The Leica Legacy
“The eye should learn to listen before it looks.”
No one has had a greater influence on photography in the last half-century than the Swiss-born Mr. Frank, though his reputation rests almost entirely on a single book published five decades ago. While he has produced other volumes over the years and made 31 films and videos, all roads in his career lead back to this masterpiece, “The Americans,” an intimate visual chronicle of common people in ordinary situations drawn from several trips he made through his adopted country in the mid-1950s, “I’m very proud of this book because I followed my intuition,” he said.
Although not immediately evident, The Americans is constructed in four sections. Each begins with a picture of an American flag and proceeds with a rhythm based on the interplay between motion and stasis, the presence and absence of people, observers and those being observed. The book as a whole explores the American people—black and white, military and civilian, urban and rural, poor and middle class—as they gather in drugstores and diners, meet on city streets, mourn at funerals, and congregate in and around cars.
Abstract Expressionism defined the artistic climate in which Mr. Frank produced the photographs for “The Americans.” Living on East 11th Street in Manhattan, Mr. Frank became friends with Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Allen Ginsberg. “I didn’t know any people in Europe that lived like that,” he said. “They were free, and that impressed me. They paid no attention to how you dressed or where you lived. They made their own rules. They didn’t belong to bourgeois society which I come from in Europe.”
Mr. Frank emigrated to the United States in 1947, worked as a fashion- and feature-magazine photographer and traveled during the next several years in Latin America and Europe in pursuit of the art that would define him. In 1951 he said, ”When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.”