The Americans

02 -The Americans
Cover of Robert Franks The Americans

Franks (2017), The Americans contains a series of photographs taken in 1955 and 1956 by the photographer.

The edition that I’ve read is very clean in its presentation. The book jacket has not details on the inside and in fact has the familiar photo of a group of people looking out of the window of a trolley bus.

Each photograph is on a single page, with the preceding page containing just the caption of the photo.

The book contains an introduction from the author and poet Jack Kerouac. Not having read anything by Kerouac but looking at his Wikipedia (2018) entry, his introduction seems to exhibit his style, poetic, almost free flowing, off the cusp, written in response to the photographs that follow.

The book is a snapshot of an America that has long gone. A peek back into history and a time where every country, and not just the USA, was rebuilding from a war that had engulfed the world.

The Civil Rights Movement was still in its infancy. Segregation of children by race had been ruled un-constitutional in 1954. In 1955, Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old African-American from Chicago was lynched for an alleged interaction with a white woman. Later that year and into 1956, Rosa Parks came to prominence when she refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white passenger, which led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

One image that stands out for me is of a coloured woman holding a white baby. The caption reads “Charleston, South Carolina”.

02 - Charleston South Carolina
Charleston, South Carolina

An image like that today wouldn’t stand out as much. It could be a woman holding a friend’s baby while they chat on a street? But if looked at in the context of the time then its meaning changes. We can make assumptions about what we’re seeing but without being able to see outside the edges of the frame we cannot completely understand what we are seeing. Although we can be certain that either this photograph was taken from a distance without the subject’s knowledge or that the subject and the parents of the baby must have been aware of what was happening and been happy with it.

In a lot of the photographs the subject seems unaware that their image is being captured. In some of these there are wonderful moments when a person is staring directly at the camera. Letting you know that they are aware of what is happening and almost challenging the viewer by refusing to look away. Some of those gazes are direct and obvious, others, although still direct are not so obvious because of the distance between the person and the camera.

02- Courthouse Square
Courthouse Square, Elizabethville, North Carolina

As an introduction to the work of Robert Franks, I think that The Americans is very good. As a window on American society in the 1950s I think it’s excellent.

References

  1. Frank, R (foreward by Kerouac, J) (2017). The Americans. 11th edition Steidl (ISBN 978-3-86521-584-0)
  2. Wikipedia (2018) Jack Kerouac Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Kerouac [Accessed 4th March 2018]
  3. Wikipedia (2018) Wikipedia (2018) African-American civil rights movement (1954–1968) Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African-American_civil_rights_movement_(1954%E2%80%931968) [Accessed 4th March 2018]

6 thoughts on “The Americans”

  1. Great blog of what I now realise to be a seminal photo book Jenna. I really like street / documentary photography for the reason you highlight; that historical contexts can change the nature and interpretation of the images. You just have to wait at least 20-30 years in most cases to get the full impact!

    Looking at historical photos through both contemporaneous and today’s contexts is fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m going to need to buy me a copy after your review. A film that moves me is Ride to Freedom, the Rosa Parks story, and another is called The Great Debaters, which is based upon the life of Melvin B Thompson, who established a black debate team. He worked hard to establish interracial collegiate debates in the early 1930’s. Although the film depicts them beating Harvard, they actually debated and beat the reigning national debating champions The University of Southern California (all white college). He was a truly great and inspiring man.

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  3. Hi Jenna, thanks for the reminder of a great photographer – The Americans is a wonderful and important collection. I was lucky enough to see an exhibition of the photographs in San Francisco back in 2009 – before I got really interested in photography as art, and I wandered around the rooms having a bit of an epiphany – important, meaningful photographs can also be art.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The exhibition I went to recently with some other OCA students had lots of different things, paintings, sculptures, photographs, but so many other things that I wouldn’t have thought of as art. It was eye opening seeing how in the right context something everyday can become art.

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  4. Jenna, I thought this was a very interesting blog and the picture of the Black lady with the white baby in Charleston, South Carolina being very poignant. I must do some research myself on Frank. Thanks.

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