the images have people in them but their faces are obscured, again that would have been a new concept at the time. I particularly like this example called Rooming House – Bunker Hill, Los Angeles.

Frank studied with Alexey Brodovitch, a Russian photographer that revolutionised the images used in Harpers Bazaar magazine. Perhaps it was this influence that encouraged Frank to be so experimental in his images.

Movie Premier – Hollywood

Frank used strong shapes and patterns in his images and there is lots of grain in them. It all helps to show the emotion in a scene rather than the facts of the scene. For example in the image called Movie Premier – Hollywood, instead of the star being in focus he has chosen to focus on the background. At first glance this looks like Frank has been a bit sloppy but actually it highlights what is going on with the onlookers and how they are feeling.

As I look through the book I see lots of photos that don’t tell a conventional story, yet somehow all of them work together to form a larger picture of what life was like across America in the mid fifties. Frank was born in Switzerland and perhaps it is because he was born outside of America, that these sights were new to him, and that he was able to capture the spirit of the age.

After the initial introduction, the photos are laid out with one photo on each right hand page. This enables you to focus on each photo and not be distracted by anything else.

The left hand pages are all blank except for a small page number and the captions for the photos are listed at the back of the book.

This video by the Smithsonian gives a good overview of the book and highlights some of the editing choices made by Frank.

I like the way the book has been put together and will try to do something similar for my documentary assignment.