Today, May 15th, is the 50th anniversary of the day Robert Frank's The Americans was first published by Robert Delpire in Paris. That was 1958. Today we realize that The Americans has more in common with beat poetry and club jazz than it has with many other kinds of photography; it's one of the high water marks of 1950s culture. And throughout an era when photographers communicated with each other and with their audiences mainly through the vehicle of published books, The Americans has had only a handful of competitors (Walker Evans' American Photographs, Henri Cartier-Bresson's The Decisive Moment, a few others) for the title of the most important single photography book ever published. For thirty years after its publication it was deeply influential. And although photography has moved on now, the echoes of its impact reverberate still.
In honor of the anniversary, today also marks the publication of the the finest reprint of the book ever made. The originals are "unobtanium," so reprints are all that are available to photographers and enthusiasts. Over the years there have been many, in many countries and languages; some pretty good, some not so good; some with Robert Frank's input, some without—most recently from Scalo, eight years ago. Mine is the 1986 Pantheon reprint, 22 years old now, which up till now I would have said was one of the most desirable of the affordable versions.
Gerhard Steidl has lately become arguably the world's most important producer of photographic books. In recent years Steidl has undertaken what it calls The Robert Frank Project: "...an ambitious long term publishing programme which encompasses Robert Frank’s complete oeuvre—reprints of his classic books, reprints of some less well known small books, the publication of previously unseen projects, newly conceived bookworks…in a scheme and to a standard that the artist himself has overseen."
Today's release of the deluxe reprint of The Americans is the culmination of Steidl's Robert Frank Project.
The new reprint is in some ways more desirable than the virtually unobtainable (and extremely expensive) first French or first American editions, at least as far as content is concerned. Frank journeyed to Göttingen with the 83 original prints, which were carefully re-scanned to create the finest modern tri-tone reproductions. During the process, he reportedly rethought the cropping of all but a small number of the pictures. The new edition also restores the small size of the original book—those accustomed to modern photo books will be surprised at how small this book is—and does away with the page numbers and the odd little triptych Frank had added to some editions as a visual coda. Two pictures are reproduced from different negatives entirely, slight variations of the originals.
A major touring exhibition will open at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in January, 2009. It will later travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
The Americans is photography's "Kind of Blue." And like that evergreen Miles Davis masterpiece, it deserves a place in any collection. For a while, at least, there won't be any question as to which version to buy: for photographers and book collectors now and for some time to come, the Steidl reprint will doubtless be the edition of this book to have and enjoy.
ADDENDUM: Our friend dyathink sent me a link to this article at telegraph.co.uk, with its fascinating account of Frank's perilous encounter with the malevolent Lieutenant Brown of the Arkansas State Police. It really got me to thinking—is it possible that Lt. Brown and other characters like him might have had some real influence on the final form of the book Robert Frank made? After all, when you choose 83 pictures out of 28,000 shots, it's possible to tell any number of stories, in any number of ways. And of course, when Frank had this "most humiliating" experience, the all-important edit was still to come.