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.