My outlaw days are over. I've been blogging about photography, music, motor sports, and Africa for nearly three years. In all that time, nobody -- nobody! -- bothered to tell me that both international and American law require all bloggers to post "Best of..." lists during the month of December.
Now that I know, I'm mending my ways (besides, I have no desire to spend 2012 in jail). Without any further ado, here's my selection for photo book of the year: U.S. Camera, 1958.
Yes, 1958 was a long time ago. But I've got two good reasons for picking this book. First, it's new to me. I found this copy just a couple of months ago.
Second (and far more significantly, to be honest), the 1958 edition of U.S. Camera marked the first time that a portfolio of images that would eventually appear in Robert Frank's monumental book, The Americans, was published in the United States.
U.S. Camera, 1958 copyright T. J. Maloney. Photos copyright Robert Frank. [Click on any of the images to see much larger versions.]
Frank made the photos that appear in the U.S. Camera portfolio and in The Americans in 1955, '56, and '57, on a series of road trips across the country that were made possible by a Guggenheim fellowship. It's hard to overestimate his achievement. Sarah Greenough, who curated a major traveling exhibition of the photos in 2009, says that Frank "forever changed the course of twentieth-century photography."
It's hard to argue with that assessment. To this day, the look and feel of photos made everywhere in the world have been shaped, to some degree, by Frank's Guggenheim images.
My admiration (and affection) for the The Americans grows stronger every time I look through it. The individual images are powerful, of course. But the book's greatest strength is the sequence in which Frank and his editors present the photos. The photos speak to each other and to the reader, creating, in effect, an epic poem about the America.
Frank's impact on the photographic world came primarily through The Americans, which was published in France, in 1958, and in the US, in 1959. But there was already a buzz about the project when U.S Camera, 1958 hit the bookstores and camera shops in December 1957 -- in part because of the Guggeneheim fellowship's prestige and in part because of Walker Evans' very public enthusiasm for the project. (As you can see in the second photo, Evans wrote an introduction to the portfolio.)
The portfolio contains over thirty photos, nearly half of which don't appear in The Americans (including the photo directly above). They're presented in an odd format, considerably smaller than the book itself. U.S. Camera's editor, Tom Maloney, explains that Frank's 35mm photos would have had to have been cropped or surrounded by considerable white space if they were printed in the same way as the rest of the book. The explanation doesn't hold water. Frank's vertical shots are, in fact, cropped slightly to fit the smaller pages, and many 35mm photos from other photographers are printed on full-sized pages.
Maloney's introduction to the portfolio is as defensive as his choice of format is perplexing. He probably knew that he had good reasons to be worried. In terms of both technique and temperament, Frank was out of step with the conventional, although brilliantly executed, photography that U.S. Camera usually published. Reviews of The Americans would later excoriate Frank for his "meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposure, drunken horizons, and general sloppiness" and blast him for his "wart-covered picture of America." It didn't help matters that Frank was an immigrant and a Jew.
In the midst of the Cold War, and in an America in which racial segregation was still the order of the day, many white Americans were unprepared for a vision of the nation that, in Greenough's words, "revealed a country that many knew existed but few had acknowledged. ...deeply riddled by racism, alienation, and isolation... and much violence."
No surprise then that Maloney tried his best to tame Frank's photos. They weren't, he admitted, "everyone's picture of the country we live in. This is hardly the inspirational school of photography." But, he insisted, it was also nothing new. It was merely "a throwback to the documentary that was so important to photography in the thirties." This misrepresents both Frank and the social documentary photography of the 1930s, and Maloney probably knew it. He was very likely trying to put out the fire before it started.
In his brief introduction to the portfolio, Walker Evans hit the right note: "Assuredly the gods who sent Robert Frank, so heavily armed, across the United States did so with a certain smile."
In fact, Frank's photos do look out of place in U.S. Camera. The annual had always celebrated technically sophisticated commercial gloss, on the one hand, and sentimental documentary photography, on the other. True to form, the 1958 edition offered glamorous models, poor people in distant places, plus plenty of cute kids and pretty young white women, at least a third of whom were "artistically" nude. Fortunately, a ten-page portfolio of Brassai's graffiti images breaks the tedium.
I've been a little harsh on Maloney, and I've no right to be. He had the vision to understand that Frank was doing something new and important, even if he didn't quite understand what it was all about. He also knew that he was taking a risk by featuring Frank's images so prominently, but he did it anyway.
Thanks to Robert Frank, U.S. Camera, 1958, and The Americans photography would never be the same again.
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Postscript: A few minutes after I posted these thoughts, the photographer Robert M. Johnson sent me a tweet, chiding me for exaggerating U.S. Camera's photographic conservatism. He's got a point. While most of the images were indeed commercial, sentimental, or both, every volume of the annual included work that has stood the test of time. In 1958, Bill Brandt, Richard Avedon, Edouard Boubat, Dorothea Lange, Irving Penn, and Rene Burri are each represented by a photo or two. The book concludes with a special report on the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. The wire service photos on which it's based capture the events with a raw intensity that's still impressive five decades later.