'The Americans' Revisited, the photography of Robert Frank

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In the summer of 1955, Robert Frank saw an elderly man with a cane and dark suit standing beneath a wooden staircase at a Los Angeles rooming house. There was enough in the scene that the Swiss photographer pressed the shutter on his 35mm Leica three times before moving on, an encounter that probably lasted no more than a minute.

On the black-and-white contact sheet little distinguishes the three frames from each other. In the first, the man is close to a white pillar; in the second, he has emerged squarely into view; in the third, he has almost disappeared behind the staircase, as if trying to hide from the photographer. Mr. Frank circled with red grease pencil only the third and, mysteriously, from the more than 27,000 pictures he took in 1955-56, chose it to be one of 83 that appeared in his canonic book, "The Americans," published in France in 1958 and in the U.S. a year later.

The contact sheet and finished print are among numerous revealing artifacts dug up for "Looking In: Robert Frank's 'The Americans.'" Organized by Sarah Greenough, senior curator at the National Gallery of Art, which houses Mr. Frank's archives, and edited for the Met by curator Jeff L. Rosenheim, the exhibition boasts a massive catalog (Steidl) that details the background to the creation of this 20th-century masterwork.

Those unfamiliar with its contents can admire the prints on the walls, hung in the same sequence as the book. "The Americans" is a daring and, in many respects, bleak portrait of a land that Mr. Frank was in large part experiencing for the first time. Born in 1924, he had arrived in New York in 1947 from Switzerland, where his teacher Michael Wolgensinger had advised him to group photographs by theme. This training proved crucial to the editing of "The Americans," a crazy quilt of images unified by visual motifs such as crucifixes, jukeboxes, automobiles, motorcycles and cowboys.

As a young Jew in Zurich during World War II, Mr. Frank needed to be inconspicuous. That wasn't necessary in the U.S., and he hit the ground running. His Swiss portfolio earned him jobs from glossy fashion magazines in New York, while his artistic ambitions were aided by friendships with photographers Louis Faurer, with whom he shared a darkroom, and Walker Evans, who touched up the application for a Guggenheim grant that started Mr. Frank on his cross-country trips in 1955-56. His affectionate letters to Evans, sometimes addressed as "Mon cher professeur," are on display at the Met. New research by Ms. Greenough offers convincing proof that the younger artist also carried a copy of Evans's 1938 book, "American Photographs," on his 10,000 mile journey.

Much has been written about the outrage that publication of "The Americans" incited from native-born reviewers and other photographers. Minor White, founder of Aperture, was not alone in dismissing it as "a degradation of a nation." The consensus is that Mr. Frank showed America incontrovertible evidence of ugly truths—about social inequality, especially race—that it could not accept at that time...

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