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Trolley-New Orleans 1955

America, From the Outside

Photographer Robert Frank looks in at the land of opportunity

When photographer Robert Frank left New York in his battered second-hand Ford in 1955, he confronted an America in flux: still riven by segregation and newly gripped by the Cold War threat. He had applied for, and won, a Guggenheim Fellowship enabling him to "make a broad voluminous picture record of things American." The result was 'The Americans', a book of 83 photographs of everyday folk, places and things; bikers, politicians and nannies, diners, Detroit car factories and the great American road, endlessly stretching ahead.

Published in 1959, the book was initially savaged for its pessimism and for being intentionally anti-American. How else, its critics scoffed, could small town America seem so bleak? "Utterly misleading! A degradation of a nation!" howled the photographer and editor Minor White in his magazine, Aperture.  Perhaps Frank's nationality was a factor in their assumptions; he was Swiss, and mistrust towards foreigners, fostered by years of McCarthyism, lingered. One critic at Popular Photography decried the book as "a wart-covered picture of America" by "a joyless man who hates the country of his adoption." Another said that Frank must be "willing to let his pictures be used to spread hatred among nations."

Despite its initial reception, the book was soon recognised as a masterpiece of realism: strangely haunting, politically provocative (in the famous cover picture a segregated street-car in New Orleans fills the frame, faces gazing out of the windows, white in the front, black behind) and above all uncontrived.  Fifty years on, the book is the subject of an extensive exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. All 83 photographs that made up the book, as well contact sheets, earlier photographs taken in Europe, Peru, and New York, one of Frank's short films, and correspondence - including the letter that Frank wrote to his mentor Walker Evans after his arrest, describing it as one of the 'most humiliating' experiences of his life.

The photographs are displayed as they appear in the book, roughly divided into four sections linked by recurring symbols and themes. The subjects are sometimes blurred, the prints murky with shadows. The viewer is often presented with odd angles, as if the shot was an accident, or as if there is no photographer mediating the experience at all (Frank often hid his camera inside his jacket and snapped without looking through the viewfinder, to catch his subjects unaware). The awkward angles that force us to peer around the door frame, tilt our head, intensify the realism of the pictures and the occasionally seamy intimacy we feel with the subjects. Viewing them is not always an altogether comfortable experience, but it is often a moving one.

The pervasive sadness that so offended those first critics does exist in the collection: there is a seeping melancholy in the grainy landscapes and blank eyes. But the photographs offer a stark and frequently beautiful counterpoint to the glossy and idealistic portrayals common in mid-century America. One picture shows a glamourous starlet, her face looming large in the foreground, but blurred - Frank's focus rests on the fans that throng in the background. These are the Americans he seeks to document; the waitresses, the cowboys, the lovers in the park. Frank paired his curious outsider's perspective with a remarkable instinct for capturing a moment. As Jack Kerouac, in his introduction to “The Americans” put it, Frank “sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film.”

'Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans' runs until January 3, 2010 at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art