Though they may not always like to admit it, Americans have known for centuries that sometimes the best way to get a good picture of the U.S. is to see it through foreign eyes. Alexis de Tocqueville did a dead-on reading of the place. So did Charles Dickens. And Borat. Though he's neither French, British nor particularly funny, Robert Frank fits into that illustrious company. He was just 23 when he emigrated to the U.S. from Switzerland in 1947. After spending a couple of years as a fashion photographer in New York City, he returned to Europe to roam around making grave, enigmatic shots of whatever caught his eye. Then he came back to the U.S., did the same here and collected his pictures into what would eventually be judged not just as one of the greatest photography books of the 20th century, but also as a cultural watershed generally, a big, cranky hinge the mood of the American Century turned on.
That book was The Americans (Steidl; 180 pages). To mark its 50th anniversary, it's being reissued this month. And Frank's masterpiece is reappearing at the same time as another almost literally groundbreaking photo book. The New West (Aperture; 120 pages), which first came out in 1974, was Robert Adams' bid to document the world of Ansel Adams--no relation--being devoured by the forces of environmental degradation and suburban sprawl. Both these books changed what it was possible to show. More than that, they changed what it was possible to see.
Frank read his adopted nation as very few other photographers had in the mid-1950s. He saw it through the filter of his own somber disposition, to be sure, but with a conviction that the most direct route into the heart of things was by way of what were supposed to be the margins. He liked to be anyplace he could find people who were forlorn, pensive, manic or needy. Exaltation attracted him too. What other word to apply to the mood of that intense man in white praying at the water's edge in Mississippi River, Baton Rouge, Louisiana? And everywhere, he paused in wonder at big, glowing jukeboxes dispensing their industrial light and magic into the darkness.
As Frank put it later, his goal was to make pictures that would constitute "an authentic contemporary document; the visual impact should be such as will nullify explanation." Which they did--and then some. The parameters of American photography in the 1950s were largely set by magazines like LIFE and Look. More often than not, their taste ran to shots that were crisp as an apple, easily deciphered, and put a bright spin on things. Frank's were blurred, murky, tilted and mysterious. In Parade--Hoboken, New Jersey, the Stars and Stripes flutter between two bunkered enigmas, an image radically at odds with the national dogma of strength and good cheer.
When Frank first shopped his photos around, no American publisher wanted anything to do with them, so they first appeared in book form in France in 1958. One year later a U.S. edition was brought out by Grove Press, the combative imprint that had published Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch. The Grove edition came with an introduction by no less a hipster than Jack Kerouac. Whatever you think of his feverish prose ("The charging restless mute unvoiced road keening in a seizure of tarpaulin power ..."), in one lovely line Kerouac got the book just right. "After seeing these pictures," he wrote, "you end up finally not knowing anymore whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin."
Very soon more conventional critics got hold of Frank's book. "Sick" and "joyless" were two of the milder terms they used. But in the 1960s, amid the general dismantling of all national certainties, The Americans was revisited and then very quickly understood as indispensable. For one thing, it brought to American photography the same tragic dimension that American fiction had arrived at long before. It also paved the way for a new kind of documentary photography, one that was more personal and idiosyncratic and much stranger. Because of The Americans, Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander, virtuosos of the mordant and off-kilter, could take pictures the way they did--and we could understand them.
Because of Frank, it was also possible to make sense of Robert Adams when he came along in the 1970s to plant the flag of art at the edge of civilization, meaning the fast-growing townlets eating up Colorado. The great tradition of Western landscape photography, the one stretching from the 19th century to Ansel Adams, treated nature as paradise, as God's own message board. Robert Adams--no relation to Ansel--loved that tradition but knew it wasn't adequate to tell the story of the new West, full of strip malls and tract housing as sunstruck and flimsy as next year's ghost town.
And of people, like the woman silhouetted in her living-room window in Colorado Springs, trapped in their new suburban compartments. Adams' book helped create a new kind of landscape photography, tough-minded about the mess humans make, that's been pursued by Richard Misrach, Edward Burtynsky and scores of others. Just like Frank, Adams turned American vision toward some darker realities. But if we couldn't look in that direction, why would that qualify as vision at all?
Art Blog Richard Lacayo writes daily about art and architecture at time.com/lookingaround