Do the titular figures refer to the individual people or to the actual photographs? I would hazard the suggestion that you flip back and forth between the two registers, between referent and representation, always. Pictured between 1955 and 1956, The Americans by Swiss born photographer Robert Frank were shot across the entire range of the continental United States. The photographs reflect upon that indigenous place and particular time with the mood of a reserved beatnik.
The photographs are poetic is what Jack Kerouac said about them in his introduction to the book. Not sad or lonely per se (some of them are, some of them aren’t), most of all the pictures are rough and beautiful. To call them just sad and lonely would be an insult to the intelligence of their figures. Poetic, these photographs are what thinking looks like. Whether rich or working class, at work or at play, the Americans look down or to the side. Pensive, that’s what they are.
They almost never meet the eye of the camera. With their own distinct beauty and dignity, each human figure or group of figures –across every economic, sexual, social, and racial class– is quietly immersed in his or her own thought, in his or her own “moral” life. Even when together with others, each human figure is his or her own world, not in a bad or ego-centric way, these pictures don’t moralize, but more like in the rabbinic maxim. The roads and rural landscapes, and cityscapes and scenes all echo in the same key; even as they form into a people at midcentury across this great country.
The Americans are not there for you. Whatever it is they are doing, they are not doing it for you. Michael Fried would appreciate this. That’s the moment at which they were caught by the photographer. Uninvited and left outside before the frame, the viewer is not brought into the shot. In that sense, the photographs don’t “communicate” since there is no addressee to the look. Across the board, these are tough people. They don’t ask for or particularly want your sympathy as they go about their lives (that’s another point made by Kerouac). They care, just not about you. Deep in their own thoughts, they won’t return your gaze. They don’t reciprocate. They don’t pretend. The Americans are like that.
Religion scholars will note the way the religious as a subject cuts loosely across the book. A quiet form, it doesn’t demand your attention. It doesn’t dominate, or even stand out, except as it might if it happens to interest this or that particular viewer or class of viewers. Instead, religion, for the most part Christian, for the most part “Negro,” but not exclusively, is mixed easily into the larger set of photographs, into their landscapes and cities alongside pictures that signal death and music. Usually you would have expect a lot of noise from them, as a group of people. But The Americans are pretty quiet as they look down or to the side, and go about their business. Deep in thought, they seem to be expecting no dispensation, not now.