Robert Frank's The Americans

Paul Hiebert

Photographer Robert Frank’s recent "The Americans" exhibit, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is an investigation into the U.S.'s founding myths of freedom and exceptionalism.

Rodeo - New York City, 1954 /

Photograph © Robert Frank, from The Americans

Robert Frank’s America is a tough America. Of all the people depicted in the 83 photographs comprising Frank’s The Americans, only a few smile. Most people have empty expressions while they gaze into a bleak future. They are neither dreaming nor pondering. The small number of those devoted to evading a dreary fate either grimace or scowl. They are defiant.

Despite the diversity of Frank’s subjects -- old or young, rich or poor, beautiful or ugly, rural or urban, gay or straight, black or white -- all represent the stars and stripes. And what are Americans seeking? Freedom, presumably. Their austere posture is aimed at a life that promises more than it delivers. Frank travels across America trying to capture the moment when the naivety of each individual cracks and a flood of hard sadness comes gushing through.

Since the Metropolitan Museum's exhibit of Frank’s photography is arranged to unfold in a specific order, the initial photograph sets the tone. It is entitled Parade -- Hoboken, New Jersey, but we see no parade, no joy, no celebration, no destination. All we see is a brick building with two people looking out of their respective windows. The woman in the left window is partly obscured by the shade of a lowered blind, while the face of the person in the right window is completely covered by an American flag attached to a pole and flapping in the wind. It's eerie: There is something ominous about an American flag -- a widely recognized symbol of freedom -- erasing the existence of an individual.

Further into the series, in Navy Recruiting Station, Post Office -- Butte, Montana, all that is seen of human agency within a government bureau is two feet resting on a desk, one crossed over the other. There is no humanity here, only an American flag hanging prominently on the back wall. In another photograph, Bank -- Houston, Texas, a similar idea is captured: an office full of vacant chairs, desks, and documents, with only a trace of humanity. A lone man works diligently in the background, insignificant compared with the entire financial institution. War and the economy, the image suggests, are beyond human control.

U.S. 90, En Route to Del Rio, Texas, 1955 /

Photograph © Robert Frank, from The Americans

Freedom is a complex endeavor in Frank’s exhibit. Liberty can be obtained, but we must first enlist in the army to wage wars; music can be enjoyed, but we must first enter the factory to build jukeboxes. Another picture, entitled Factory -- Detroit, depicts a black man sitting outside an industrial plant, his workplace. The building looks colossal next to him. Although at first this picture seems to contrast with the Butte and Houston images, it does not. All these men, despite their differences in status, are caught in the same system. All are lost in the labyrinth of bureaucracy. One secures the resources, one provides the funds, and one produces the automobiles -- yet all long for autonomy.

Frank’s use of shiny cars and paved highways often represent salvation. The most explicit photographs suggesting this sentiment are Santa Fe, New Mexico, with its gas station sign that reads “Save,” and Chicago, which shows a car with religious stickers on the back that read “Christ Came to Save Sinners” and “Christ Died For Our Sins.” But Frank also reminds us that behind every mile of highway and car tire is a slave, whether behind an office desk or on a factory floor. Like Christ’s death on the cross, our freedom paradoxically requires sacrifice.

Yet Frank presents another paradox of freedom, a lonelier one. In Bar -- Las Vegas, Nevada, a well-dressed man stands on an empty dance floor staring into a jukebox. It appears to be daytime as the sun comes through the windows. This man is free, but he is alone. He can listen to whatever he wants, but there are too many options. Likewise, in Casino -- Elko, Nevada, a woman throws dice onto the craps table. The wide-open table suggests opportunity and possibility, a clear horizon. But no one in the photograph looks content; they seem to know the odds are always against them.

Where does all this effort and struggle get Americans? In Yale Commencement - New Haven Green, New Haven, Connecticut, an old man sits on a bench while a graduating class, dressed in their gowns, marches by. The man is disillusioned. He appears to know that, given time, the young will also become disappointed in life. They are too young to know that their pilgrimage is to nowhere.

Funeral - St. Helena, South Carolina, 1955 / Photograph © Robert Frank, from The Americans

In the end, what all Americans have in common is death. A photograph of several black men dressed in suits and gathered around automobiles, best captures this American defiance to even the cruelest of fates. The photo is entitled Funeral -- St. Helena, South Carolina, and the man in the forefront, with his raised jaw, glaring eyes, lean cheekbones, and fingers resting on lips, exudes stoicism in the face of death. He has lost someone he cares about, and knows that someday he will be lost to those who care about him. Regardless of his position in society and the cosmos, he will not give in to despair.

What Frank could only have had a hint of in the late 1950s, was that this American resilience, this attitude of overcoming what seems impossible, would one day embody civil rights, women’s rights, disability rights, and gay rights -- all avenues toward freedom. Frank may present a cynical view of America, but he captures the toughness that would eventually lead to greater liberties, though not complete, for the Americans of today.

Trolley - New Orleans, 1955 / Photograph © Robert Frank, from The Americans

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