Review: Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans by Sarah Greenough et al.


Book Reviews, Photobooks

There is no doubt that the re-release of Charlie Parker self-titled album is marvelous - if you stick with the tracks that were on the original release, that is. Just like many jazz albums, “re-mastered” and re-packaged to appeal to those who might already possess an earlier incarnation (or even more than one, since a true fan might own a vinyl version and the first CD release, for example), it comes with a whole bunch of “bonus” tracks, including - but not limited to - aborted tracks. Does anybody really need to listen to 13 seconds of “Confirmation” (and those 13 seconds include studio chatter)? Actually, you can decide for yourself if you go to Amazon’s page for the album and click the little “play” button next to track 23: Since Amazon allows you to listen to 30 second excerpts, you can experience the whole thing.

Photography books are a different kind of game, of course. But we have seen some re-issues of older work, some of it in expanded form, some of it using what people in the movie industry use(d) to call “from the cutting-room floor”. In general, I’m not the biggest fan of such releases. Just like nobody really needs to listen to 13 seconds of Charlie Parker, I don’t think I need to see each and every earlier reject of some photo project; and I certainly don’t need to see each and every Polaroid that somebody found in those shoe boxes that were stacked underneath all the other discarded photo gear, back in the closet that has accumulated the debris of decades.

Of course, I’m more than happy to see an exception, and Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, published to accompany a major exhibition at very prestigious US museums on the occasion of the work’s fiftieth birthday, is a wonderful example.

The 83 photographs in “The Americans” have come a long way. From the initial, scathing reviews (“meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness” - found on this page) - and 600 sold copies, it now is photography royalty and treated as such (Newsweek called it a “landmark photography book” - “What do they know about photography?” you might wonder. What is interesting is not so much what they call the book as the fact that they give it such exposure).

In a sense, Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans is another expression of the status of the work. If you want to find out about its photographer and history (and a lot of other things) this is where you want to look.

But what makes Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans so exciting is that it is the “Expanded Edition” of a slightly slimmer volume (which, and this is completely unrelated, had me flash back to the 1980s when “extended mixes” on 12” records were all the rave), with a grand total of 528 pages and a weight of 7.2 pounds (so those who don’t “work out” regularly can exercise their biceps and triceps while looking at photography).

Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans not only contains information about all the crops of the images in the various editions over the years, it also contains pages and pages of the actual contact sheets. What a great teaching tool, in particular given the amazing amount of insight the book provides with its hundreds of pages of text! It’s one thing to throw outtakes, rejected images and/or Polaroids at people, but it’s quite another to provide them with as much background of a body of work as possibly!

If you’re a young photographer at a school somewhere, now is the time to drop whatever it is you’re doing to order this book (the “Expanded Edition”, of course). Likewise, if you happen to teach at a photography school, here’s your perfect teaching tool. If you are a working (fine art) photographer… OK, here’s the thing: If you use a digital camera, what you are probably doing every day - on the fly - when you look at the back of your camera and then delete (*gasp*!) a “bad” image… That is what people used to do by looking at contact sheets. Yes, looking at the little screen is convenient, but it’s also extremely dangerous - if you want to remind yourself why that is, have a look at Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans.

So for practitioners of photography (even for those who don’t like “The Americans” all that much), Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans is a clear must buy. Seeing all the contact sheets clearly is way less interesting for people who are interested in the history of the work, but not so much in the studio chatter and the aborted tracks, so those can go with the slimmer version of the book. Either way, as an endeavour to explore the history of a body of work Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans is a true landmark achievement.