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See the U.S.A.

In 1959, Robert Frank’s “The Americans” documented this country’s messy, authentic underside. Fifty years on, the Met is reintroducing Frank to a new generation.

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Trolley—New Orleans, 1955  

With all due respect to the hippies of Haight-Ashbury, the Left Bank literati, and the Rent guy, the only version of bohemianism that has ever mattered to me came from Robert Frank. I discovered The Americans, his book of photographs, in 1986, after fleeing the suburbs for New York. I was wallowing in the music of the Replacements and the films of Jim Jarmusch, and Frank’s 1959 work captured my feelings of being part of the world yet estranged from it. The pictures of rural-Mississippi riversides and ravaged Montana mining towns beckoned toward a country I had yet to explore; his subjects—bummed-out lunch-counter patrons, business-suited fat cats, religious crazies—evoked the fantastic hodgepodge I saw on the Lower East Side. And Frank’s unapologetically critical view of cozy Eisenhower-era consumerism resonated with my own hysterical alienation from Reagan’s eighties. In The Americans, the rich are gargoyles; the poor, the outsiders—queers, blacks, Hispanics—radiate pride and authenticity. They are, to cop one of his friend Jack Kerouac’s favorite words, “holy.”

Twenty-three years later, I can no longer call The Americans the one and only truth. But I’m hopeful that Looking In: Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans,’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will inspire similarly foolish and naïve idealism in others. Marking the book’s fiftieth anniversary, the exhibit and its obsessive 500-page catalogue show it to be as ornery and uncompromised as ever. All 83 prints will be on view—don’t miss Rodeo, New York City, where a Marlboro Man leans majestically against a garbage can—along with dozens of contact sheets demonstrating Frank’s Beat-like “first thought, best thought” ability to turn, capture a single, brilliant frame, and move on.

Born in 1924 to a bourgeois family in Switzerland, Frank moved to the U.S. in 1947 and trained in fashion and magazine photography before rejecting both. His mentor, Walker Evans (Woody Guthrie to Frank’s Dylan), helped him secure a Guggenheim fellowship in 1955, and Frank traveled the country for a year, shooting 767 rolls of film—more than 27,000 images. From those he produced approximately 1,000 work prints, over which he pored for another year until achieving the singular concision of The Americans.

In the decades since, Frank, now 84, has never chased attention, producing offbeat films and difficult personal collections like The Lines of My Hand. “He’s one of these interesting people who is acknowledged as a master but remains on the fringe, like Jean-Luc Godard,” says Patti Smith, who will play a tribute concert for him at the Met on October 17. “The sense of beauty, grit, and revolution in his photographs—he maintained that. He didn’t mainstream.”


Looking In: Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’
Metropolitan Museum of Art; opens September 22.


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