Research notes – Robert Frank

Robert Frank (b. 1924) is a Swiss-American photographer

The following notes are in connection with his book “The Americans”(1). These are some general comments on the layout and format of the book.

  • Book is presented in landscape format
  • Only one picture per two page spread
  • Pictures are all black and white
  • Most pictures are in landscape orientation, but some are in portrait orientation.

Robert Frank’s pictures in The Americans were primarily made in the “decisive moment” tradition whereas a particular gesture, action or interaction between the elements make the picture unique and attractive. But is there anything beyond that?…I think there is when you consider the collection of pictures as a whole. They depict various aspects of American lifestyle as well as some of its history and contradictions. The flag features prominently in many of the pictures, but is not the only symbol of America present, you also have images of Santa, large cars, elaborate jukeboxes, dinners.

But is not only people or decisive moments. There are also more contemplative images, particularly towards the end of the book: pictures of deserted towns taken from a high window, partially blocked by mesh; magazine stands against imposing skyscrapers; abandoned rural townships; cars parked in a driveway, protected by a fabric cover; empty barbershops. All of these can be related to aspects of America, and to human activity, but the lack of action in these shots allow for pause, for the viewer to be able to stop and reflect upon what the photographer is trying to say, without the distractions of gesture and timeliness. Frank arranges these pictures in the middle of action shots , and in some cases the juxtaposition works particularly well. The shot of the covered parked car (link) is followed by one in which cowboys look at what looks like a cadaver or a carcass, similarly covered by cloth (link – this picture was taken after a car accident), thus providing a visual link between the prosperity of some of America’s urban areas against the neglect and deprivation of the countryside.

Some of the pictures are grainy, out of focus and in some cases the composition is very unconventional. Sometimes is does work well (the opening picture with the lady partially blocked by a flying flag – link, there picture of the celebrity out of focus, with the focus on the fans in the background – link), but in other cases the pictures are too loopsided (the best example of this is the man in black standing just below a wooden staircase, with his head fully blocked – link, but it is also noticeable in other pictures like the one of the soldier walking alongside his girlfriend, where the soldier is partially out of the frame and there is space to the left of the girlfriend that seemingly adds nothing to the picture – link). Judging by the quality of the prints in the book, it is clear that Frank was not as concerned about clarity and sharpness of outcome, as he was concerned in portraying his vision.
Many of the pictures have blocked views, or include reflections. It seems that Frank was interested in this to the point of making it the most attractive feature of some of the images (eg school of art picture – link, previously mentioned picture of man standing below staircase, man playing tuba – link). Other pictures also include elements that are in the border of the frame and sometimes the frame is tilted to allow for this, all of which creates additional drama (eg corpse at a funeral – link).


(1) Frank, R. (1993) The Americans. United Kingdom: Cornerhouse Publications.


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