Monday, February 16, 2009

Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans by Sarah Greenough

Just when I thought I had the corner on the market for "books on books" I am upstaged by by the National Gallery and their new incredible 506 page tome on Robert Frank's The Americans. This is "books on books" on steroids. Of course there are only a few greats that should be the subject of such an exhaustive look and certainly there will be no argument that The Americans is worthy of such treatment. Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans is a must for Frankophiles and scholars alike.

The curator Sarah Greenough has been working on this book since Frank's Moving Out show in 1994, making this a fourteen year endeavour. What does fourteen years of passionate study into one book produce you might ask? Prepare yourself to be overwhelmed...

12 full essays from various contributors (Sarah Greenough, Stuart Alexander, Jeff Rosenheim, Philip Brookman, Luc Sante, Michel Frizot to name a few) exploring all facets of the work including; Frank's progress as an artist, his relationships with various curators and photographers including an interview with Delpire, manuscript material, maps and chronology, reproductions of handwritten letters by Frank while he was on the road, every photo from The Americans, a comparative chart of the various published editions including notations on the various croppings from each edition, Frank's original edit (including many unseen photos), six pages of photos of an "editing wall" showing his work prints (70% of which are photos I had never seen before and I am one that goes to extra lengths to search out Frank's variant photos and alternates), a wealth of photos of Frank himself, including a color one of him sitting behind the wheel of Walker Evans's Buick Roadmaster shot by Evans, and if all that isn't worth the price of admission, pages 378 through 458 reproduce 83 actual size contact sheets, each of which features a frame from the final edit. It is this last section which has had me spending hours going over each exposure with a loupe.

I am at a loss for what more to say other than this hasn't left my bedside for the two weeks that I have owned it. The printing was done by Steidl and it is good although not as good as their reprint of The Americans. (I don't know if that is because alternate prints of different quality were used to make the scans or if it is truly just difference in printing). My only real complaint is that it is such a thick and heavy book that it is hard to handle. That shouldn't be mistaken for a complaint about having too much information at arms length, I am just weak. That is why I have a sturdy side table.

Oddly this book has been released in a softcover "regular" and hardcover "expanded" editions. The regular edition leaves out what I think are the real treats: the contact sheets, comparative sequencing of the different editions, the map of Frank's route, a chronology and copies of various letters and papers. $75.00 for the expanded versus $45.00 for the regular is a large difference but the loss of those 150 pages is bigger. I advise to take the plunge and break out the loupe. If you can resist the temptation to look deeper into this masterpiece then you're a stronger person than I will ever be.


Unknown said...

While waiting for the "Looking in" to come out, I bought the "Moving out" which also offers an extensive look at Frank's oeuvre, many reproductions - but not all from the Americans - some contact sheets reproductions and many informative and exhaustive essays among others by Sarah Greenough.
I realize that there are new gems on the new volume, but isn't fair to say that, to a great extend, the new monograph overlaps with the older?

Anonymous said...


I wouldn't go as far as to say to a great extent but there is already out there so much scholarship on Frank that it will be inevitable for there to be a lot of overlap.

For someone who doesn't own Moving Out of course this would be great. Still...being able to look through the contacts has been a great experience for me.

Anonymous said...

I have both and would not hesitate to buy Looking In. The contact sheets alone are worth the price of the book ($47 from Amazon). I can honestly say that I feel like I'll be exploring this for a long time.

Anonymous said...

Moving Out is more of the "Retrospective" work on RF. Looking In is the indepth study of The Americans and how it came to be. both are worth having if you are into RF.
Worth noting is that 14 years more of research has gone into Looking In. Sarah Greenough should be congradulated on this work. Well Done! Does any of this make The Americans any better? How could it.