First published in France in 1958 and in the United States in 1959—in the midst of the Cold War—Robert Frank’s
The Americans is among the most influential photography books of the 20th century. The Addison is one of only four museums in the world to own a complete set of the images from the book.
In 1955–56, a Guggenheim Fellowship allowed the Swiss-born photographer to travel throughout the United States with the goal of creating a book that he described as a “visual study of a civilization.” Frank’s dark and grainy images are the work of an outsider looking in and reveal his ambivalence toward his adopted country. The eighty-three carefully sequenced photographs, edited down from more than twenty-seven thousand, are raw documentation of a country in transition. They celebrate its strengths as an emerging superpower while exposing the cracks in the veneer of optimism and opportunity that defined its postwar culture. As Jack Kerouac wrote in the introduction to the book, “Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand, he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film.”
Frank’s unsentimental vision of a modern America that looked surprisingly lonely and dislocated was initially censured by the critics. However, the honest and poignant beauty captured in these images and his distinctively expressive and visceral style were soon embraced by younger photographers. More than a revelation of a specific moment in American history or a manifesto for a new photographic style,
The Americans is a work of resonance that probes the defining and enduring dualities of American life and culture—hope and despair, affluence and want, freedom and limitation, community and isolation. Exploring the gulf between appearance and actuality, national ideals and regional specificity, American myth and street-level reality, these provocative and nuanced images ask what America is.
Generous support for this exhibition has been provided by the Winton Family Exhibition Fund.