His sole authorship of a new kind of photography is often overstated. Others, such as William Klein and Louis Faurer, worked in a similar fashion that same decade, unafraid of grain and blur and visual confrontation. (Klein's daring book of pictures, "Life Is Good and Good for You in New York," was published in 1956, two years before "The Americans.") Frank was part of a movement, an accelerating shift in postwar perception, but it was his book that made the most coherent statement.
What's interesting is how his earlier work, from the 1940s and early 1950s, set a clear path as to what was coming. Even before he got the first of two Guggenheims and set out on his cross-country journey of discovery, Frank had already produced brooding images of Europe and the New World. His photographs of England (collected in "London/Wales") were dark, elegant, foreboding, with bankers in top hats or bowlers gliding along the misty alleyways of financial London.
Although the photographer would enjoy a long association with the Beats, he wasn't easily defined. Instead, he stood apart, a peer and not a follower, an individual on his own parallel track. In a piece unpublished until 1970, Kerouac recalled a 1958 drive to Florida with Frank: "I suddenly realized I was taking a trip with a genuine artist and that he was expressing himself in an art form that was not unlike my own and yet fraught with a thousand difficulties."
After "The Americans," Frank was determined not to repeat himself and searched for a means to expand on what he'd done. There would be other photography projects, including a haunting, abbreviated series of pictures shot entirely from within New York City buses. And yet the bulk of his work as a still photographer was done before 1960.
He was largely a filmmaker from that point on, with notable side trips into deeply personal mixed-media art, videotape and Polaroids. "Looking In" examines "The Americans" in the context of that later work, with several informative and thoughtful essays by, among others, Luc Sante and the book's editor (and exhibition curator) Sarah Greenough.
For years, Frank seemed interested in pushing "The Americans" away, which only mythologized it more. Still, he couldn't help coming back, sometimes as protector, other times as an avenging force. In some later work, he tore his early pictures into pieces and nailed them into new collages. Through it all, he has remained suspicious of fame, which Kerouac once described as being "like old newspapers blowing down Bleecker Street."
And yet, there is his influence, which has done nothing but expand with time. The rough edges he helped introduce are everywhere now, framed by new photographers for maximum tension and effect. Their shared journey is like Frank's picture of an empty road halfway through the last century, a strip of asphalt and mystery unspooling into the infinite horizon. "Looking In" offers us a look back, to the place where that horizon begins.