Film Review: An American Journey

An impressionistic look at<i> The Americans</i>, Robert Frank's groundbreaking book of photographs, including interviews with some of the figures involved.

First published in the United States in 1959, Robert Frank's The Americans may be the most influential book of art over the past six decades. A collection of 83 black-and-white photographs, The Americans set standards that still challenge artists. In An American Journey, French photographer and filmmaker Philippe Séclier sets out to document not the book itself, but the conditions and characters that led to its creation. Those already familiar with The Americans may gain some insights into Frank's creative process. Others will be faced with an oblique, often exasperating road trip that never seems to end.

Séclier approaches Frank's book not as a document to explain, but as a sort of map to explore and emulate. He follows the photographer's cross-country journeys in 1955 and 1956, staying in the same towns, capturing the same views on his video camera, and occasionally questioning subjects from the pictures. Séclier also interviews some of Frank's acquaintances, three of his publishers, and a number of art critics and historians. Despite the director's often murky camerawork, the dominant themes in Frank's book—race and class divisions, music, and landscapes that isolate the individual—become apparent.

Some fascinating facts about the book emerge. In explaining Frank's attention to outcasts, to the poor and the segregated, several observers point to his background as a German Jew forced to flee to Switzerland during World War II. Frank used about 600 rolls of film, enough for thousands of exposures, to arrive at the photographs that wound up in the book. San Francisco-area photographer Wayne Morris, still aghast at the memory, describes how Frank skipped making contact sheets, instead using scissors to cut individual frames he wanted from strips of negatives. Publisher Barney Rosset compares Frank to revolutionary painters like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. Sarah Greenough, a curator as the National Gallery of Art, cites an "extraordinary" number of spectacular photographs that Frank chose not to include in his book. "He could have made an even more negative view of America," she says.

The Americans received some scathing reviews when it was published, but over the years its influence in popular culture has become unshakable. Every grainy blue-jean ad and grunge-rock music-video owes a debt to Frank, just as an entire school of irony-laced fashion photography can be traced back to this book. That may not be clear from Séclier's film, which leans on bland aphorisms rather than explaining Frank's career. Viewers won't find out that for years Frank abandoned still photography for motion pictures, for example. In fact, he is the 800-pound gorilla in An American Journey, a towering figure who refuses to explain his accomplishments. Despite Séclier's efforts, Frank's work retains both its mystery and its majesty.