Robert Frank’s Real America


America changed between the summers of 1955 and ’56—and so did its sense of itself. During those 12 months, we got “Hound Dog” and “Howl,” Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Searchers, Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery bus boycott. Disneyland opened. HUAC’s interrogations were upstaged by The $64,000 Question. James Dean died and was resurrected, eternally young, in Rebel Without a Cause.

The Alexis de Tocqueville of this new New World was Robert Frank. From June 1955 into the following summer, the 31-year-old Swiss-born photographer crossed and re-crossed the continent in a used Ford. Frank’s project, the subject of the Metropolitan Museum’s current exhibit, was, so he wrote to his parents, to document “how Americans live, have fun, eat, drive cars, work, etc.” Did that “etc.” include the magic word, “dream”? For once Frank published these photographs as a book, provocatively called The Americans, it was evident that he had also documented a landscape as much psychic as physical.

Frank’s initial road trip took him from New York through the smoke-stack cities of western Pennsylvania and Ohio to Detroit; his second, from New York to antediluvian Savannah. Supported by a Guggenheim, Frank again headed south in late ’55, driving a circuitous route down through the Old Confederacy to New Orleans, then Texas, taking Route 66 to Las Vegas, and on to Los Angeles. Frank and his young family spent the winter in California, returning to New York by way of Reno, Salt Lake, Butte, the Great Plains, and Chicago—which the photographer revisited for the Democratic Convention in mid-August.

Over the course of his travels, Frank exposed nearly 800 rolls of film. He took snapshots at rodeos, picnics, funerals, and political rallies; his subjects included Detroit assembly line workers, Hoboken politicians, New York City drag queens, the midday crowd on New Orleans’ Canal Street, and countless automobiles. Working ahead of the curve, he completed his trip before the U.S. Congress authorized a 40,000-mile interstate highway system (and before Time gushed that such highways were “really the American art”).

Intimating the loneliness inherent in American notions of freedom, Frank’s photographs reveled in empty two-lane blacktops, seedy bus depots, solitary lunch counters, and all-night diners inhabited by a restless tribe of waitresses, truckers, and midnight cowboys. The Americans suggested an alternate America of dissident subcultures—the black Brandos on their motorcycles, the Native American hitchhikers photographed driving the photographer’s Ford, the New York teenagers clustered around yet another outsize jukebox. Frank also acknowledged that freedom might be just another word, paying particular attention to black America—separate and unequal. That might be why, as a shabby, unshaven, camera-toting foreigner driving through the Deep South with New York plates and a “smart-alecky attitude,” Frank struck at least one local sheriff as a Communist agent—and was arrested in an Arkansas town on the Mississippi border.

There’s a sense in which that cop was right: Frank was an alien spy. His photographs were collected first in France in 1958, illustrating Les américains, a book of short, critical texts by Simone de Beauvoir, Henry Miller, Richard Wright, and de Tocqueville, among others. In early 1960, Grove Press published an American edition. There was no text—rather, Frank’s 83 photographs were the text, as well as the subtext, with Jack Kerouac providing a suitably ecstatic introduction. A few notices were positive. Gilbert Millstein, the New York Times reviewer whose 1957 rave put On the Road on the cultural map, thought Frank had talent. But mainly, Americans took The Americans personally. The book was characterized as “sick,” “warped,” “joyless,” “dishonest,” “sad,” “neurotic,” “marred by spite, bitterness, and narrow prejudice.” Coming from a foreigner, the title was an insult. Why not “Some Americans”? (Noting the “irritable” nature of American patriotism, de Tocqueville had observed that if one appeared to criticize America, an American typically responded as if he himself were under attack.)

Worse, perhaps, Frank depicted God’s country as a wasteland. For centuries, America’s “natural paradise” had been a source of transcendent value—”Is not the landscape, every glimpse of which hath a grandeur, a face of Him?” Emerson asked. The Americans turned that paradise inside out. What had been exalted was ignored, and that which, overly familiar, had been ignored—roadside America’s nowhere-but-everywhere stretch of billboards, drive-ins, and gas stations later called the Strip—was now made strange. In 1955, Walt Disney created one sort of theme park; Robert Frank found another.

We all live in Frank’s America now. Following the initial shock of recognition, The Americans would become one the most influential American artworks of the 20th century. The Met is selling the new Aperture book, Photography After Frank. And An American Journey, the hour-long documentary at Film Forum this week, treats Frank’s The Americans as holy writ. Looking for traces, French filmmaker Philippe Séclier revisits Frank’s locations—the hotel room overlooking downtown Butte, the apartment in Hoboken, the North Carolina barber shop where the photographer cast his shadow on the screen door. Hoping to recover the sacred relic of the barber’s chair, Séclier discovered the shop is long gone. Still, some of Frank subjects are alive—typically with no idea that they’d been photographed, let alone immortalized.

The Met’s catalog—a 500-page, seven-and-a-half-pound door-stopper—surrounds The Americans with massive exegesis, including maps, chronologies, 81 pages of contact sheets, and a guide to Frank’s variant croppings. The book testifies to the labor involved in the photographer’s snapshot, as does the Met’s wall of work prints. Frank exposed 27,000 images, printed 1,000, and used 83—a shooting ratio of 330:1. The work prints are not so much alternate takes as an alternate Americans.

Although The Americans is a book, the exhibition clarifies Frank’s structure. His sense of montage is more apparent; it’s easier to see his visual puns and cross-references when sequenced on the wall. Frank arranged his photographs in four roughly differentiated movements, each announced in the book by the image of an American flag. The first introduces his cast, as well as the artist’s knack for expressionist parody: The Jersey pol with his pursed lips, the exultant Kefauver campaign worker making like Il Duce, the conspiratorial fat cats in the club car to Washington, the frozen-faced starlet, the simpering queens, the portly soldier and his hard-faced companion out for a stroll. All are almost Weimar caricatures.

America is divided, powerful figures alternating with a skeptical, unsmiling population. These stark oppositions continue into the book’s second movement, as Frank focuses on the landscape, discovering unlikely monuments and vistas (a New York City newsstand, a mailbox bisecting the Nebraska plains, a man genuflecting before a jukebox, the view from a mining town hotel window). In some cases—as with the benches of elderly Floridians—people are the landscape. The opening shot of a translucent flag presages a series of mutations: A segregated New Orleans trolley becomes a roll of exposed film; a shrouded car dissolves into a shrouded corpse and then an empty highway.

Heralded by the images of Washington and Lincoln presiding over a Detroit bar, the third chapter is the most complex. Here, images of images are mixed with signs of salvation. Some of the photographs are weirdly pastoral, even transcendent: the gas stations of the cross; a Miami elevator that, the operator’s weary expression notwithstanding, might be the lift to paradise; an empty café with Oral Roberts preaching on the TV against the blast of sunlight that obliterates an adjacent window; cars worshipping an illuminated movie screen; the fierce lyricism of a black evangelist raising his staff down by the river.

The Americans‘ final section seems the most overtly political. Here, the flag blares from a shiny tuba and an outsize neon arrow directs a tiny, hastening pedestrian down a dark street: As was asked in the ’30s, Little Man, What Now? Halfway through, images of mass-produced images and signs of alienated collectivity segue to brutally tender portraits of loners, then couples, some of whom make eye contact with the camera, and finally families, often shown with their cars—as is the photographer’s family in the last image, bringing it all back home.

As Frank’s sign-rich images demand to be read, particularly in context, so his year-long trip has its literary analogues. Taken as lived experience, The Americans is an anti-Walden, a whaling voyage, a sojourn on the Mississippi. Shortly before Frank embarked, the Paris Review published a chunk of On the Road; around the time the photographer left California, Allen Ginsberg gave the first public reading of “Howl.”

Like the beat writers, Frank presented a chaotic countryside at once concrete and allegorical, vital and haunted. His photographs of a Los Angeles street evangelist brandishing a copy of Awake!, the “Christ Died for Our Sins” card taped to an old Chevy, the statue of St. Francis blessing skid row could easily have inspired a Ginsberg poem, a Kerouac riff, or a Dylan line. In his enthusiastic introduction to Frank’s book, Kerouac hailed, “The humor, the sadness, the EVERYTHING-ness and American-ness of these pictures!” In that, however, the writer was expressing his own affirmative sensibility. Taken as narrative, The Americans suggests a dark pilgrim’s progress through a hardscrabble land where beauty sprouts like weeds in a vacant lot—a place subjugated by images and ruled by machines, hypermodern yet underdeveloped, banal but apocalyptic.

With their iconic use of flags, billboards, and TV sets, Frank’s photographs presaged Pop Art; in their dramatic personae, they anticipated the iconography and attitudes of films that would not be made for another dozen years. Frank’s road trip was recapitulated in American movies from Ron Rice’s underground Senseless and Ken Kesey’s unfinished Merry Pranksters epic through the echt ’60s youth films Easy Rider and Two-Lane Blacktop to the more eccentric travelogues of Stranger Than Paradise, Thelma and Louise, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, not to mention Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat.

Photographing himself in America, Frank dramatized a particular sort of American heroism. Soon after he arrived in New York—March 1947, the same Cold War season in which On the Road‘s narrative begins—he wrote to his parents, saying, “I feel as if I’m in a film.” (Driving cross-country some 40 years later, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard would make the same observation.) After The Americans, Frank’s artistic production shifted toward motion pictures—in some, he was the overt subject.

Perhaps the total involvement of The Americans exhausted Frank’s interest in photography. He was already working with Kerouac and painter Alfred Leslie on his first movie, Pull My Daisy, when The Americans was published—and has expressed no small ambivalence toward the youthful enterprise that has remained his defining achievement. Both exhibit and catalog end with a section called “Destroying The Americans.” As curator Sarah Greenough notes, Frank’s relationship to his famous creation is “inextricably linked with his innate suspicion of success, his abhorrence of repetition,” and “a restless desire” (that some might call quintessentially American) “to push his art in new ways.”

Although not many of them travelogues, Frank’s subsequent movies often share The Americans‘ sense of being a stranger in a strange land. A number of these are screening this fall at the Met, including the never-released, 1972 Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues, in which, for one shining moment, Mick Jagger finds himself in an actual Southern juke joint (and thus inside The Americans), and the 1987 feature Candy Mountain, an end-of-the-road film co-directed with novelist Rudy Wurlitzer that, with its northern journey from Lower Manhattan to deepest Nova Scotia, is essentially a disappearing act that mirrors Frank’s own.

A few years later, Frank made a masterful, if little-seen, video piece, C’est vrait!, composed of a single hour-long shot taken mainly from a beat-up van that repeatedly circles through the artist’s Noho neighborhood. More than Candy Mountain, this declaration of truth parodies even as it expunges the memory of the artist’s long-ago trip from sea to shining sea.