I knew The Americans was one of the major photobooks, nay, major photographic achievements of the 20th Century, and said nearly as much in my short comments around the unboxing I shared several years ago. I’m not quite sure who on Twitter turned me on to Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans – Expanded Edition, but when I heard it had many of Frank’s contact sheets from the Guggenheim-funded project, well, I hunted down a beat-up used copy,* which then sat in my “to review” pile, or on the new “to review” shelves, for way too long.
Looking In is, essentially, an exhibition catalog from a 2009 exhibition of the same name at the National Gallery of Art (Jan. 18 – Apr. 26), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (May 16 – Aug. 23), and The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Sept. 22 – Dec. 27), that celebrated or commemorated the 50th anniversary of the 1st US printing of The Americans (Grove, 1959). It situates The Americans in Frank’s earlier and later work, with lengthy essays on various facets of his work, interviews with some of his associates, a few writings, contact sheets for every single image in The Americans, a comparison of the various editions, and more.
In short, if you’re in any way interested in The Americans beyond sitting with the book itself, then Looking In is probably worth the too much that it goes for used these days. (Note: there is a softcover version called ‘Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans,’ that does not include the contact sheets or some of the other ephemera, and it often goes for as much or more than the hardcover-only Expanded edition.) If that’s not enough for you, read on. Beware: this is one of my longest reviews ever… Apologies in advance.
The book, like the exhibition from which it came, is organized into four sections: Zurich to New York, 1924-1954, chronicling Frank’s younger days and early years in photography, including his earliest books; Guggenheim Fellowship, 1955-1957, mostly about the trips and attempts to get the book published; The Americans, 1958-1959, about the book’s first appearance in France and other publications by Delpire, and the subsequent Grove edition in the US; and Destroying The Americans, 1960-2008, about the different directions Frank took after the early unpopularity of the book and the various directions various publishers took.
Each section opens with an essay by Sara Greenough, Senior Curator of Photographs at the National Gallery and (I think) main exhibition organizer, with an essay or two from various other historians and theorists: Anne Wilkes Tucker on Frank’s relationship with Louis Faurer; Stuart Alexander on Frank and Steichen; Martin Glasser on Frank and Gotthard Schuh; Jeff L. Rosenheim on Frank and Walker Evans; Michel Frizot on Frank and Robert Delpire, and an Interview with Delpire; Luc Sante on Frank and Kerouac; and Philip Brookman on his various exhibitions of Frank’s work from the late 1970s on.
Each section includes plenty of figures throughout, as well as a set of plates after. I found this confusing at first, as there are text references to figures (usually on the same page or nearby, sometimes much earlier or later in the book) and to plates, and the plates are numbered by section, so text in the Zurich to New York section may include pointers to plates in The Americans section. It’s not a big deal at all, but I found it slightly unusual. But, then, Looking In is something of a unique book, to me anyway, insofar as it’s a thorough exploration of a single body of work.
Following these four sections, I believe the softcover version ends, but the hardcover Expanded Edition continues on with about 140 pages of additional material. Do I need that additional material? Do you? Shoot. Do any of us need a copy of Looking In at all?
Well, in a metaphysical sense, we don’t need photobooks at all, not really. But that’s not the question. If you’re thinking of hunting down a copy of Looking In or, much more unlikely, if you’re standing in a used bookstore holding a copy of the softcover, you may wonder if it’s good enough or if you should hold out for an Expanded Edition. Really, if you see a copy of the basic softcover for less than $80 or $100, just buy it if you have the money and interest. The first 350-odd pages are excellent and worthwhile.
I was particularly struck by Greenough’s essay “Transforming Destiny into Awareness: The Americans” that leads off the section on The Americans book itself. Now I admit to 1) probably not spending enough time with my Steidl reprint (which is maybe the most similar to the 1959 Grove edition) and 2) not really flexing my art criticism and theory muscles enough, so Greenough’s discussion of the “deliberately established structure, emphatic narrator, and carefully articulated and layered order” found in the book provided some great insight. I also really enjoyed seeing other parts of Frank’s work, including the earlier Black and White and Things book, which is reproduced in its entirety, and some of his later work, especially some of his almost-sculptural polaroids and images where, for example he pits images from The Americans against the forces of nature. The earlier work, with which I was wholly unfamiliar, shows Frank’s growth and the development of his highly complex and interesting sequencing, and the later work is equally interesting.
Until the exhibition of Looking In, Frank didn’t seem to be particularly interested in his earlier work, indeed made some explicit moves to absolutely destroy the work, piercing a stack of work prints to a wall, leaving them out in the rain, and similar fun stuff. As someone who occasionally thinks about burning it all down and starting over again, well, this appeals, though Frank has the credibility (which he seems to have never much cared about) and famous works (ditto) to make such a destruction public in ways that I never could. And, then, he didn’t really destroy much at all: the vast majority of the work in Looking In to the National Gallery over several donations in the late 1990s, and so he really must have cared some about the negatives and work prints and all after all
Looking In doesn’t contain a huge amount of Frank’s later work. After all, he spent most of his post-The Americans life making films, which don’t much translate into books, and when he returned to photography, his works were more sculptural, more like the assemblages and early photo albums he made early on, all things that don’t quite translate to book form. But what is there is interesting and adds a sort of coda to his oeuvre.
So what of the extra material in the Expanded Edition?
Well, it includes rather a large amount of ephemera:
-the “Manuscript Material” mentioned above, including scans of handwritten letters to Evans, Kerouac, and Barney Rosset (Grove Press); drafts and edits of the Guggenheim applications; a scan of typed pages of an early draft of Kerouac’s Introduction, and Frank’s letter to Walker Evans following his arrest in Arkansas (with the Guggenheim applications and Frank’s letter to Evans from Arkansas retyped and printed for easier reading)
-a map of Frank’s travel for The Americans
-a chronology of various events related to The Americans
-a list of Selected Exhibitions (all known exhibitions through 1978; major exhibitions though 2008)
-83 contact sheets (one for each image in the book, in book order, and more on those below)
-a comparison of the Frank’s original maquette for the book with the Grove edition and all subsequent editions, showing the different croppings and different images used, that I haven’t yet spent much time with
-and then the usual exhibition checklist, bibliography, and back matter that probably also appear in the softcover version.
Together, really, the Expanded Edition is more than most people probably want to know about Frank and The Americans. Shoot. The base edition of Looking In is more than most people I know want to know about Frank and The Americans. But for me, it’s wildly interesting.
In particular, sitting and perusing the contact sheets shows something familiar: Frank regularly spent a bit of time working the scene, but once he got the shot, he knew it and moved on. It’s fairly clear that he knew more or less what he wanted to get and was more or less patient. Maybe he took 3 or 4 or 5 shots of one scene, but then *bang, he got “the one” (often the one that would end up in the book, but this happened with most everything) and that was it. On to the next one.
For the very first image (made on Plus X, if you care), “Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955” (see a decent digital version of it in the carousel in this NPR article; other examples I found were all way too contrasty, as if Frank was a member of Provoke or something) Frank started out with a few images of a woman with a huge corsage in a gorgeous stole, laughing with another woman in a stole with a huge corsage, smiling with or talking with other people around her, etc. (I say “started out” even though it seems some images are missing: frame numbers on the contact sheet start at 15 and go up to 27, then pick up again at 35 through 44. The strips of film are not in order and often not facing the same way.) Frank marks one with the woman, unsmiling, facing to the left and a man in a top hat facing to the right, takes two more pictures, then moves on. He photographs some women on a bench, takes two photographs of a window display, then hits the brick apartment building and makes the picture that appears in the Americans. Here, a sequence of pictures are missing. At some point, Frank turned back to people and shot a group of men in tuxes and top hats, then took a string of five pictures of people standing in windows (two pairs in two windows, with a flag hanging from one, all apparently next to or above the famous one from the book). From way the window frames line up, it appears he moves back and forth, looking for the right angle. He then goes back to the men in fancy dress and finishes off the roll on an elderly man, wrapped up in a USMC blanket, doffing his cap as some unseen patriotic thing passes by in the parade.
Two things I can learn here, or, rather, be reminded of: 1) MOVE AROUND SOME and 2) know when to stop working a scene. Old dog, new tricks and all, and I’ve yet to really implement either despite knowing both for awhile. Still, it’s really good to see how a famous art photographer worked in 1955, and to have 83 of Frank’s Guggenheim rolls is somewhat more useful and interesting than the Magnum Contact Sheets book.
Interestingly, to me anyway, the second image, also from Hoboken, NJ in 1955, seems to have been shot just before the previous image: Frank had a roll of Ilford HP3 loaded, and spent much of the roll working a group of men in top hats and tuxes, as if he was marching with them in the parade. He makes a few pictures of the people watching the parade and of a group of women marching in the parade, and ends the roll with two pictures of a brick apartment building with a flag hanging from a window and then two of the older woman-in-a-stole-with-a-huge-corsage that also appears on the Plus X roll from the first The Americans. One interesting thing: Frank modified his record-keeping throughout his travels. According to a note at the beginning of the Contact Sheets section, Frank began numbering rolls in late 1955 while in North Carolina. He started with number 301. Earlier rolls were sort of haphazardly and retrospectively numbered, and all rolls were marked with the location (City, State) and year, and many with a sort of subject. The two images from Hoboken are on “Guggenheim 104” and “Guggenheim 107,” but I’m almost certain 107 was made immediately before 104.
And so a reminder to myself to keep good records.***
Anyway. The Contact Sheets are maybe my favorite part, though I haven’t spent a huge amount of time with him yet. There’s both a learning aspect (as above, sorta, that is, studying how Frank moved around and different things he noticed and tried to photograph) and a geek aspect (as in looking at the different stocks he used: Kodak Plus X, Tri X, and Super XX, Ilford HP3 and HPS (a high speed variant), one marked “Eastman 20 Panchromatic Safety” that I can’t find anything about and a couple marked “Dupont Safety 9871” that might be Ilford HPS). Additionally, in looking at his contact sheets, it’s clear that, well, Frank is a photographer like nearly all others, with perhaps slightly more winners. That said, he shot somewhere north of 760 rolls and The Americans contains 83 photographs (give or take maybe a dozen: he added a few and changed a few in later editions), so maybe not so much. I’ve only shot somewhere around 450 rolls over 6 or 7 years, and if this blog is any indication, well, I have far fewer winners. But, then, I’m not a professional art photographer and filmmaker, so my mileage has varied. Similarly, and perhaps more fun to notice: Frank sometimes totally hosed the exposure, sometimes wildly over or underexposed (usually over, very very over). I often kick myself and, somewhat less often, complain here about my failure to change exposure settings, missing focus, etc., so it’s really lovely to see a professional photographer at perhaps the height of his powers, just totally missing exposure gives me some hope.
Overall, Looking In makes a great addition to my library, without question, and thanks to whoever it was on Twitter that mentioned it in passing sometime in early 2018 and that led me to hunt down this beat up copy.
Frank’s life and the making of The Americans makes for interesting reading, and the photographic work represented is of course excellent. The book itself is a bit unwieldy, but given how much it contains, this is totally understandable and everything in it is welcome. Overall, I rate it a very solid 4.5 stars.
Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans: Expanded Edition is long out of print, and copies on the used market are rather dear, starting around $140 (at time of writing) and quickly going up. And should you go to buy one, be aware that the softcover copy (which starts around $150) doesn’t contain the contact sheets or other ephemera. For my money, the Expanded Edition is where it’s at.
If you’re only interested in The Americans itself, do yourself a favor and pick up a cheap copy of the Steidl print from 2008 or after. It’s very small and easy to hold and view, and it’s about as close as you can get to the 1959 Grove edition for a reasonable amount of money. The versions of The Americans photographs in Looking In are about 15% larger than the Steidl copy I have, which would be sorta welcome, but they’re also much more contrasty than either the Steidl print or the Grove edition (as far as I understand, anyway: I’ve never seen the Grove version). Details in the darks and brights are lost, and so you can actually see the photographs better in the much smaller and cheaper Steidl book. This makes me think I should hunt down a copy of the Steidl reprint of Black White and Things as I expect that is similarly better printed. It’s somewhat strange: Steidl printed Looking In too, so one might expect they’d strive for near-identical prints across various publications. Perhaps it’s something with the paper stock, perhaps it’s something the the National Gallery wanted (thought I doubt it: Greenough comments on how open and clear the original print (and Steidl’s reprint) appear versus later, larger versions.
Anyway: Looking In either the softcover or hardcover start at $140 and a used copy of the Steidl print of The Americans goes for $40 (or order one direct from Steidl for €38, as it’s still in print). Spend your money wisely.
*Should you use bookfinder.com to locate a copy, DO NOT TRUST BiggerBooks or eCampus to fulfill your order. From what I can tell, they essentially take your information and submit an order through Amazon on your behalf (and without telling you). Their prices are identical to or pennies cheaper than Amazon, and Amazon has been out of stock of this particular book for years. BiggerBooks in particular will hold your money for 6 or 8 weeks before returning it with little or no explanation. eCampus is a bit better, at 3-5 weeks, and sometimes do have books in stock, but if my 3 orders from Bigger Books are any indication, they don’t actually have any stock and are essentially just Amazon resellers.
** Greenough, Sarah, “Transforming Destiny into Awareness: The Americans,” in ‘Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans.’ National Gallery of Art, Washington and Steidl, 2009. p. 176
*** I keep a spreadsheet with: roll number, date started, date ended, year, subject, date scanned, film stock, ISO, Camera, Lens, format (135, 6×6, half frame, etc.), Development type, Development notes, Developer mix date, miscellaneous notes. Other sheets within the workbook track film back stock, cameras, lenses, data on developers (how long different brands last, how many rolls I put through a particular batch, etc.) and other things. Drop me a line if you’d like me to make a blank copy.