Highlight: The Americans

Robert Frank | Parade – Hoboken, New Jersey 1955, in The Americans, first edition, GrovePress, New York, 1959 | Purchased 2013 with funds from Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Queensland Art Gallery Research Library Collection

Walker Evans American Photographs and Robert Frank The Americans, two of the most important and influential North American photography books were recently acquired for the Gallery’s Research Library Collection with the generous support of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu.

In 1938, New York’s Museum of Modern Art held ‘Walker Evans: American Photographs’, the first solo exhibition of work by a photographer. The catalogue American Photographs, published to coincide with the exhibition, reproduced 87 photographs taken between 1929 and 1937 from across the United States. However, over half of the photographs were taken in the south and date from 1935–36, when Walker Evans (1903–75) was employed by the Farm Security Administration (the purpose of which was to document the plight of the rural poor in the ‘dust bowl’ during the Great Depression, in order to secure support for then US president Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’). Structured in two parts — the first focusing on portraits and the second on vernacular North American architecture — each image was presented individually on the page with no accompanying title or explanatory text. Evans was instrumental in the book’s production, allegedly paying more attention to the selection and sequence of images for the publication than he did to the exhibition.

Evans became a photographer after initially considering pursuing a career as a writer. His early academic interest in realism and modernism in French literature, which led him to Paris in 1926, proved profoundly influential on his approach to photography when he returned to New York and took up the practice in 1928. Focusing on the cultural reality of America — as it appeared rather than perceived itself to be — Evans traversed the country photographing in a direct manner, free of pictorial artifice and stylistic mannerisms, while always remaining acutely conscious of how his images were composed and received. American Photographs became one of the most influential photography publications of the twentieth century, establishing Evans’s reputation as North America’s preeminent modern photographer.

Among the many young photographers working in New York in the 1950s to be influenced by Walker Evans was Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank (b.1924). In 1955, with encouragement from Evans, Frank received a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation that allowed him to spend two years photographing freely in order to compile a photographic record of American culture. In 1955–56, Frank made numerous road trips across the United States, taking thousands of photographs with a small, 35mm Leica camera. Selecting 92 of these images (83 appeared in the final publication), he made a maquette based on Evans’s American Photographs, in which he arranged his images in four sequences, each beginning with an American flag and exploring a different aspect of contemporary American culture.

Grainy and fragmented, Robert Frank’s photographs were an intuitive and cinematic index of consumer culture, individual freedom, racism, religion, politics and paranoia in 1950s ‘McCarthy era’ America. Unable to find an American publisher, the book was published in France in 1958 by Robert Delpire as Les Américains. Unhappy with the editorial decisions made in the French edition, The Americans was published the following year by Barney Rosset at Grove Press in New York in the form that Frank had originally proposed, which included an introduction by poet Jack Kerouac (1922–69). In The Americans, Frank remade Evans’s quietly empathetic modern vision, turning it into one that spoke to the beat generation’s ‘angry young men’, creating in turn one of the most important artist books of the twentieth century.

American Photographs and The Americans are on display in ‘Ever Present: Photographs from the Collection 1850–1975’ until 7 October 2013.