Facing the Fifties

on robert frank’s the americans.

Madroad driving men ahead… – Jack Kerouac, “Introduction,” The Americans

Thank goodness a more affordable edition of Robert Frank’s book of photographs, The Americans, will be published this spring.

“U.S. 91, leaving Blackfoot, Idaho”

Robert Frank, “U.S. 91, leaving Blackfoot, Idaho” (1956).

What is so striking about this collection of photographs from the 1950s — filled with American flags, ghostly gas stations, jukeboxes, city bustle, and burning white lines of roads — are the faces. They burn through any slight edge of lonely sentimentalism and nostalgia that might turn Frank’s work into the photographic equivalent of Edward Hopper’s paintings.

Instead, the faces in Frank’s photographs give the lie to nostalgia about the 1950s. They all bear an undercurrent of rage, anger. They are taut, tense, beleaguered. The jaw muscles are pulled tight. The eyes sting. This America is no gentle place.

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