time, space and The Americans

98 cent words are always a pleasure: one can hug oneself over the fine distinctions and definitional nuances they facilitate, or revel in arcana accessible only to the cognoscenti… but sometimes they may serve a constructive purpose by staking out underexplored semantic territory. Chronotope is one such term, handy in helping me clarify an ongoing struggle with images in time. Its origins are more or less in literature:

The concept of chronotope, from Mikhail Bakhtin, provides a useful tool … Chronotope is the coordination of a system of time and space, a form-giving ideology. Bakhtin uses the term to name the set of distinctive temporal and spatial features within a work, the phenomenal « feel » of the world produced by the work, which is, it should be emphasized, quite different from the world in which the work is produced. In the chronotope, “time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot, and history. The intersection of axes and fusion of indicators characterizes the artistic chronotope.” The chronotope determines, if it does not displace, the more familiar notion of genre… (K.Michael Hays)

‘Chronotope’ has found its way into film discourse, but is rarely used in writing about photography. One exception is a remarkable book of photographs of Afghanistan by Simon Norfolk, Chronotopia: Landscapes of the Destruction of Afghanistan.

I owe my awareness of the term ‘chronotope’ to my friend Ron Nigh, with whom I taught a couple of courses a decade ago (see here and here). About 30 years before that, we had limned related territory in a reading course with G. William Skinner in the general realm of anthropologies of time-and-space (we called it ‘4-space’ at the time), but Bakhtin was unknown to us then.

I want to appropriate (in a Dumptean sense) ‘chronotope’ to talk about the subjective experience of multifaceted time-and-space, a territory I seem to inhabit more and more with each passing year, a continuing tumble through the chronosynclastic infundibulum of now-and-then, here-and-there that passes for Reality.

And I’m caught in time myself, in multiple ways. I belong to a cohort that’s been marching toward oblivion since 1943, sharing experiences and outlooks (more or less) and seeing the Zeitgeist differently from adjacent cohorts (George WS Trow was one of the ablest chroniclers of the cohort). I pick and choose among incoming innovations (Facebook no, iPhone yes), and betimes must deal with the perceptions/capabilities of much younger individuals and cohorts. Occasionally I’ve been blindsided, most recently by the 9-second gif (Mike Johnston offers an interesting take on photographic aspects of the technological present …and don’t miss his followup post on the changing culture of photography).

I spend a lot of time exploring bits of the past, trying to construct coherent narratives for myself. Lately I’ve been revisiting photographic territories of the past, looking through books I’ve had on the shelves for years and buying new ones as I encounter titles that enlarge some aspect of my interests. Each book (for that matter, each photograph) has multiple coordinates in time and space. These include the basic publication metadata (where and when), the facts of when I encountered and purchased, the contexts (spatio-temporal, intellectual, relational) in which I read and re-read them, their place in the land- and timescapes of commentary and criticism. Thus, Steichen’s Family of Man came into my ken sometime in the mid-1950s, before I had even begun to think of myself as a photographer; re-entered my life in the early 1960s when I was self-consciously developing my own visual aesthetic; dropped in and out of nowness multiple times over the years as I revisited it in various contexts; and most recently I found it juxtaposed in contrast to Robert Frank’s The Americans.

…a look at the overall plan of the book [The Americans] reveals it to be more like a perverse parody of Edward Steichen’s 1955 catalogue for the exhibition, “The Family of Man.” It covers the same range of topics but from an altered viewpoint that reverses the implicit argument that the political system proceeds from the individual. And there are clear parallels — the introduction by Jack Kerouac, for example, which mocks Carl Sandburg’s introduction to The Family of Man… (Jno Cook)

And it’s really The Americans that I’m leading up to writing about. It seems to be widely agreed that Frank’s book, first published in the late 1950s (by Grove Press), was a watershed in [modern/American/documentary] photography. I can’t remember when or even if I encountered it as a book in the early 1960s, but I should have. I certainly knew a number of its images very well, but I wasn’t aware of the controversies the book unleashed, and until quite recently I didn’t reckon with its influence on my own perceptions of photography. A couple of years ago I almost bought Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, and now it’s indefinitely backordered (gotta have it: 600 pages of analysis of the original, 50 years after its first publication –see

You can see many of the images from the book via Google images, but not of course in the carefully architected order in which Frank assembled them.

In one sense, Frank’s photographs are a record of a specific time (1955-56) and a sequence
of locations which he visited during a transit of the US, funded by a Guggenheim grant. Across half a century there has been a rainbow of responses to The Americans, beginning with plentiful umbrage at the presumption of a Swiss beatnik’s dark vision of the Beloved Land, but within a decade there was a dawning recognition that the book had in fact changed American photography, or anyway changed how American photographers saw their surroundings. Nathan Lyon’s Vision and Expression: An International Survey of Contemporary Photography (from the Eastman House show of 1969) makes no explicit reference to Robert Frank, but most of the photographs in the exhibit are almost unimaginable without Frank’s example.

Here’s John Szarkowski’s reminiscence of the initial response to The Americans:

It was something in the very bones of the photographs themselves – something about the look of the pictures that suggested that, whereas what was being described had to be described because it was there, it didn’t have to be described according to the rules and formulations that were thought of as being good photography… We all knew those things existed… but the way in which they were depicted made them seem more difficult to accept, more pessimistic. There was something approaching a sharp edge of bitterness in the look of the pictures. And of course what was eventually learned from that it was not necessarily the sensibility that gave the pictures their bitter taste, but rather the knowledge that the medium itself was much more plastic, and was open to a wider range of invention that we ever realized.

(Szarkowski, in Philip and Amy Brookman’s 1986 video Fire in the East: A Portrait of Robert Frank)

and see also Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank

James May’s Robert Frank’s “The American’s”: A Dawning of Self Loathing and Political Correctness (2010) and Jno Cook’s Robert Frank:Dissecting the American Image (1986) can be read as opposite arguments, but I’m tempted to see them as two sides of the same Chronotopic Coin, and thus to see The Americans as a text that encourages (hell, maybe even provokes) multiple and even divergent readings, especially over 25 years of cultural vicissitudes. Is The Americans a parody of Family of Man or is it not? I’m happy to answer “yes” (to both questions) and to trade those two perspectives back and forth, according to the time-and-space which I occupy as I read the two documents.

Cook’s 1986 essay is a profound take on Frank, worth reading even if one initially disagrees, and one might be persuaded to look again and then again again at the book, trying to see it with Cook’s eyes. I am mightily impressed by the sheer work Jno Cook has done in producing The Robert Frank Coloring Book and his 1982 Afterimage essay. Netflix has Philippe Seclier’s documentary American Journey: Revisiting Robert Frank’s The Americans (2009),
which has a short segment with Jno Cook, in which he shows pages from The Robert Frank Coloring Book. I quote at length from Cook 1986 because I’m still chewing on it:

…recognizable even in the 1950s as a tone of disapproving sadness which had never before been allowed in photojournalism… it took years to recognize that the book went far beyond diary and document, that in rejecting the mannered and predictable style of photojournalism of the period Frank produced a radical critique of photography itself. Radical, because it returned photography to the vernacular of vision: in The Americans the everyday is recognized as it is seen and this recognition makes the book amazingly undated even after twenty-five years. And a critique because any return to the vernacular implicates the established style of photography in a falsification of the real world. “You can photograph anything now,” Robert Frank said in 1961…

…a look at the overall plan of the book reveals it to be more like a perverse parody of Edward Steichen’s 1955 catalogue for the exhibition, “The Family of Man.” It covers the same range of topics but from an altered viewpoint that reverses the implicit argument that the political system proceeds from the individual. And there are clear parallels — the introduction by Jack Kerouac, for example, which mocks Carl Sandburg’s introduction to The Family of Man…

…The Americans became a prophetic symbol for the rethinking of America — something which would become a universal consciousness and critical awareness of a younger generation within ten years of its publication. Unified in intent — as an experience, as a disdainful gesture, as a critique of photography, and superimposed on a critique of America — the combined power of these images voiced that something was wrong, that changes had to be made. Often more felt than rationally understood, the message became a radical point of departure for the work among a generation of photographers

…What first struck me about The Americans was the refusal of any of the images to adhere to recognizable stereotypes. None of them had a look of familiarity about them. This was a genuine hindrance, for the readability of photographs is always a matter of recognition, of familiarity. What we see in each new photograph is what we recognize as having been seen before in all other photographs. But the images of The Americans were not familiar, and at the same time they were all too familiar. For most readers they presented a surrealists’s view on life: absurd, ambiguous, and inconclusive. In 1958, it was totally unexpected, and totally new. Frank, however was not pretending to art through ambiguity, as if subtlety might be suggested with vagueness, for the images of The Americans are anchored in a bedrock of specificity and careful intent. Each meant something, each was taken for a reason, and each was purposefully included in the book. Many of the reasons are as simple as the experience of things wholly American by a stranger from a foreign land; outside his ken, and overlooked by us, it was a new look at America seen through European eyes and taking Europe as the standard of judgment…

…Seen as a miniature exhibition the book presents the photographs as evidence in an argument about America, but an inconclusive argument, for nothing seems to be proven. The pervasive display of malaise, however is powerful and frightening just the same. The effect is totally different from the thematic illustrative use of photographs in Steichen’s book. Frank’s ability to build a series of single unrelated images to a crescendo of unnerving feelings is perhaps the most masterful aspect of the book…

…Spend enough time with the book and you will learn that there is nothing random about the order of the photographs — that each has been selected for a specific place in the series, that groups reiterate specific themes like carefully chosen words in a poem, and that each photograph is usually a direct response to its predecessor, at least to the point of maintaining visual links between subsequent photos, at times as many as four or five simultaneously. Look at the titles too, for as often as visual connections can be found there exist verbal relationships — in English, in French, in German. The specifics of the infrastructure of The Americans can get in the way: you get lost among the multiple cross references, the allusions to the work of others, pointed references to The Family of Man, punning irreverent art-historical allusions, and the just-plain-fun things the series of bottles, or stripes, or trees, or prints (fabric print, fine print, newsprint, photographic print — the “nothing- scape”). This Varronian monologue of the book — which mixes wit, black humour, and pathos in a series of rhymes, asides, contradictions, and seemingly irrelevant interludes — will intrigue and confound the minds of all but the most casual readers. The whole enterprise makes little sense unless you understand it as an element in an established mode of expression — established, that is, in literature and art, but unheard of in photography…

…In 1957 Frank voiced his disagreement with the proposition that photography was assumed to be understood by all, “even children.” It becomes obvious then that the hidden argument of The Americans is that photographs are in fact generally misread and misunderstood. Ample proof lies in the concordance of organized disharmony of the book, a fabric of intricate connections woven into a jubilant display of intellectualism which almost displaces the grim subject matter at the surface…

…The Americans uses a form completely different from the narrative, the illustrative, even from the diaristic and album type of photographic literature, and certainly from the “photo essay.”…

still to integrate:

George Cotkin’s The Photographer in the Beat-Hipster Idiom – Robert Frank’s The Americans (1985)

Tom Coles’s
‘Americans’: The Book That Changed Photography

Eric Kim’s Robert Frank’s “The Americans”: Timeless Lessons Street Photographers Can Learn (2013)

and many more, via ASX Channel

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *