Exhibition: ‘Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans’ at The National Gallery of Art, Washington

Exhibition dates: National Gallery of Art, January 18–April 26, 2009; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 16–August 23, 2009; Metropolitan Museum of Art, September 22–December 27, 2009


Robert Frank. 'The Americans' 1959


Robert Frank
‘The Americans’
New York: Grove Press


One of the seminal photography books of the twentieth century, Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ changed photography forever, changed how America saw itself and became a cult classic. Like Eugene Atget’s positioning of the camera in an earlier generation Frank’s use of camera position is unique; his grainy and contrasty images add to his outsider vision of a bleak America; his sequencing of the images, like the cadences of the greatest music, masterful. One of the easiest things for an artist to do is to create one memorable image, perhaps even a group of 4 or 5 images that ‘hang’ together – but to create a narrative of 83 images that radically alter the landscape of both photography and country is ultimately a magnificent achievement.

M Bunyan


“Released at the height of the Cold War, ‘The Americans’ was initially reviled, even decried as anti-American. Yet during the 1960s, many of the issues that Frank had addressed – racism, dissatisfaction with political leaders, skepticism about a rising consumer culture – erupted into the collective consciousness. The book came to be regarded as both prescient and revolutionary and soon was embraced with a cultlike following.

First published in France in 1958 and in the United States in 1959, Robert Frank’s The Americans is widely celebrated as the most important photography book since World War II. Including 83 photographs made largely in 1955 and 1956 while Frank (b. 1924) traveled around the United States, the book looked beneath the surface of American life to reveal a profound sense of alienation, angst, and loneliness. With these prophetic photographs, Frank redefined the icons of America, noting that cars, jukeboxes, gas stations, diners, and even the road itself were telling symbols of contemporary life. Frank’s style – seemingly loose, casual compositions, with often rough, blurred, out-of-focus foregrounds and tilted horizons – was just as controversial and influential as his subject matter. The exhibition celebrates the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication by presenting all 83 photographs from The Americans in the order established by the book, and by providing a detailed examination of the book’s roots in Frank’s earlier work, its construction, and its impact on his later art.”

Text from The National Gallery of Art website


Robert Frank. Contact sheets for 'The Americans'


Robert Frank
Contact sheets for ‘The Americans’

“Frank’s contact sheets take us back to the moment he made the photographs for ‘The Americans’. They show us what he saw as he traveled around The United States and how he responded to it. These sheets are not carefully crafted objects; in his eagerness to see what he had captured, Frank did not bother to order his film strips numerically or even to orientate them all in the same direction.”

Robert Frank. Sequencing of 'The Americans' numbers 32- 36


Robert Frank
Sequencing of ‘
The Americans’ numbers 32- 36

“Almost halfway through the book Frank created a sequence united by the visual repetition of the car and the suggestion of its movement.”


Robert Frank. parade-hoboken-new-jersey-1955


Robert Frank
Americans 1
‘Parade – Hoboken, New Jersey’


Robert Frank. Americans 32 'U.S. 91, Leaving Blackfoot, Idaho' 1956


Robert Frank
Americans 32
‘U.S. 91, Leaving Blackfoot, Idaho’


Robert Frank. Americans 3. 'Political Rally - Chicago' 1956


Robert Frank
Americans 3
‘Political Rally – Chicago’


“The photos revealed a bleaker, more dislocated view of America than Americans were used to (at least in photography). Frank’s “in-between moments” demonstrated that disequilibrium can seem more revealing, seeming to catch reality off-guard. In doing so the collection also announced to the world that photos with a completely objective reference/referent could be subjective, lyrical, reveal a state-of-mind. Looser framing, more forced or odd juxtapositions, “drive-by” photos and other elements offer a sense of the process that has produced the photos”

Lloyd Spencer on Discussing The Americans in Hardcore Street Photography


I couldn’t have put it better myself!


Robert Frank. Americans 36. 'U.S. 285, New Mexico' 1955


Robert Frank
Americans 36
‘U.S. 285, New Mexico’



Elison Lecture

‘A Conversation with Robert Frank’
March 26th, 2009 at 3:30
East Building Concourse, Auditorium 

Robert Frank, photographer, in conversation with Sarah Greenough, senior curator and head of the department of photographs, National Gallery of Art

2 Responses to “Exhibition: ‘Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans’ at The National Gallery of Art, Washington”

  1. 1 Pete Thompson
    January 26, 2010 at 2:23 am

    Strange I don’t recall being here before. I have traveled US 285 for the past 50 years in New Mexico. Its different now being 4 lane because of WIPP. Its the Autobahn of New Mexico where you can let all out. Even the cops go full out. I would like to find the mile marker where Frank and Adams took their pictures. Guess just about any place on high ground would do.

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Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Études’ 1994

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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