That crazy feeling

The humor, sadness, and everything-ness of Robert Frank's The Americans -- 50 years later


Robert Frank, "San Francisco, 1956"

The world writes a story far beyond — or deeper and more twist-riddled than — any author's imagination. How else to explain the fact that Robert Frank's peerless photographic book The Americans turned 50 the same year that Barack H. Obama was elected president of the United States? Looking in — again, and again — at The Americans, thanks to a handsome new edition (Steidl, 180 pages, $39.95), or at "The Americans," thanks to a traveling exhibition connected to Frank's landmark work, one finds a vision of this country that is anything but dated.

Jack Kerouac raved about the way Frank captured "that crazy feeling in America," and to be sure, even if his prosaic descriptions of Frank's photos come off a bit redundant now, there's still some insightful gold to be gleaned from his observation that Frank was always taking pictures of jukeboxes and coffins. There's been no shortage of writing about The Americans since Kerouac's at-times stifled response. Is there anything left to say about The Americans? If there's anything left to say about America, the answer is yes.

There are infinite views. One is Frank's very particular sense of place. For a San Franciscan, that means an untitled image of a couple on Alamo Square, perhaps the most iconic of at least three Bay Area pictures. Frank has cited this photo as his favorite in The Americans, because the facial expressions of the couple he's caught unaware bring across loud and clear what an intrusive presence the photographer is by nature. But this shot also is a document of the Western Addition when it was a thriving African-American neighborhood. It's existence confronts the face of San Francisco today.

In a Charleston, S.C., image from The Americans, a pampered, already entitled-looking snow white baby looks out from the cradling arms of a black maid whose face — seen in profile — is more fascinating and harder to read. The picture is a blunt image of race in the South, and of race in America on the eve of civil rights uprisings. It also raises an interesting side question: why did it take European exiles to photographically render that subject with candor? This keepsake of Charleston by the Swiss Frank is the black-and-white counterpart to the Technicolor ironies that German expatriate Douglas Sirk brought to the 1959 version of Imitation of Life. (Racism was flagrantly institutionalized during the making of The Americans, and Frank has long had an critical eye for U.S. institutions — a Frank film series at SFMOMA doesn't just showcase the Beat work Pull My Daisy, it also includes Me and My Brother (1969) a look at this country's concepts of mental illness that's more personal than, and just as direct as, Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies (1967).)

Robert Frank, "US 90, En Route to Del Rio, Texas"

For any person who has lived with The Americans — spent time over the years looking through its pages, locking eyes on a particular picture and contemputf8g it — there's a peculiar card-shuffle déjà vu-gone-slightly-askew-or-anew feeling to encountering the same photos in succession along the walls. This is the experience of looking at "Looking In: Robert Frank's 'The Americans,'" the Frank exhibition currently on view at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Alongside rather than on top of one another, an alphabet of American hats point in different directions, each one reflecting a viewpoint.

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