22nd March 2013
For some time I’d been meaning to get hold of a copy of ‘The Americans’, but it wasn’t until Catherine Banks spurred me on after reading her review of ‘On The Road – Jack Kerouac’, that she’d used as an insight into the Frank work and gain an understanding of ‘The Beat Generation’ that was supposedly at the heart of the works. I obtained a copy of ‘On The Road’ and read it within a week, which considering the writing style was quite a feat for me. I can’t say that the experience left me a fan of ‘Stream of Consciousness’ writing, but it did impart the basic idea of what ‘Beat’ was about. For my birthday I managed to get my daughter-in-law to send for the new Steidl release of ‘The Americans’ as my present, for which I’m most grateful and now I’ve compared the two works to try to find a commonality.
I wonder if the oft written about empathy that Frank had with ‘Beat’ was more to do with publicity, sales and rebellion than with the actual lifestyle choice that ‘Beat’ espoused? Frank came from a well-to-do, conservative, European Swiss family, he was a happily married family man himself and had a successful, if inhibited career as a fashion photographer. What could well have been wrong with him, like so many wealthy scions, is he was bored, and although he was disenchanted with the American society’s over emphasis on money, my guess is that was because he came from a background of plenty and still had access to plenty when needed, although again like many from his class he did without quite a lot of the trappings of wealth, he could, he’d already experienced them, whereas most people then and now haven’t and don’t. He was also disenchanted with the fast pace of living, which, in my understanding, is at odds with the ‘Beat Generation’ he supposedly joined. The influences Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carr et al would not have been unusual either, as an artist he would be expected to rub shoulders with them and no doubt would have seen that these icons of ‘Beat’ could have influence on what he himself craved, recognition. Following them, particularly Kerouac as he was the only ‘straight’ one of that group which would have suited Frank’s own proclivities, would also have provided the release for his rebelliousness, although to my mind he didn’t show this in his work ‘The Americans’ and rebellion was more possibly to do with personal needs, shaking off his conservative, straight-laced, European Swiss upbringing, just as his rejection of wealth was a symptom. One has to bear in mind that although Kerouac had been experiencing difficulties getting a publisher for ‘On The Road’ when Frank met him it had been published and gave him great notoriety which would no doubt help publicise Frank’s own work if Kerouac wrote a good introduction. Cynical? Yes possibly it is, but when one reads about how the greats became great it more often than not comes down to who you know, not what you know and anyone wanting fame uses their connections unashamedly.
I’ve already said I don’t see any connection between Frank and Kerouac in their work. Kerouac was of the ‘Beat Generation’ whereas I think Frank was just a passenger, along for some of the kicks and the helping hand his friend could provide, but that’s all. The work Frank produced for ‘The Americans’ was also described as ‘un-American’ and considering that McCarthyism had only supposedly finished in 1956 a lot of those sympathies would still have been current. And if one looks at the series as a whole, 83 images from the supposed 28,000 he made, you can definitely see that most Americans of that time would consider that he, a foreigner no less, a European foreigner not far from Russia in most of their minds at that, had produced work that did not show them as the ebullient, far-seeing, well-to-do, saviours of the world and as such was not far from being a ‘Goddamn Commie under the bed’!
His images are to me not the best that he could have made, and I don’t mean showing the USA in the opposite light to what I’ve described, but certainly he could have produced a more balanced image. To me his images portray two stratums of American society, Hollywood nouveau riche and lower working class, what happened to everything in between that make up a great deal of any society, not just America? It’s not just what he’s left out either, it’s also what he’s included. I really don’t see how some of the images portray anything that’s definitely, specifically American. The petrol station, the cafeteria, the railway station cafe……, they had them in other countries too, so what makes them depict only America?
It would be good to be able to see what was rejected from the 28,000 images to see if any of them were more ‘American’ than those published, or indeed if any of them were more to my personal taste, as I have to admit I’m not a great fan of any of those in the book and that clearly clouds the review. I for one won’t be admitting Robert Frank to my ‘Hall of Fame’ anytime soon, but neither will I be dismissing his influence of photography as he’s proved to be one of the masters even though I can’t see it somehow.