The Photo Book Club is a fantastic new online venture that's been put together by Wayne Ford, a designer and art director (at the Observer, among other places), and Matt Johnston, a photographer, teacher, and social media manager. Today, they've published a short essay that I've written, looking at the historical context within Robert Frank was working when he shot, edited, and published The Americans, one of the most influential and controversial of all photo books.
Here's some of what I have to say: Frank's America "was a dystopia, its citizens alternately menacing, menaced, or estranged. The photos often reveal racial hierarchies and class stratification. In many of them, fear, anger, and suppressed rage -- sometimes masked by a boisterous bravado -- seem to linger just below the surface."
Robert Frank: Charleston, South Carolina, 1955. (Plate 13 from The Americans.)
"No one who had read The Americans would have been surprised by what was to come a few short years later -- the assassinations (the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X), the urban rebellions of African-American youth, and the disastrous escalation of the Vietnam War.
"Then as now, however, there were many Americas and many sorts of Americans. Frank didn't capture them all and couldn't have, even if he had tried. As a result, people had a point when they said that the book was actually about 'some Americans.'"
To read the rest, visit the Photo Book Club, here. I'm eager to hear any comments or corrections you might have. Please leave them on the book club's site. There you'll find my essay and a wealth of other information about The Americans. We're hoping to spark a conversation about Frank's masterpiece.
I'm impressed with the thinking behind the Photo Book Club. Wayne and Matt aim to promote discussions around photo books, looking, in particular, at old, rare and influential photography books from the early twentieth century onwards. Each month, this online club will look at a photography book suggested not only by Wayne and Matt, but also by anyone who would like to write blog posts, comment through Tweets, and generally add her or his two cents. Anyone who cares about photography can have some fun.