Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Americans by Robert Frank 50th Anniversary

It is rare for a photographer that came of age in the 1960’s and 70’s to not cite Robert Frank’s The Americans and Walker Evans’ American Photographs as the two books that inspired them to take up a camera and explore the world. It is lore that gets repeated so often it almost seems disingenuous in the retelling. I have often thought that it isn’t possible that so many people could be so instantly enamored since, as much as it may be embarrassing to admit, both of those books took a while for me to warm up to them and see their true greatness. I’ve come around, probably in the same way that an early critic of the first edition of The Americans had when he described Frank as one who “produced pictures that look as if a kid had taken them while eating a Popsicle and then had them developed and printed at the corner drugstore.” That critic failed to specify which flavor of Popsicle would have fueled such a remarkable feat. If he had, maybe photographers would have flocked to have given it a taste.

The Americans is a book that has taken many forms. The first French edition from Delpire sits short texts opposite the photographs. The first American edition from Grove dropped those texts and fronts the book with Kerouac’s now famous introduction. Later editions from Aperture, Pantheon and SCALO followed this American model but varied their trim sizes, and in a couple occasions even substituted an alternate version of an image. Page numbers were introduced, slight variance in the cropping of the photos can be noticed, the design changes, and most tellingly, a triptych appeared almost as a coda / signature after the last photograph. Frank’s willingness to reshape his masterpiece seems fitting to his persona of the restless poet who, if forced to look back, will tinker with his last version to fit his newest frame of mind. In keeping with this tradition, Robert Frank and Gerhard Steidl have created a new, refreshed 50th anniversary version of arguably the most important and inspiring photography book ever published.

The first aspect one notices is with the size. Frank reverts the trim size back to the original Grove edition of 7.25 inches tall by 8.25 inches wide. For me, this is the size it should have stayed as it fits so perfectly in the hand unlike the larger editions. (I think of the super-size Aperture edition the same way I think of a Leica M5 as compared to an M3).

The other major difference will make some viewers obsessively familiar with the other editions scratch their heads wondering why the images look slightly different. This is because Frank decided to grace this new edition with uncropped versions scanned from the original prints. Frank, like many photographers, was prone to cleaning up the edges of his frames or cropping the image to call attention to a specific subject but here most are shown in their purest state. Comparing this new edition to my 1986 Pantheon, the differences become obvious and in my opinion, they emphasize Frank’s prowess at putting his frame around the world. In the image of the public bench in St. Petersburg Florida with Kerouac’s “retired old codgers” and the “Seminole half Negro woman pulling on her cigarette,” the top of the frame now reveals the entire car speeding past and a view of the opposite sidewalk. The Canal Street, New Orleans photo of the crowd passing perpendicular to Frank’s lens is now back to the 35mm frame proportions with a larger expanse of darkness looming above the heads of the passersby. One version that is most noticeable is of the older woman and children waiting in the car on a Butte, Montana street. The uncropped version uncovers about 20% more to the left side of the frame and now allows the bounding curves of the car’s fender and roof to lead us into noticing other cars far off into the corner.

Upon close scrutiny between these two editions, even with the claims of uncropped versions, one notices that sometimes the Pantheon edition actually has more “room” to an edge or the other than this newer version. Nothing dramatic but enough to prompt obsessive viewers to closely compare and contrast editions.

The only photograph that was cropped in the original that remains so is Movie Premier, Hollywood (otherwise known as the “squires” photo). Perhaps it is little known that this photo was actually a horizontal frame that was cropped into the vertical format.

Other changes that make this new edition more pleasurable are: the dropping of the page numbers, reverting of the cover typography to the sans-serif font, dropping of the end triptych, and adding a second half-title page just preceding the photos instead of a page announcing “Photographs.”

This new edition was printed in tri-tone and the tonalities are closer to the way the images looked in the gravure editions; smoother and more pleasing to the eye. All of the images read with clarity save for one; the Canal Street photograph I mentioned above has become denser and obscures much of the detail offered in other editions. This may have come from a different, less open print being used in this production but the result is noticeable.

I applaud the shift back to the original size and tone of the first American edition as this was essentially how older generations of photographers experienced this work. The book was small and stocky. The photographs rich and silvery gray on the page. The layout clear and unpolluted.

It was the book that launched a thousand road trips. Reinvigorated examination of self and state. Perplexed some with its complexity shrouded in a rough, visual language punctuated with obscenity. And in the extreme, it changed how future generations understood the workings of their medium. It still speaks volumes and on May 15th, 50 years to the day of its first printing, a new edition of The Americans will be made available to continue a dialog with this sad poem that Robert Frank and his little camera sucked "right out of America and onto film."

Buy online at Steidlville


Anonymous said...

Hey, Cappie:
Does your copy have "press copy" stamped on the title page? I saw my first copy today and it did.

Double E said...

the rodeo cowboy in NYC is probably still reproduced cropped, as part of the negative is dammaged.

Jeff Ladd said...


Yes it is stamped. At first I was bummed but since that marks it as one of the first copies I think it's extra special.

I forgot to mention that the binding allows the book to open really flat and I love the squared off spine.

Don said...

Does this call for a more extended comparison of all the editions? Are there more variations between them? The scalo edition had a different cover image, right? Are there other variations to non-US editions?

Stuart Alexander said...

I have made notes of the variations in croppings in all the various editions. It would bore everyone to tears to list the entire thing.
You can see nine different covers of various editions in my introduction to the catalogue I did for Christie's New York, Sale 2076, 17 October 2007, 'Important Photographs from a Private American Collection.' Jeff reviewed it in this blog on 30 September 2007. The following link should take you to a virtual example of the catalogue:

sean said...

Please, Can someone enlighten me (not necessarily an explanation) about their feelings towards page 117 "Salt Lake City, Utah" (School of Art Exterior).... an extremely personal photograph it would appear. Artist outside the establishment?.... I never like to look for factual analysis in photographs, but this images perplexes me. Actually just writing this has helped me with it....

Stuart Alexander said...


I don't like to interpret pictures for other people with my 'feelings' since everyone's reaction is going to be different. Everyone brings something different to the challenge. That is why I hate stuff like Geoff Dyer's book where he tells us that this picture means this and that one means that. Well, I just don't see it that way. So, I actually think that factual analysis is the only way to try to understand a picture. Even then, different people notice different things and interpret them differently. You can begin by describing for your self what you see in the picture.

I am not going to try to figure out what this picture means to me or what it means to Frank but I will tell you what I see and what that makes me BEGIN to think about. I won't go deeper in to my 'feelings' about it. Most people pick out the words 'School of / and Art' as one of the first elements. Frank included that in the frame so we need to consider it. It is even possible that the sign is for the building to the left, outside of the frame, but we have to apply it to the building we see. The building is up on the hill, up a flight of stairs. It appears in the picture to be very dark. For me, a dark structure up on a hill like this conjures images from many horror movies I saw as a youth. Of course, to someone else, it might bring up other images. Perhaps you have a beloved aunt who lived in such a house. There is some kind of a frame with smaller rectangles in it and a reflection of what appears to be a street lamp.

Most important for me are the formal elements. I don't know what sort of basic training art students receive in recent years but long ago, in the years when Frank was young and for at least 20 years after this picture was made, formal elements: line, color, form, texture, etc. were discussed as the basic elements of art. So in this photograph, I notice a sphere sitting next to a cone. I notice triangles, rectangles, diagonal and parallel lines. We know from real-life experience of perspective that the sphere is perhaps only two feet in diameter while the cone (the tower roof) is probably at least 12 feet at the base. But in the picture they have approximately the same dimensions. Then think about how this picture relates to the ones that precede and follow it in the book. Think about spheres and cones appearing in pictures in the history of art. Certainly there is more, but you can take it from there.

Anonymous said...

There are a number of photos in the book that I could live without. This is one of them, but it works in the book, and -depending on which edition of The Americans you have - it relates to Frank's knowing Franz Kline paintings. Abstractly it goes with US 285, New Mexico & Rooming House, Bunker Hill, Los Angeles and a few others.
Frank once inscribed the "Television studio - Burbank, California" - ''worst picture in the book. !!

Double E said...

last post by Double E. sorry it didn't register.

Stuart Alexander said...

Double E,
That has always been one of my favorites. Do you remember Robert Cumming? He said that picture was a huge influence on him and his work.

We could make nominations for 'worst picture in the book.' For me it has always been, "Bank - Houston, Texas"

Sean said...

All I know is that while I appreciate Frank's way of seeing, his work methods and his photographs, every time I read/hear discussions about this book, its pretty obvious that I'm completely in the dark about the artists true intentions and the structure of the book. It seems everyone has their own opinions. And that's good.

Relating a photograph to others that appear twenty or thirty pages away.... I guess everyone can make their own comparisons and relationships within the book from their unique personal histories and experiences. I don't know about finding the "worst photo"... I don't really look at this work as a book of individual photographs, and the one thing I'm pretty sure about is that Frank was not concerned with "good pictures" in the formal sense of the meaning.

I would leave out a "good" photo in a second if it didn't mean anything to the work, and that is something that I have learnt, in part, from work like The Americans.

When photography is used in this way, for me it gets bigger than the image, it becomes more universal than just a photography book. It is a language book, a book of meaning and intent by an individual in reaction to a time, place and circumstance. We do not need pretty picture books, but personal books and bodies of work that stem from self belief and personal experience.

So, getting back to the "worst photo", also remember that you will change over time, and with that, most people's tastes and understanding will change. You might find in five months that the photo you didn't like will creep up on you and bit you in the arse when you aren't looking and you might appreciate it more. Or you might still not like it....

But Stuart, thanks for that great answer. I didn't need an explanation, but you opened the door for me, cheers!

More personal experience in photographs I say!

Anonymous said...

I am always grateful for your posts. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

How about two comparative movie reviews;

Frank's cocksucker blues and
Scorseses (sic) new stones movie

Always fun to learn more about Frank.

Jeff Ladd said...


Too much on my plate for movie reviews but interesting to note a more likely comparison might be to the Maysles Brothers' film Gimme Shelter since I just reviewed Albert's new book. GS came out in 70 and CS a couple years later. Might Frank have been put on the trail of them due to this previous film?

Any Frank scholars know?

Also I just found out that Elliott Erwitt was one of the additional cinematographers on Gimme Shelter.

stuart Alexander said...

The Stones had Frank do the cover for 'Exiles on Main Street'. They liked it so they commissioned him to make a film of their 1972 tour. Frank might have seen 'Gimme Shelter' but I doubt that had anything to do with him making his film.

Melville said...

I recently received a “press copy” of the Steidl edition and on first peruse I noticed that a number of photos that were cropped in the original edition remain so in this new edition. “”Hotel lobby – Miami Beach” is another photograph that was originally horizontal and then cropped to a vertical. “City fathers – Hoboken, New Jersey,” “Political rally – Chicago,” and the first “Funeral – St, Helena, South Carolina” were, and are all still, slightly cropped from the original frames, cutting out figures and/or landscape.

Anyway, great blog! Much thanks.

And, Mr. Alexander thanks so much for the wonderfully informative bibliography. Any plans to update the work to include the last twenty-some years? (The Christie’s catalogue is much appreciated, also!)

Melville said...

Oops, I should've written "on first perusal..."

richard gordon said...

Yes, well, and then again: later this week photo-eye's new online magazine will have a 5,000 or so essay by me, half about the book and half about my version of the various editions (which differs from the Steidl press release--but that is all academic). Tried unsuccessfully to access the Alexander version in the Christie's catalogue....One comment and one question;
Sean, you might want to take a(nother) look at Walker Evans' Art School pic (pl. 198) in Photographs for the Farm Security Administration--among many other books. Frank was playing off of and against American Photographs as well as Evans' in general. I am curious as to the references for Frank's making horizontals vertical. All of the above and this too shows that the book is still "living thing." Oh, and one thing I didn't go into or research is the size of the various editions/printings. Anyone know?

China Plate said...

Just got hold of a copy of the new Americans publication from Steidl, that I saw at your house about a year ago!
After comparing the Steidl and Scalo books back to back I tend to think the format and print quality is actually a little better in the Scalo addition.
The contrast is better in the Scalo book and although it doesn't have the arty matt print/paper (which appears to absorb the blacks)
I tend to think the contrast on the Scalo book is better.
I also think the Steidl book is too small. The landscape shots almost hit the gutter. You have to really pull the book apart to see a full landscape on the Steidl
edition whereas the Scalo addition it is easy to see the full frame.
Yes, the Steidl edition shows the un-cropped version which is nice, but I far prefer the viewing experience of the Scalo book.
Steidl cover wins hands down but Scalo content pips the Steidl to the post. In print and format.
Just thought I would let you know my honest opinion. Don't give Steidl the cookie on this one they don't deserve it.

Jeff Ladd said...

China Skate,

Gotta disagree about the size. The smaller version --reverting to the original --is so perfect. "Pip to the post"? Is that like a pop shove-it to frontside boardslide?

All Hail Cardiel!

Stuart Alexander said...

I just looked back here. I didn't know this was still active.

Thanks for the thanks. I have threatened about every five years to update the bibliography and the deadline always comes around and passes. I never have enough time. I do continue to gather references and I do have vague plans to issue an update some day, but don't hold your breath. Anyway, post-1985 the citations will be selective. I will continue to jam every last little mention in that I missed for the published version.

Richard Gordon,
Yes, Steidl has gotten a number of things wrong in their claims. The new edition has two images from negatives that are variants of the images in the first editions, the insurance building and the factory interior.
I have not researched the press runs for every edition either but I just noted in an article in Le Monde dated 2 June 2008 that 700,000 copies of the book have been sold to date. I don't know where that figure came from. It sounds awfully high to me.

China Plate,
I am not happy with the way the verticals are centered on the page in the Steidl edition instead of being offset toward the outer edge of the page.
As I understand it, Jean Genoud worked hard to make the plates in the book as good as he could make them, regardless of what the prints used for making them looked like.* And it appears that Steidl worked hard to make the plates as accurate a reproduction of the prints used for the book as he could make them. These are two different goals so the result is naturally going to be different.

*I spoke with Mr. Genoud shortly after his first printing of the book in the 1980s and we compared his plates to the Draeger first printing and the Grossman Stonetone printing from the late 60s and he told me what he was after.