Before making my overall appraisal I feel it necessary to define what I think the US was in the 50s. The most powerful nation on earth, with a technological and industrial prowess way beyond that of any other country in the world. In spite of lacking the more extensive social security of later years, it was a time of relative equality, unlike the 1.0% at the top which we now decry, and the working poor. Americans were very proud of their country, and for many good reasons. Leaving aside the situation of the black people, whose struggle required decades more, there was a sense of progress, of belief in the American dream, when an assembly worker earned enough to easily put his kids through college, own two cars, visit Europe. It was the era of suburban paradise that all aspired to. Of course there were those on the margins, the poor and even outcast, but even they were rich in comparison to their European counterparts living in bombed out cities, not to mention those in developing countries. This was a time when the architecture of American cities reached for the sky, and its government for the moon. It was the beginning of the iconic American culture of fast food, pop music, Hollywood movies and so on.
So now, I ask myself, does the brilliant, incomparable photography of Robert Frank reflect this ? My answer is that there are some photos ( drugstore Detroit, assembly line, drive-in movie, covered car, casino, Met Life building, etc, ) that do reflect that America. And indeed others portray a typically American character: Rodeo, Fourth of July, Candy Store, and a few others. The photos of black people are poignant and true to that era. Yet I find that Frank’s incredible photographs dwell too much on a sombre side, which certainly existed but was not the overriding spirit of the era, or of the country’s driving force: that everyone should have an equal chance. This is where I think Frank comes up short; there are missing photos here. ( Maybe it’s because he is Swiss, from a country that did not suffer the ravages of two world wars, and where everything was small and in Teutonic order at the time he headed for America ) . To make my point: Imagine if a photographer was charged with the task of capturing 15th century Florence, and took photos of the dead and wounded in the many battles of the time, or of the smelly and dark back alleys of the city inhabited by the poor, or the low-life thugs who wandered the streets ! He would have missed Da Vinci, the Cupola of Brunelleschi, the tower of Giotto, the Renaissance Itself.
The mastery of the art is patent in every one of these photographs and justify appreciating and owning this book just for that reason. Yet I am reluctant to feel it is a true portrayal of the America of the time. For this reason I give it three stars.
- Hardcover: 180 pages
- Publisher: Steidl; 1 edition (1 July 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 386521584X
- ISBN-13: 978-3865215840
- Product Dimensions: 18.8 x 2 x 21.6 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 794 g
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- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 4,789 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)