Robert Frank and Jacob Holdt: Documenting America


Outsiders often observe a side of society that those living within naively overlook or simply accept. Such are the situations in Swiss photographer Robert Frank’s seminal series of black-and-white photos, The Americans, which he shot during road trips across the US in the mid-‘50s; and Danish photographer Jacob Holdt’s American Pictures, a series of color snapshots that he made while crisscrossing the US from 1970 to 1975. Two current solo shows of these inquisitive artists’ work allow us the opportunity to look back at the turbulent times they documented and to consider where America is going now.

View a slideshow of images from Robert Frank and Jacob Holdt »

After receiving a Guggenheim Foundation grant in 1955, Robert Frank went on the road to document America and traveled through 30 states, where he took 27,000 photos, until January 1957. He photographed people of all races in all walks of life, as well as barbershops, gas stations, drive-ins, and highways to construct an insightful, visual overview of the US in 83 pictures. The Americans was first published as a book in France in 1958 and the following year the US edition hit the stands, but not without controversy. Frank’s street style photography, which was influenced by Walker Evans and the Beat poets and writers, was criticized as “blurry, grainy, muddy, and sloppy,” but would later prove to be inspirational to a new generation of artists.

The exhibition Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, which is currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, displays all 83 photographs in The Americans, as well as earlier works, work prints made for the book, and contact sheets that include other images shot on the road trips. The show is accompanied by a new, expanded edition of The Americans, which was published by the National Gallery of Art.

Jacob Holdt left Denmark in 1970 to travel through America for a long as he could last on very little money. After regularly writing his parents to share his exciting escapades with the well-heeled and downtrodden people he had met, his folks sent him a camera to record his experiences. Over the next five years, Holdt would stay with some 400 families, mostly in the South, while working menial jobs, selling his blood, and hitchhiking between communities. He hung out with criminals, prostitutes, drug addicts, Klansmen, migrants, and politicians, while documenting their diverse lifestyles in a straightforward manner with his simple point-and-shoot camera. Eventually, his vast body of work came to the attention of curators and publishers. His traveling exhibition United States 1970-75 is currently on view at the Kunsthal Rotterdam and Steidl published a monograph of his American pictures in 2007.

Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans remains on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through January 3, while Jacob Holdt: United States 1970-75 continues at the Kunsthal Rotterdam in the Netherlands through January 17.