Monday, December 05, 2011

Book Cover: Robert Frank's Les Americains

Of all the different covers for Robert Frank's The Americans, this French first edition, published in 1958 when no American publisher would touch it with a barge pole, is by far my favourite. It's ironic or even perverse, perhaps, that a now-iconic book of photographs should have what looks like a sketch on graph paper for its front cover. But I love it. With the graph paper lines resembling a skyscraper and the people milling below like ants, it sums up the alienation which informs many of the photos within the book. The drawing was by cartoonist Saul Steinberg, most famous for his illustrations for the New Yorker magazine. Funnily enough, just a few years before, Henri Cartier-Bresson's almost-equally influential photobook, The Decisive Moment, was published in France as Images à la Sauvette (in 1952)… with a cover illustration by Henri Matisse.

As Martin Parr stresses in The Photobook: A History (Volume 1), the French edition of The Americans was a different book altogether to the American version produced in the States the following year. The French version was full of texts about America written by the likes of Steinbeck, Whitman, Miller, Faulkner and Simone de Beauvoir (making it almost look as if Frank's photos were simply illustrating the text) with a decidedly anti-American slant. The American version removed all the French text and put in Jack Kerouac's famous introduction. Nevertheless, Americans didn't get it, both the subject matter ('a degradation of a nation!') and technique ('meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness'). Since then its reputation has soared, with The Americans now considered a masterpiece, and the most influential photobook ever.

According to AbeBooks, the French first edition is the most collectible photography book of all time. I now own two different versions, unfortunately not the first edition, which would cost in excess of £2000.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Robert Frank's Ridiculous Ratios
Random Film Review: Cocksucker Blues

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