Looking at Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’

  By John Veldhoen

Jack Kerouac wrote the introduction to Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ and what more could I say, especially avoiding Kerouac’s ‘crazy’ be-bop hullabaloo? He says it himself, that the “holy halo” of a certain cast of light “could never be described in its visual entirety in words”. But it may just be that I am more willing to abstract from the photograph, attempting to write a phenomenological review of this seminal book that has, time and again, been referred to as the greatest photobook, and the standard by which all others might be judged.

It goes beyond recommendation to say it, but if my reader wanted to start a collection of photography books, this would be a good place to start. So much has been written and made in the wake of this book, too. I think it well worth mentioning Fred Richin’s book “Photography After Frank” and the compendium to the original ‘The Americans”, “Looking in Robert Frank’s the Americans”. As well, I think the strongest photographic work to my way of looking and thinking from the last few years carries some strange trace of Frank, especially Doug Rickard’s work entitled “A New American Picture”, as well as Zoe Strauss’ “America”. Readers interested in Frank himself might find the documentary “Leaving Home, Coming Home” edifying. Even without an interest in photographs, I think it is a powerful and compelling story.

The word America certainly carries a different connotation in my mind. I think of it meaning the new world, even still. As part of that mentality, I have nothing but the greatest respect for those who can capture it, and use it, as far as redemptive aesthetics can go. And the start of it, at least using a camera, does come from looking at Robert Frank’s “The Americans”.

So, on a Saturday night, that’s what I am doing. I hope you will indulge me in describing without entirety only one picture in the book, the first, of a broken Hoboken, as seen by a baudad… A Tocquevillian flag made of the desiderata of stars and stripes obscures a person behind it, calling to mind a famous inspirational poem, and the last stanza:

“Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labours & aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery & broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.”

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In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.