When Robert Frank shot the American flag

This Fourth of July we look back at how one naturalised American found a new way of looking at the US
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Parade, Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955 by Robert Frank. From The Photography Book
Parade, Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955 by Robert Frank. From The Photography Book

The US flag is a potent symbol for natural-born Americans, yet how does it appear to those who grew up outside the country? This Fourth of July, we're looking back at one of the most important photographers ever to train his camera on the United States.

During the early 1950s, the Swiss-born New Yorker Robert Frank applied to America’s Guggenheim Foundation to fund a project he was planning. The proposal set out Frank’s plans to capture what "one naturalized American" might choose to photograph in the United States, a body of images "that signifies the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere. Things that are there anywhere and everywhere — easily found, not easily selected and interpreted.”

Frank was born in Switzerland in 1924 and came to the US in 1947, working as a fashion photographer for a time. While life in America was far better than the conditions he had experienced in wartime Europe, the photographer did not take an uncritical view of the US.

Having tired of the commercial constraints of newsstand publishing, Frank, with the help of his great idol Walker Evans, applied for and received two Guggenheim grants, then set off across the country to fulfill his brief.

 

Washroom in the Dog Run at Floyd Burroughs's Home, Hale County, Alabama, 1936 by Walker Evans. From The Photography Book. Evans was an early supporter of Frank's
Washroom in the Dog Run at Floyd Burroughs's Home, Hale County, Alabama, 1936 by Walker Evans. From The Photography Book. Evans was an early supporter of Frank's

This flag photograph (top), taken at a parade in Hoboken, New Jersey, during the summer of 1955, was shot on the second of the three trips. “The wind is blowing the flag out taut,” Ian Jeffrey writes in The Photography Book, “and in the process obscuring the eyes of one of the women at the window. National emblems may provide a focus, but they also stand in the way of seeing.”

The image is typical of the kind of photographs Frank took on his journeys, which saw him cover almost all of the Continental United States, from Miami to San Francisco; Butte, Montana to Houston, Texas.

There are no wide vistas or beauty spots in Frank’s images. Instead, he captured postcard racks and Greyhound stations, drug stores and hotel lobbies. In total he filled 500 rolls of film.

Frank’s pictures did not show a happy, smiling country; his photographs are not the artfully framed or carefully balanced images that one might have associated with fine-art photography at that time.

So perhaps unsurprisingly, the accompanying book, published first in Paris in 1958 as Les Americains, then in the US in 1959 as The Americans, featuring a foreword by Jack Kerouac, was not a commercial success.

Yet it remains an influential work. Frank was one of the first to capture this bleak, blank side of the country. As John Szarkowski, the former director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, put it, Frank’s photographs “established a new iconography for contemporary America, comprised of bits of bus depots, lunch counters, strip developments, empty spaces, cars, and unknowable faces."

 

Joel Meyerowitz New York 1963. Meyerowitz credits Frank as an early influence
Joel Meyerowitz New York 1963. Meyerowitz credits Frank as an early influence

Frank was also one of the first fine-art photographers to shoot in this disarmingly abrupt style that many subsequent practitioners, including Joel Meyerowitz, have drawn influence from.

"It was the vision that emanated from the book that led not only me, but my whole generation of photographers out into the American landscape," Meyerowitz says.

Today, Robert Frank's images still retain an enigmatic quality. As Ian Jeffrey puts it, Frank’s “gift has always been an ability to invest the seemingly commonplace with supplementary qualities, romantic or religious and always mysterious." They are qualities that lie at the heart of the American character that were, nevertheless, best observed by an outsider.

Happy Fourth of July! You can find out more about this shot and many others in The Photography Book.


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