The art of chronicling a culture by way of photography is something many of us take for granted today given the saturation of photojournalism we’re exposed to on a daily basis. Indeed it’s difficult to imagine the impact that a collection of photographs showing a foreign country or foreign people might have had back in the 1950s, when media was relatively local and word-based still and the majority of people far less travelled.
The 15th May marks the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most significant developments in the field of photojournalism, namely the publication of ‘The Americans’ by Swiss American photographer Robert Frank. Frank spent two years travelling through America, armed only with his camera, and sporadically his wife and two children. His aim was to capture the reality of the country in all its guises, highlighting the dichotomy between the economic and industrial optimism of the 1950s and the still rife social and racial injustices.
From a collection of over 28,000, Frank selected just 83 pictures and in 1958 his book, ‘The Americans’, was published together with an introduction by Jack Kerouac. His unique photographic style captured the mood of late 1950s America perfectly - slightly off focus, low lighting and at times stark, jarring crops – and cemented Frank as a pioneer in the beat cultural movement of the time.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of ‘The Americans’, German publisher Steidl has undertaken ‘The Robert Frank Project’. Exquisitely reprinting several of his classic books, together with some of his lesser known books and his complete set of films, Steidl and Frank have worked in very close cooperation to ensure the whole project bears the hallmark of quality, fitting for such a seminal figure in the history of the genre. In the context of the whole reissued Frank collection, revisiting ‘The Americans’ goes someway to recapturing a sense of what it might have felt like to see 1950s America first time round, years before the digital age made the whole world accessible at the click of a mouse.
The project reaches its climax in January 2009 with a touring exhibition of Frank’s photographs, beginning at the National Gallery of Art, Washington then heading to the San Francisco MoMA and the on to the New York MoMA.
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