While a mood of reflection descends upon on our nation, what better day than today, this 8-year anniversary, to reflect on something approaching its 50th? Like many people, I have stacks of books by my bed, but beyond all the stacks, flat and visible on a nightstand, I keep a copy of The Americans, Swiss photographer—and Cocksucker Blues auteur—Robert Frank‘s epic, black-and-white meditation on what America looked like in the 12 or so months following the summer of ‘55.
Just eighty-three photos winnowed down from oh, twenty-seven thousand, Frank’s book winds up in my hands time and time again, and if, as Rod Stewart says, “every picture tells a story,” I’m by now pretty sure I’ve forged a story from each of its melancholy images.
But that’s what photos do—the good ones, anyway. Reduced to two dimensions, stripped from time and place, photographs compel us to find the metaphor. To search for meaning. That freedom to look and think and wonder, it’s a large part of The Americans’ stark, open-ended beauty. And for Frank’s subjects, too, contemplation shows up as a favored mode of expression. As Anthony Lane writes in the current New Yorker:
Was there ever a book as full of looking as Robert Frank?