Don’t laugh, please, this question was tormenting me for several weeks, day and night. I had just started taking a photography course, one of those in which you are basically taught how to operate the camera and not to get lost in the menus. And, from time to time, the professor would gave us some references, some of the indispensable books to learn how to look at and to feed the blissful photographic eye. And if one thing was clear to me in those first few weeks, it was that my eye, rather than ‘happy’ is or was ‘picky’. “The Americans is the bible of photography”, they tell you, “the peak work of the 20th century” (and who knows if also of the 21st century). And of course, they show you four or five single photos on a screen… And they don’t say anything to you. Let’s see, you say to yourself, hasn’t anyone noticed that this photo, and that one too, are out of focus? And that this one has a coarse grain? And this? But if a flag covers the whole face of that poor lady in the window! Does nobody see that the next photo is skewed? And the next one… skewed and blurred! Two things could have happened; either the guy was limping or drunk, if not, I can’t explain it.

You’re not much of a talker in class, so cowardice beats indignation and you just shut up. Someone will say something, you think someone else will raise their hand and comment it. And time passes. So do the photos. And you look around. And nothing happens. Your companions, most of them just nod and/or stare at the images, you suspect that they are thinking to themselves, the same as you do, or, God forbid, they are seeing something you don’t see.

 

 

Then, in a last effort, you try to squint your eyes a bit, as if you were trying to focus on what Robert Frank was not able to focus on. Because that has to be an incapacity, how is someone who calls himself a photographer going to present a documentary work funded by the Guggenheim (by the Guggenheim, no more and no less!) with unfocused photos? Then you notice that one of your classmates makes a strange movement, like he twists his head a little. He tries to align himself with the twisted horizon in the photo, you say to yourself. But the neck twister, your last hope, doesn’t say anything either.

At the end of the class, while having a drink with some classmates, you bring up the theme of “The Americans” hoping that the absence of the teacher devoted to Robert Frank and the friendship among classmates lets loose some truths. But, oh, surprise, everyone compliments the photos. Even you, not to be overlooked. After all, we only have had two classes together and no one here knows what their weak points are. Not forgetting that we’re just having a beer and not a round of shots. Not two. Let’s see who dares to, sober and in cold blood, says that he/she doesn’t like the damned photobook.

 

 

Because… let’s not fool ourselves: if you confess in public (in a photographic environment, obviously) and happily that you don’t like “The Americans” by Robert Frank, you will get a seat of honor in the list of jerks of humanity, just behind those who in Summer put insecticide directly in their ears because they swear that it is the only way that mosquitoes do not roam your ear all night long, and just in front of those who in a moment of weakness admit to eating sandwiches of pâté and Nocilla. That’s how it is, and the sooner you admit it, the better.

So, from that perspective, you try to calm down yourself and to tell yourself, obviously, how are you going to enjoy such a photographic art work just by seeing random pictures on a poor quality projector?. You have to see the photos on paper, you fool, you have to touch them, smell them, turn the pages slowly, at your own pace… And then, you rush to the bookstore. You buy it, and as soon as you get out into the street you take it out of the bag and, cunningly, you smell it (yes, I’m one of those who smell books, I can’t help it). Test passed; it smells like a good book, it doesn’t leave you that annoying sensation of cerebral stupefaction after having snorted several grams of pure oil (which happens with several photobooks, don’t deny it).

 

 

 

You come home and the timing is perfect. It has begun to rain, the daylight begins to die out and you are immersed in that melancholic atmosphere so appropriate to make you a coffee, sit in a bad but comfortable position on the sofa and go into that book of black and white photos that everyone loves, and worships … except you. You turn the pages… And nothing changes. The out of focus is not a failure of the class projector, the grain is not the wall’s stippled primer and the skewed horizons go on like this, skewed. So, where is the technique? Where are your efforts and those of your colleagues, with the focus, the sharpness, and the rule of thirds? They are useless! There you have this Frank, travelling around the United States at the expense of the Guggenheim Foundation, and blurring, skewing and “unbalancing” everything that is put in front of this camera. This doesn’t last even three weeks in your photography initiation course. What the hell is he trying to do? Make fun of us? Laugh at everybody? Unless… there is something else.

Then you resort to the last thing you have left: ‘Holy Google’, patron and savior of the desperate of all kinds. You dive a little and you come up with a couple of essays that open your eyes, your mind and the photographic sky. Because what you’ve done is ‘to look’ at the book instead of ‘to read’ it. Because “The Americans” is not a succession of unique photos that speak for themselves but a subtle and intentionally constructed narrative. The blurs, grains and so on are a deliberate break with the sacrosanct rules of photography whose objective is none other than to break the technically, aesthetically and morally perfect image that the United States projects and feeds on its society and its way of life. In short, “The Americans” is a denunciation covered with irony, a great ‘no’ to the pretended and pretentious perfection of a society marked by its contrasts and contradictions; in short, by its twisted horizons.

 

 

 

Then you retake the book, reopen it and you feel that you are looking at, or reading, a completely new work, different from the one you have flipped through just an hour before. You still don’t like the photos, their aesthetics, but everything makes sense. And everything speaks to you: the image of the crooked elevator operator, the woman covered by the flag, the mailbox in the middle of nowhere, the black woman holding the white baby…

And so, Robert Frank teaches you that good photos don’t have to be pretty (or why even can be pretty), that what they have to do is transmit, explain and talk. And to be subtle and suggestive, and that in works such as “The Americans”, they have to “get along” with each other, accompany each other, complement each other and play their part, because what they do is to build a story and not to describe an instant. That there are photos made to work on their own and photos to build and spin stories. And that all this can be done with photos that too many may consider (event to us) “aesthetical” or ugly, but wonderfully evocative and eloquent.

So, answering the question in the title, NO, nothing bad happens to you if you don’t ‘like’ “The Americans”, if seeing one of their photos doesn’t make your pupils dilate or your pulse speed up, or if your brain doesn’t squeak like when you ate ‘Peta Zetas’ as a child. Because “Los Americanos” is not to be looked at, but read, and because its secret are not in what we understand as “well done” photos, but in the “well explained” ones, as I heard Eduardo Momeñe say a few days ago in Full Frame, a weekly radio program about photography (in which, by the way, he calmly confessed not to be “fan at all” of Cartier-Bresson, hence my idea for this post). And no, it’s not so much about ‘portraying’ the world, let alone portraying it ‘beautiful’, as about ‘commenting on it’ and telling it, that the photographs have “a hidden letter” (Momeñe again), an implicit reading. And “The Americans” has it, wow!

But I still don’t ‘like’ many of his photos. And nothing happens. Absolutely nothing. Or so I think.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Pep Mínguez