“If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here,” James Agee remarked at the start of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), his landmark collaborative study, with the photographer Walker Evans, of three tenant families in Depression-era Alabama. “It would be photographs,” Agee insisted; “the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and excrement.” Agee couldn’t relinquish words so easily. When his original plan for a photo-essay destined for Fortune magazine ballooned out of control, he ended up writing nearly five hundred pages of feverish prose to accompany Evans’s austere, uncaptioned photographs.
Twenty years later, it was Evans himself who murmured the familiar mantra of so much photographic commentary when he was asked, in 1959, to write an introduction for the Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank’s epochal book The Americans, the extraordinary visual record of several road trips that Frank had taken, in 1955 and 1956, to New Orleans, Los Angeles, and other destinations. “For the thousandth time,” wrote Evans, “it must be said that pictures speak for themselves, wordlessly, visually, or they fail.”
In his new biography of Frank, R.J. Smith, whose previous book was about the singer James Brown, plausibly calls The Americans “the most influential American photo book and a signal American art work of the last hundred years.” Despite his rollicking enthusiasm—or perhaps because of it, since Frank, now ninety-three, seems constitutionally allergic to hero worship and schwärmerei—Smith failed to secure the cooperation of his notoriously prickly subject. “Robert Frank and his wife, June Leaf, have not expressed interest in being involved with this project,” as he delicately puts it. Smith tries to turn Frank’s resistance into a badge of artistic integrity, both for Frank and, more importantly, for himself. The photographer, he writes, “wants his work to speak for him.” American Witness, published with none of Frank’s photographs and only the barest paraphrases of his letters, is yet another artifact, if an unintended one, of Frank’s fraught engagement with language.
For all his vaunted resistance to interviewers and would-be biographers, Frank has shown a sophisticated interest throughout his twin careers, first as a photographer and then as an avant-garde filmmaker, in what place words should have in his work. Many of the photographs in The Americans, in stark black-and-white, appear to take up the subject of race in America, along with American flags, crosses, and other blatant cultural markers. Perhaps his most familiar image, of passengers looking out of a New Orleans streetcar, whites in front and black people in the rear, can be read as a straightforward protest against segregation. But there is much more going on in this enigmatic image, which is structured like…
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