Photography: Robert Frank's 'The Americans' at 50

Two landmark photography books were published in the middle '50s in the United States. The first, "The Family of Man," showcased an exhibition put together for the Museum of Modern Art by its photography curator, Edward Steichen. That book wound up—or so it seemed at the time—on every other middle-class coffee table in the country. The other, much smaller book presented 83 images by a little-known Swiss émigré named Robert Frank. In its first year of publication in the United States, "The Americans" sold only 600 copies, and what reviews it received were mostly awful. But in the decades since, it's "The Americans" that has triumphed. Today "The Family of Man" is dismissed by most critics as a well-meant but overorchestrated attempt to show our common humanity through images of various cultures eating, dancing, singing, etc. "The Americans," in contrast, was a dark, brooding book that made no attempt at evenhandedness. Yet today, 50 years after it was first published, it is "The Americans" that looks fresh every time we open it. Literature, Ezra Pound said, is "news that stays news." You could say the same about "The Americans."

Frank published his book when the cold war was at its height, when the civil-rights movement was in its infancy and when people worried about things such as juvenile delinquency and the bomb, but for the most part the country was sunk in a complacent prosperity. In that atmosphere, "The Americans" looked like a slap in the face. Its subjects did not look happy—there are only a couple of smiling faces in the whole book. More often than not, they looked pensive, distracted, suspicious—even angry. The shot of a New Orleans streetcar, with white people up front and African-Americans in the back, perfectly captured the nation's racial divide.

It would be a mistake, however, to call Frank a documentary photographer. There was nothing objective about his pictures. Jack Kerouac's preface to the original American edition lauded Frank's ability to suck "a sad poem right out of America onto film," and Kerouac ranked Frank not among other photographers but "among the tragic poets of the world." Looking at these images, one thinks of William Carlos Williams's 1923 poem "To Elsie," which begins, "The pure products of America go crazy" and goes on to talk about "devil-may-care men who have taken/to railroading/out of sheer lust of adventure—/and young slatterns, bathed/in filth/from Monday to Saturday/to be tricked out that night/with gauds/from imaginations which have no/peasant traditions to give them/character." Williams and Frank could have shared a duplex.

"The Americans" has a superficially casual, almost drive-by feel. But you quickly see how carefully Frank culled the more than 20,000 images he shot over two years of crisscrossing the country. Flags, jukeboxes, cars and crosses keep cropping up, chiming and echoing from image to image. Dour he may have been, but the images of sullen teens, lonely crowds and desolate townscapes possess an energy and a visual rigor that belie what may at first be mistaken for offhandedness or carelessness. Frank's critics may not have known what he was up to, but he sure did.

Photography was never the same after "The Americans." Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Nan Goldin all walked through the door Frank opened. And his influence was by no means limited to art photography. Fashion ads, music videos, movies—everyone stole from Frank. In the early '70s, when he designed the album cover for the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street," it almost looked as though he were parroting the prevailing esthetic—an esthetic he all but invented. Leafing through the exemplary new edition of this landmark book published by Steidl, it is hard to see what was so strange about these images when they first appeared, because so much of what we've seen since has taught us that it's not only permissible but rewarding to relish images of an almost Seinfeldian nothing: the way light falls on a barroom floor, the totemic look of a country mailbox at high noon or the vacant stare of a mother leaning out of a car window. When life is hard—and it always is in these pictures—then you have to look hard, he seems to be saying, and when you do, you see beauty in the oddest places. No one has ever captured what is at once so sad and beautiful in the look of America better than the unsentimental Frank. You could say he was the first noir photographer: his is a shadowy world full of high-contrast black and white, a gritty place where right from the start you know things won't end well—but you can't stop looking.