His intent was to “compare disparate objects with thematic ties,” according to the exhibit statement, and he did that brilliantly, beginning with early photographs before his seminal book that put a photo of radio tubes across from a photo of musicians. By juxtaposing people with objects, he created a new way of thinking about their relationship.
“I am always looking outside, trying to look inside, trying to say something that is true. But maybe nothing is really true. Except what’s out there. And what’s out there is constantly changing.”
--Robert Frank, 1985.
Frank used the flag to essentially separate parts of the book, and this was a tool to create categories. Used quietly, yet effectively, we cannot see the faces, and so it is the abstract of the symbol of America that we see. In the way he put images together, he created a relationship between them that was not always readily apparent. Yet the longer you look at the images, the more you see and understand.
Frank was not just photographing America, he was commenting on race, class, and culture. He wanted to allude to the way in which Americans communicate with each other and with the larger culture. This amazing book is thoughtful, deep beyond the surface, and exciting for the layers you can peel back to discover a more caustic comment on this country.
The photo of Detroit assembly-line workers above was across from this photo of back room politicians at a Chicago convention, commenting on class and the distance between men working side by side. Contrast that with the physical closeness of the power brokers. The physical comfort of the politicians versus the coldness between the workers. One group is on the clock, one has all the time in the world.
The thought that went into culling thousands upon thousands of images into 83 and putting them into a book is something few photographers seem to think deeply about. Too often I think a book becomes just a place to showcase a number of images that may or may not be related, but are frequently related only by subject. The time Frank took to edit and sequence his work, to THINK about his work, his intent, and his audience needs to be studied and celebrated.
With The Americans, Frank examined his work by printing out images and playing with their order. He took the time to discover which images HAD TO be together. And by doing this, Frank created a body of work which still surprises and educates.
How many photographers can really say the same?