In the mid-1950s, photographer Robert Frank captured an unsentimental picture of America that still resonates today. He spent two years crisscrossing the country to chronicle ordinary people and discovered a population separated by racism, social isolation, political manipulation and rampant consumerism - divisions still ingrained in the culture.
Mr. Frank assembled his black-and-white photos into a portfolio that was published by Grove Press in 1959 and simply called “The Americans.” The book only sold about 1,100 copies and suffered harsh reviews. Its images of a segregated streetcar, desolate cemeteries and rundown bars were seen as a punch to the smiling face of the happy, prosperous nation.
That all changed when younger photographers rediscovered the book in the 1960s and began copying Mr. Frank’s raw, off-kilter style. His influence came to shape both art and commercial photography (Mr. Frank’s best-known work may be the album cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street”).
Today, the unsettling, gritty scenes of “The Americans” still look fresh, arrayed in a timely exhibition at the National Gallery of Art celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication.
“Looking In: Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’” reveals as much about Mr. Frank’s creative process as his seminal book. His collected images may appear casual, but they involved rigorous editing and cropping. The photographer narrowed down the more than 27,000 frames taken over two years to a mere 83 for the book.
Organized by photography curator Sarah Greenough, “Looking In” exposes his selection methods through contact sheets, working arrangements of images and mock-ups of the book. It shows how Mr. Frank originally organized his photos into themes - race, religion, politics, cars, landscape - by tacking them to the walls.
A grouping of such prints is as interesting for those images left out, including the portrait of a young Robert Kennedy, as those that were ultimately chosen.
Mr. Frank’s interest in portraying people in everyday settings developed earlier in his career. The exhibit includes photos from 1941 to 1952 to show how he closely observed Welsh miners and London bankers in scenes as intimate as “The Americans.”
Born in Zurich, Mr. Frank took up photography as a teenager and absorbed the modern style prevalent in Europe. When Switzerland began feeling “too closed, too small,” the young artist moved to New York in 1947.
A job shooting fashion models for Harper’s Bazaar was soon jettisoned for travel in South America and Europe - and three more books. “Peru” (1949) recorded his encounters with native cultures; “Mary’s Book” presented Parisian views in a love letter to his wife; and “Black White and Things” (1952) combined dark city streets with misty landscapes from his various trips.
Mr. Frank’s career was helped by his mentor, the great photographer Walker Evans, who encouraged him to apply for a Guggenheim fellowship to finance the travel needed for “The Americans.” On his 1955 grant application, Mr. Frank notes his project is intended to reflect “what one naturalized American finds to see in the United States that signifies the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere.”
While he was initially optimistic about the country, the photographer changed his view once he began his road trip. He saw anger and alienation in people’s faces, bleakness and emptiness in landscapes and buildings.
This negative outlook may have reflected the photographer’s own loneliness and dissatisfaction with his career. It was certainly colored by his arrest in Arkansas by state police who saw him as a “shabbily” dressed “foreigner” driving a car with New York license plates.
As he traveled, Mr. Frank adopted a looser way of shooting to capture “things that move” with the immediacy of an abstract expressionist painter. The aftermath of a car crash, a riverside evangelist or the road itself, his exposures are often too light, too dark or out of focus, but they are always potent in their unflinching close-ups.
In assembling his book, the photographer eventually abandoned his thematic categories and organized the pictures into four sections, each starting with a photo highlighting the American flag.