Image-text photobooks #4: Roger Hargreaves on Les Américains by Frank
We asked a pool of international photobook experts to share with us an image-text photobook they find particularly interesting, regardless of its publication date and where text is a fundamental element in the narrative (not a mere introduction or essay on the photoworks). Here our editor-at-large Roger Hargreaves shares his thoughts on the very first edition of Robert Frank‘s Les Américains, published by Robert Delpire in 1958 (172 pages, oblong 8vo).
The timeless joy of the photobook is that it is fixed in time. Unlike the more fluid and adaptable exhibition or artists’ website, the book is frozen in the moment; an unflinching expression of its makers intentions and compromises, flaunting its beauty and parading its flaws, resistant to correction and change.
Robert Frank’s, The Americans is both exceptional and an exception. What makes the true first edition, published as Les Américains by Robert Delpire in 1958, all the more remarkable is that it is a quite different book to the one which subsequently emerged, a work in progress rather than the finished thing, a heroic editorial failure that created a subsequent conceptual success.
Les Américains was published as Série Histoire No 3 in the series Encyclopédie essentielle, conceived and edited by Delpire. Illustrations were inserted amongst the dense text. As Michel Frizot has noted, ‘what is distinctive, compared to Delpire’s previous publications, is the role of the text, which is omnipresent. These are not books of photographs but specific studies with elaborate photographic iconography.’
The study in question was to be a decidedly European take on contemporary America, published at the moment of France’s unease at being geographically pinned between two Cold War Super Powers. A French-Belgium poet, Alain Bousquet, would edit a series of literary and historic texts on America that would counterpoint the imagery of the Swiss photographer, Frank. A sense of equality between the two contributing authors would be maintained by the choice of a non-photographic cover by the Romanian-born illustrator Saul Steinberg. An Italian translation, Gli Americani followed.
Bousquet’s literary montage begins with a scattering of lines from Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835, De la démocratie en Amérique, before breaking off into a catalogue of telegrams sent from one American to another. Some extracts run to a few pages, other quotes for a single line. There are poems: Langston Hughes, Cross on racial identity, and prose: William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and Mary McCarthy. Mixed into the soup are a heavy stock of population statistics and a timeline of dates. All the text is in French.
The text does not attempt to respond directly to the corresponding images. Instead it builds into an ensemble piece of acerbic criticism that perceives America as having reneged on its founding principles and declined into a country of racial tension, ferocious nationalism, inequality and facile consumerism. In many ways it is empathetic to Frank’s photographic vision. When, a year later, The Americans was printed Stateside, with the texts stripped out and replaced by a dedicated Jack Kerouac essay, local critics identified a similar mood music in what they perceived as Frank’s bleak and hostile picture of America.
The weakness of the first edition is that the texts run parallel to the images with no obvious cross over. As a reader you can’t easily turn the page and read image text, instead you have to engage with a literary book and then re-engage with a narrative sequence of images. Text and image are separate but they were never equal.
Much has been made of the meticulously edited sequence of eighty-three photographs. Shapes and forms, of stars and stripes, tombstones and crosses provide a rhythmic pulse across the pages. Exquisitely framed meta narratives with internal jokes punctuate more casual snapshots; the lonesome navy recruiting officer, a thousand miles from the nearest seaboard, the corporate skyscraper housing editorial offices, built on the flimsy foundations of a hundred ephemeral magazines. The photographic textures of exposure, differential focus and blur offer another layer of meaning. There is poetry in the structure, cinema in the montage. However the edit is nearer to the structure of modern jazz; tone setting introduction, development, recapitulation, improvisation and coda.
In a more recent interview Delpire was having none of it. In response to Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s assertion that the photographs have ‘an internal logic, complexity and visual flow’, Delpire countered that, ‘it is nonsense. ..the sequence came very naturally… we did the mock up in one afternoon, at my place, lining up the photographs on the floor.’
That’s as maybe. However the project took Frank three years to realize from grant application through planning and realization. It was constructed from a series of road trips punctuated with occasional opportunistic magazine assignments that fitted the scheme. Who knows how many hours were consumed in reviewing the contact prints before setting out again, in pouring over prints in the sanctuary of the darkroom, in constantly shuffling the pack before finally pitching up for that solitary afternoon at Delpire’s place.
What is widely acknowleged is the influence and dialogue of Walker Evans and the impact Evans’s, American Photographs had on Frank. Evans could conjure narrative from aesthetics that had little to do with conventional documentary conventions. He was a sly smuggler of his own artistic agendas into other people’s editorial conceits. It is pure speculation, but easy to believe, that Frank learnt from the master, the trick of persuading an editor he was delivering one thing while all the time delivering something else.
Les Américains is a rare example of a photobook buried inside another book. It is a cautionary tale of the potential failure of text to work with images. To Bousquet’s heavy soup, Frank serves a more delicate soufflé, that over fifty years later shows no sign of collapse.