When people look at my pictures, I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read the line of a poem twice.
In 1954-56, Robert Frank was on the road in the USA, making the photographs for what would become The Americans, perhaps the single most influential book by a photographer. Swiss by birth, Frank came to America in 1947. Politicians and the mainstream media were full of post-war optimism fueled by consumerism, television and Hollywood. All Frank could see was disappointment, alienation, and systemic racism. Published first in France in 1958, the images were accompanied by an anthology of quotes from various writers about the country. When the book appeared in America the following year, the quotes had been replaced by a foreword by Frank’s friend Jack Kerouac. The publisher was Grove Press, the primary outlet for the Beat generation poets.
Frank’s images were willfully subjective. They were also highly sophisticated redefinitions of the nation’s iconography. The stars and stripes flag recurs, but it is tattered or obliterating the faces of citizens. Movie stars look uneasy. Manual workers feel dejected. Passengers on a trolleybus arrange themselves by race. Motels and gas stations are bleak and forgotten. But through the metaphor and allegory there was also a romantic and angry longing for something better.
Modern America is a restart, an experiment. Its keenest observers in photography, film, painting, literature, theatre, and poetry have been monitors of that experiment. The Americans divided opinion but its reputation, particularly among other photographers, grew rapidly. For some, Frank had opened a rich new vein of image making. For others, his achievement could not be surpassed and new directions would have to be taken. Frank himself left photography almost immediately after The Americans, and took up filmmaking. In 1971, he moved from New York to Mabou, in remote Nova Scotia, Canada. He returned to still photography but not in pursuit of singular, iconic images. He made collages, mixing photographs and writing in different ways. As he pushed onwards, he looked back from time to time. The Americanswas becoming something of a counter-cultural monument. Museums and collectors were beginning to acquire prints. Frank grew reluctant to talk about The Americans, feeling that all he wanted to say had been said, and was in the pictures anyway. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the book has become the most discussed and analyzed of all photographic projects, the subject of endless essays and assessments.
In this photograph we see prints hanging on a washing line, on the coast of Mabou. There is an image of people on a boat. Frank shot it on the SS Mauretania, the day before he arrived in the USA. There is a photograph taken at a political rally in Chicago, 1956. It is one of the best-known images from The Americans. On the right, the word ‘Words’. Perhaps it was Frank’s sign of exhaustion with the endless talk about his work. Perhaps it was a substitute for an image, a placeholder for a language to come. Words have accompanied and haunted photographs from the beginning, and ours is a thoroughly a scripto-visual culture. Images conjure up words, and words conjure up images. Both are substitutes for realities they can never quite express, even with each other’s help. They are apart yet connected, like transatlantic friends.
The text is from Campany’s forthcoming book ‘On Photographs’, Thames & Hudson, with a few changes for our One Image series.