Book Project: #3 Example of Structuring


The Americans, by Robert Frank, is now considered one of the best photography books ever made.  There are many reviews of the book, which I don’t intend to compete with.  My purpose here is to look at the Work, and how it applied the theoretical constructs noted in the earlier posting, as an example and (given the stature of the reference) best practices.

Frank’s goal was to deliver a “dense, layered …  yet multivalent [book].” (Greenough) As a result, he spent considerable time and effort considering the symbols he would use. John Brumfield explains the role and importance of symbols: “A photograph is a systematic organization of symbols [which impart meaning]”.  

Frank conceived the book as having a narrative, with characters.  He realized the narrative by connecting the photography through physical proximity and conceptual elements, such as symbols, embedded within the content of the photographs (i.e., direct referrals).  This approach aligns closely to that defined by Keith Smith. Smith offers four organizing patterns that I use to understand and assess the Work: 

  • Groups: used to focus meaning, through repetition around a subject
  • Series and Sequences: to establish movement and pace through the narrative; generate meaning through image connections.
  • Compound Structuring: to organize individual narratives into larger, integrated constructs, where sometimes the narratives are concatenated; sometimes they overlay.

An analysis of the Book’s structure (excerpt shown in Table 1) shows the 6 dimensions of connecting the photography (corresponding to the columns in the table).  The first, “Title” corresponds to the physical layout of the book; it is the physical sequence of the photographs. The remaining five are conceptual connections — connections based on the content —  among the photographs along five dimensions: symbols; characters; feelings; Subjects; Contrast.  The table offers a view of the extent of the structuring of the Work. Within each dimension several themes are explored and developed by the author to convey a storyline.   For example, the theme of Youth (e.g., New York City, Charleston South Carolina, etc.) presents a sequence of events, from birth to maturity, to show “that these young people are in the process of becoming.” (Brumfield) They are being domesticated. 

Table 1: Analysis of Chapters 1 & 2 of The Americans
The first column, Title, corresponds to the physical sequence of the photography.  The subsequent columns correspond to different conceptual orderings if the photography.  Colour coding in each of the columns (Symbols, Characters, Feelings, Subjects, Contrast) is intended to highlight entries sharing a common theme and thus represents a connection within the dimension.  While entries for Symbols and Characters are fairly deterministic (direct referrals); feelings are more open to interpretation (random referrals).

In another sequence of images, focusing on the elderly, Frank provides a storyline on the state of being elderly in America.  If positioned as a continuation of the series on youth, a fuller narrative results, exploring both early and late life; showing beginnings and endings. As (Brumfield) later observes, regardless of where we come from, it all ends in the same way.

Combining the Youth and Elderly narratives demonstrates how the Work is able to zoom in and out, exposing both focused issues, and then through concatenation, a broader concern not immediately obvious in the imagery nor the encapsulating sequences.  

The series on Youth and Elderly are just two of the threads in just one of the dimensions. Another dimension,  Symbols, explores a different set of themes.  Both these dimensions, however, offer relatively deterministic connections among the photographs through the use of tangible symbols.  Another dimension, Feelings, reflects the emotional impact of the images.  As emotional reactions are a more subjective response, this dimension creates a less deterministic set of connections among the photographs, or what Smith refers to as ‘random referrals.’ As these are highly influenced by individual interpretation, readers with different perspectives will draw a different reading experience.  

Continuing, if we were to extract the photographs sharing a common symbol, say Youth, those photographs would form a new cluster.  In Smith’s terms, the photographs would constitute a ‘group’ used to develop a more focused statement, in this case,  Frank’s opinion on the condition of American Youth.  

With these examples, we see a layer of photographs, physically ordered by page, articulating meaning through their symbols, composition and treatment.  Above that there is a conceptual layer that connects photographs sharing a common symbol or character (a sequence), and then a second conceptual layer that clusters all those linked photographs (a group).  The first conceptual layer serves to generate incremental meaning and to provide alternate paths for movement among the photographs; the second conceptual layer serves to focus and re-enforce the opinions of the author. Additionally, we see the ability to concatenate sequences (Youth and Elderly) to develop a broader set of concerns.  Finally, the use of ‘random references’ develops not only a wider range of interpretations, but promotes a general sense of ambiguity in the mind of the reader magnifying the sense of fruitlessness and despair articulated in the Work.


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