Research the body of work The Americans by Robert Frank.
Find five images in The Americans where symbols are used. Explain what they are and how they function in the images.
Robert Frank, b1924 Zurich , Switzerland.
Moving to the USA in 1947 Frank , as an outsider , “was uncomfortable with the American lifestyle and this would be reflected in his work” ( Dickie , p.g 108 2009) . Frank saw loneliness , racism , alienation ‘ The American Dream’ a mere myth.
Obtaining a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation in 1955 he travelled across the States taking over 28,00 photographs of the communities he visited .He recorded “the mythical America of The Flag , the Fourth of July , political parades , barber shops , ranches , coffee shops , interstate highways and the South” (Jeffrey , 1981, pg. 206). However the resulting images were “described variously as ‘sinister’ , ‘perverse’ anti ‘anti-American’ ” (Dickie , p.g 108 2009) . Unable to find an American publisher the book , consisting of 83 photographs , was initially published in 1958 as Les Americains in Paris then as The Americans in the US the following year.
Regardless of an introduction by Jack Kerouac it was not initially “well received because of Frank’s unconventional technique” ( Dickie , 2009 , pg. 108 ). His images , which were sometimes cropped , depicted “ a soul-damaged population , fluctuating between violence , ignorance , and despair ”(Warner Marien, 2010, pg. 344) . Furthermore the high contrast prints were frequently “ gritty , tilted , and blurred ” (Warner Marien, 2010, pg. 344). Throughout the series traditional symbols of American culture, cowboys, flags , diners , automobiles , jukeboxes , are re-defined depicting Frank’s “ bleak alienated vision” (Badger , 2007 , pg. 121) .
However the sequenced images were innovative and “despite initially poor sales , Kerouac’s involvement helped the book reach a wide audience and it went on to inspire later generations of photographers” ( Dickie , 2009 , pg. 108) . The book consists of four sections , “each part starting with a photograph featuring a flag” (Short, 2011, pg. 126) .
Two women watch a parade as it passes by but both are partial hidden from view. The Stars and Stripes of the American flag dissects the frame diagonally along the top hiding the face of one of the on-lookers. The other woman is in shadows , her face barely visible. I should imagine they are in apartments that overlook the street , perhaps high up. The American national flag is one of its most immediately recognised symbols of patriotism , but the women are cut off from society physically and metaphorically by the framing of the image. The American flag effectively excludes the woman hidden behind it who remains faceless , isolated, and unknown .
The image shows a public trolley bus occupied by American citizens taken at a time of racial segregation and hierarchy. The African-Americans , made to sit at the back of the bus , were denied the freedom enjoyed by the white population. The front passenger , a woman , and the young boy behind her look rather supercilious , whilst the gentleman at the back has a wistful expression, each alone with their own thoughts as they stare towards the observer. Equality was not a right for all US inhabitants and Frank’s image highlights the inherent racism of the time.
A man shelters under what appears to be the American flag , an old car is dumped in the overgrown and neglected backyard.The image is paradoxically chaotic and static at the same time , this man is going nowhere: he is trapped in a wilderness with no means of escape. The broken-down car and drooping flag signify the hopelessness Frank witnessed on his travels across the States.
A huge outdoor screen allows movie-goers the freedom to watch movies alone , without the effort of leaving their vehicle . The car becomes a symbol of isolation , each inhabitant remote and insular.
Seated in an American diner the male customers have rather brusque expressions as they await their food and drink. Rather than a communal occasion with family and friends the diner is seen as a place of solitariness and division.