In the first telling of the tale, I don’t pick up the book at all. It is a very short story.
The next time around, the book is lying around, in a place where I need to while away some time. I pick it up, idly flipping through the pages. The photos are black and white, mundane. I put it back down to look for some other diversion, and end up riffling through a six month old issue of Better Homes and Gardens. The recipes are enticing but I know I’ll never make any of them.
The third time the story comes up, it takes a different route. Something on the internet catches my eye. It’s an article about The Americans, a collection of photographs by Robert Frank, circa 1955. I’m intrigued, but already have a huge TBR pile, and photography isn’t really my thing. I suspect I don’t have a discerning enough eye to separate quality from merely pretty. I move on to the next thing that catches my eye.
Luckily, the real story has a happier ending.
I read an article on the internet. Written by Lucas Reilly, it’s entitled “The Photographer Who Captured America’s Dark Side”, which was originally published in the January/February 2015 issue of mental_floss magazine, back when mental_floss was a physical magazine. (Yeah, I know, I was surprised that a site I now think of mainly as fluffy clickbait material could actually carry astute content, amirite?)
Buoyed by the insight the article gave me, I pocketed the page (Pocket is a “save for later” service that allows you to archive individual pages from the web for later viewing; I have a Pocket icon on my Chrome address bar, and use it extensively! Check it out – honestly, it’s the best: https://getpocket.com/.) and requested the book from my local library.
Once I had the book in hand, I went back and reread the article before looking at the photos, to refresh what had piqued my interest in the first place. The article spoke about photographer Robert Frank’s life (he was born and grew up in Switzerland, not arriving in the States until age 23), his relationship with Jack Kerouac (which actually was purely professional although the two were of like mind; Kerouac had just published On the Road, and Frank wanted him to write the introduction for the hopefully-soon-to-be-published The Americans), the process Robert Frank went through in order to get the shots on film, and the changing critical response to the book over the years. I found that all very interesting, but while I could intellectually appreciate the “whys” of the book, what I really wanted was the “what” of it: what made these photos so special?
Then one paragraph galvanized my imagination:
The pictures in Robert Frank’s The Americans are so ordinary that you just might miss what makes them extraordinary. They show people eating, sitting, driving, waiting—and that’s about it. Rarely do the subjects look at the camera. When they do, they seem annoyed. Many of the photos are blurry, grainy, and smudged by shadows. But the devil is in those details: Together, the pictures comprise a skeptical portrait, an outsider’s view of a country that was, at the time, all too sure of itself.
Okay, cool. So there’s the foundation that I could use to experience these photos – great. I needed that. I needed permission to concede that I wasn’t going to be looking at something whose value was solely grounded in being pretty. But still, something was missing. Some that connected the photographs to me, directly – aesthetically and indeed, personally.
Then – this:
In the 1950s, photographs were crisp, sharp, and clean. A photo was perfect only if it followed the traditional rules of composition. Pictures were routinely upbeat, especially in popular magazines trumpeting the American way of life. That aesthetic reached its apogee in 1955, when the Museum of Modern Art’s photography curator, Edward Steichen, introduced an exhibit called “The Family of Man.” A display of 503 photographs from more than 60 countries, it depicted people as being the same everywhere. Dubbed the “greatest photographic exhibition of all time,” it was wildly genteel, treating war and poverty as minor blemishes on the human race’s report card.
But Frank, who had been in Europe during World War II and had visited the poorest parts of South America, knew better. “I was aware that I was living in a different world—that the world wasn’t as good as that—that it was a myth that the sky was blue and that all photographs were beautiful,”…
Followed shortly by:
Originally, Frank had no agenda but to photograph everyday Americans doing everyday things. But the more he traveled the south, the more his viewfinder stumbled across people the American Dream had seemingly forgotten. More and more, he captured an America that everyone knew existed but preferred not to acknowledge; he looked for the overlooked and captured the weariness in their eyes.
It didn’t matter whether Frank caught people standing around a jukebox or a coffin, his camera froze the same look on everybody’s face. People looked in, looked out, looked at their feet, looked everywhere but at each other.
Frank was catching a direct contrast to the smiling humanity of Steichen’s “The Family of Man” exhibit. But it didn’t anger him—he was moved. “I had a feeling of compassion for the people on the street,” he told Dennis Wheeler in 1977. He saw beauty in highlighting the truth, even if it was mundane, sad, or small. There was something distinctly American, celebratory even, about giving the voiceless a voice. To Americans, these sights were too ordinary to notice. But Frank’s foreign eyes saw how they affected and controlled everyday life.
Ah, yes! This is what I needed! This is how Point A connects to Point B (a process I find exceedingly difficult to do on my own): the acknowledgment of what is real, even if it’s either outside my own experience, or so close to my own experience that I can’t even see it. Valuing what is less than perfect, less than ideal. Giving validation to the ordinary, which is no less emotional, no less vital, no less substantial simply because it is not perfect.
Now I could look through this book. Now I could flip through the pages and see what makes these photos so amazing. “There were no white picket fences, no pies cooling on windowsills. Not a single page would inspire a heartwarming Norman Rockwell painting.” But those things are not America, or not the whole of America, despite what we are led to believe, despite how ardently we try to make it so.
And zing! That’s when it all fell into place for me. Too often we try to homogenize our view of the world into something that’s safe, that’s comfortable, that’s familiar to what we are told we are, or should be. But that’s an unattainable goal. Often a disingenuous one. And that’s part of what we are struggling with right now as a nation – segments of the population who feel that only one view of the landscape should be allowed, that only one type of experience is acceptable. But for so many others, that view and that landscape are what is uncomfortable, what is unfamiliar. So we disengage in order to not waste our energy in having to justify what to us is real and allowable. We embrace the “us versus them” didactic so as to not have to look too closely beyond our own beliefs. We back into our corners and rail behind a mask of anonymity in 142 character spurts of righteousness.
Or maybe, just maybe, we step out of worlds and into the reality of others. We find that there is something that binds us outside of what we are told to expect. We stop being afraid of what is different, and instead look, really look, at how those differences are the truth to those who live them, as legitimate as our realities are to us. We cease to worry about trying to make the beautiful real, and instead begin to accept that what is real, is beautiful. Even if the lens shows the images as blurry, or less than perfect. As remote. As stark. Because it’s still a part of who we – the entirety of “we” – are. Trying to better our world does not mean we must reject it.
As Mr. Reilly concludes in his article, “‘Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism,’” [Frank] said in 1958. ‘But criticism can come out of love.’ Uncovering the ugly side of America was Frank’s way of forcing the land he adored to face its problems and improve. Photographing ordinary life was a way to level the playing field, to celebrate not just the little things, but the everyman. What could be more American?
Yeah…. yeah, I like that story. That’s the best one of the lot, by far.
Maybe it will have a sequel?
~ Sharon Browning
**This post first appeared on LitStack in March of 2017**