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Photograph of book cover

The Americans by Robert Frank

I should start by declaring that I am a great fan of Robert Frank’s (1924 -) work and find nothing I dislike in it. So, I am focusing on why I like the work so much and what we might learn from it to improve our own ‘street’ photography. I draw from his work, The Americans (Eighth Steidl edition, published 2014,  © Robert Frank).

The Americans
Photography of book cover

Having studied the photographs in the book, I first give my overall impressions of his work and approach to photography.  My perspective is also influenced by watching and listening to Frank talk about his own work and demonstrating his approach to photography – see separate post on Leaving Home, Coming Home.

  • The photographs are thought-provoking, leaving us thinking about what is happening in them or the lives of the people featured. They reflect personalities.
  • Frank shoots close-up to people, we feel part of the images, part of what is happening to the protagonists. He is courageous in his approach to strangers. Though I suspect people took less notice of ‘street’ photographers at the time the images were taken (1955/6).
  • He is not constrained by showing complete object or scenes, he picks out what is interesting from the whole and puts it right in front of our eyes. For example, in US 90, en route to Del Rio, Texas we see the front view of half a car with a sleeping passenger. No need to show the whole context; teasing with the unseen makes the image more compelling.
  • There are often strong single points of focus in the images, that are not necessarily the obvious parts of the scene. For example in Movie premiere – Hollywood the obvious focus point would be the beautiful young actress in the foreground. However, she is blurred, not in sharp focus, and the point of focus falls on a middle-aged lady in the crowd, concentrating intensely on the scene in the foreground.
  • In many compositions there is a strong but subtle use of diagonals to either draw us into the image or across the image. In Rooming house, the balustrade of the stair leads the eye from the bottom right edge of the image to the top centre and the darkened upstairs.
  • Most images use a medium depth of field, with the objects in the foreground in focus, but the background unfocused. This is a contrast to much modern street photography that seems to rely upon deep depth of field – perhaps an easier option for capture a sharp image in the moment with modern cameras and high ISO capabilities. However, the use of medium depth of field seems to give greater intimacy to the images.

The OCA expressing your vision material (p62) states that Frank uses motion blur deliberately in The Americans, referencing Elevator – Miami Beach. However, I wonder whether the blur is a managed consequence of capturing spontaneous images in poor lighting conditions without a flash, rather than a choice made in the moment.

There is much to learn from this wonderful book, and I’m sure I will revisit it many times during my photographic journey!

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