Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Americans ...

The big story in the world of photography these days concerns the fiftieth anniversary of a landmark book called The Americans, by Robert Frank. The volume is a set of 83 of Frank's black-and-white shots of the United States in the 1950s, taken on a year-long roadtrip across the country. Most of the photos evoke strong feelings of loneliness and alienation and shallowness ... images that are powerful and insightful, but not necessarily flattering. As a result, Americans were decidedly unappreciative of the book, at least at first. The photos struck a chord with Jack Kerouac, though, who wrote an introduction for the volume and said that Frank “sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world”.

Given the overriding mood of the book, it's not surprising that the four Montana images it contains were taken in Butte. Here's the best known of those: "View from Hotel Window," taken in May 1956. The shot looks eastward from the Finlen Hotel ... and of all the buildings you see here, probably no more than half a dozen still stand today.


  1. Oddly enough, I've never thought of Butte as a lonely, sad place. Tough, yes. Shallow, perhaps. But never did it cross my mind that it might be a lonesome place. I guess it probably was, for a lot of people; especially those who were far from other sweeter homes and Butte turned out to not fulfill all the golden promises they'd read and traveled to find.

    Photos taken with windows as frames always seem to suck the observer into the setting, don't they? I can almost smell the smoke and dirt, in this picture.

  2. I think Butte is the sort of place that many people feel differently about the more they observe it. When you first see the town you can't help but be ridiculously intrigued by it ... but the more you get to know it, if you look at the place honestly, the sadness and the shallowness soon override everything else. So many social and environmental and cultural ills there ... yet all Butte wants to do is continue to live in this mythic past, and it's a tragedy for the people who live there.

    End of rant. :)

    I actually really like the composition of that photograph. The photographer endured a lot of criticism back in the day, for creating images that were visually unappealing ... and I agree that a lot of them aren't "pretty," but they sure are evocative and they sure tell a story.