Photographers the world over need no introduction to Robert Frank's seminal 1950s work The Americans, an exploration of the American ideal from his outsider's perspective as a Swiss émigré. Taken on a series of road trips around the country, the resulting intuitively-sequenced images —produced with funding from a Guggenheim fellowship—reflect both the dark undercurrents and poetic beauty of American culture.
Originally published in Paris in 1958 and the U.S. a year later, the book's hallowed pages—containing a mere 83 images—have become one of the most referenced and revered photographic works. Many of the individual frames reside firmly in the collective memory of contemporary photographers who consciously and subconsciously reference the images on a daily basis.
Three years ago, an extensive retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art provided a fascinating and exhaustive insight to The Americans. The show, entitled Looking In, also inspired and facilitated photographer Jason Eskenazi's recently published appreciation, The Americans List.
In 2009, Eskenazi—himself the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship—was working as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Every day for two months, even on Mondays when the exhibition was closed to the public, he stood in close proximity with the work, studying it compulsively, attending special events and asking questions of MET curator Jeff Rosenheim.
While guarding the show, Eskenazi started to ask photographers he knew—famous or not—about their favorite images from the show. Over the next two years, Eskenazi compiled their answers, along with their explanations and thoughts about the work. His compilations eventually evolved into his own book, published this month by Red Hook Editions. In the foreward, Eskenazi writes:
"The Americans is probably the one book that connects more photographers than any other, so while guarding the show, I saw many photography colleagues enter. I began asking them what was their knock-out favorite image. Though many said it was too hard to choose and many images were important to them I insisted. I discovered that many of the answers revealed much more about the photographers themselves."
The Americans List assembles selections by 276 photographers from Joel Meyerowitz (Canal Street – New Orleans. plate #19) and Joseph Koudelka (Covered car – Long Beach, Califonia. plate #34) to Eskenazi's own personal favorite (Men's room, railway station – Memphis, Tenn. Plate 52). Eskenazi considers the book a present to the photographic community and a homage to a great living photographer.
Guarding the exhibition also afforded Eskenazi the opportunity to meet the legendary photographer, first at the exhibition opening and then at Frank's house in New York City, where he asked Frank to confirm the long standing rumor of his own favorite photograph from The Americans (San Francisco. Plate 72).
Eskenazi quit his day job at the end of the Looking In exhibition and has since returned full time to his life as a photographer. "I became very intimate with the work," Eskenazi says. "It brought me back to life. And Frank was very moved by the book when he was recently given a copy in Nova Scotia."
Jason Eskenazi is a Istanbul based photographer. See more of his work at JasonEskenazi.com.
The Americans List is published by Red Hook Editions and available through the photo-eye bookstore.