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”.
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.
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.
- Frank, R (foreward by Kerouac, J) (2017). The Americans. 11th edition Steidl (ISBN 978-3-86521-584-0)
- Wikipedia (2018) Jack Kerouac Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Kerouac [Accessed 4th March 2018]
- 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]