Exercise · Robert Frank’s work and symbolism

The work of Robert Frank: Looking at symbolism in his photo

Introduction to theme:

In 1959 a book was printed and sold of Frank’s work and was initially poorly received and reviewed. Minor White said that Franks work was a work covered in warts made by a “joyless man”. “The Americans” ‘showed the other side of America: the chasm between the American Dream and everyday reality is obvious.’ (Sleek, 2016) It would seem that later on his work was renowned as being superior to other photographers work at the time and hailed as giving a honest look into the ‘American condition’. His honesty and clarity seemed to be initially too much for the Americans to deal with but later his work was appreciated as seminal and highly influential.

Frank was out and about with his camera in America and this in itself has inspired a generation of photographers to do similar activity with the camera such as Myerowitz, Sternfeld and others. The cold war period coinciding with Frank’s exploration of America gave his work an edge and also some sense of danger. He was once picked up by police and interrogated and held in jail for a time suspected of being a spy.

In general looking at Frank’s work again and again, it does seem that he has paved the way for a particular style which has prevailed in American photography. Both thematically and stylistically his influence appears again and again within American photography, especially in the work of people like Paul Graham, Joel Sternfeld and Myerotwitz.

Below I will analysis via looking at the symbolism of the images these five selected photos.

All images: https://www.google.com/search?q=photos+by+Robert+Frank+the+Americans&tbm=isch&source=iu&ictx=1&fir=4N1FTXQVJPP0dM%253A%252C_Uawvg6zKldoHM%252C_&vet=1&usg=AI4_-kS8A-80K877_hQo-SpjT3ro3YMfYg&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi80rn-gLrmAhUZ6OAKHSHxAHcQ9QEwAHoECAUQBA#imgrc=QerKv_a_zdqxMM:&vet=1

Photo 1:

We see enough of the bottom half of the flag to be able to interpret that the image is a festival or national celebration or event pertaining to America. The symbolic features of this image are: the musician hidden behind the trombone, and the two characters that are not seen within the frame other than their arms. The indexical element to this photo is the head of the trombone, resembling the head of the musician and the signifier leads to the signified of a head. The other meaning drawn out of the image is he way in which the person is hidden, obscured by the instrument. The signified in this case might refer in the cultural context, that ordinary people are not visible. The American flag which is iconic for the great nation of America actually is in contrast to the hiddenness of its socio-political problems and as such presents a challenge to the American dream fantasy. The American dream, seen as an ideal to achieve by any American, is in fact closed to a large majority of poorer people or women.

Photo 2:

A young girl holds a cigarette and to the side another girl stands with her back to the camera. In the background there is a figure that seems to be on stilts?

The indexical elements are that the child appears to be posed as a women. She gives the impression through the seriousness of her posture and holding a cigarette in addition to her gaze (as does the other child with hands on hips) of being a women who is mature. In fact she is a child. The symbolic link that we might make here is that youth has been lost or that there is a joylessness to the America of that time even though all appears to be golden and developing in the mainstream media. Another indexical feature is the person (puppet) perched on stilts in the background. This might symbolise the play, falsity or charade of the times, the way in which America was portrayed to the world via its propaganda verses the internal experience of how it was actually being lived by many.

Photo 3:

In this image a young girl walks naked on the beach whilst a young boy reads a newpaper with the headlines “Marlyn dead” from the daily news. The girl has the American flag (a motif for Frank) and is walking carefree and naked side on to the camera. Starting with the symbolism of the news of Marlyn, it appears that Monroe has been interpreted as archetypally symbolic as perhaps representing purity that is to be saved. She also represents a tragic figure that was hounded and dogged by the press day in and day out.  Marlyn was said to be heavily political; a side to her life that was never really brought out. She fought for the civil rights and ani-nuclear movements, as well as being engaged in the budding feminist movement of the 50’s. So Marlyn herself holds this Symbolic significance within the context of the photo which highlights and impacts the social commentary that is going on. (Feuerherd, 2017.)

Again there is the iconic link to the flag and American greatness, an aspect of many of Frank’s images of that particular story. It is as if the flag holds an iconic and indexical charge that tells us of the ‘greatness’ and freedom of the USA. This appears to me to be part of the myth of the American as is perceived through American cinema, the prospector of the frontier and many other symbols that are distinctly of America.

The girl running with free abandon is symbolic for a freedom that the other symbol connected to it (the flag) represents. The connotations of this part of the image for an American might be more immediate in terms of liberty, choice, freedom etc. Within this image there appears to be a juxtaposition of signifiers and signifieds. The Marlyn tragedy and the symbol of the flag in the same image set up a contrast within the overall messages. The American flag is essentially a mythical symbol in that it is a culturally ingrained symbol that connotes all that Americans believe about their country to be good and true. However, there is the background tragedy of Marlyn who also has symbolic status as a product of free loving America.

Photo 4.

This image shows a women selling what looks like tupperware at a particular point in time when the concept was still knew. It would have been a so called Tupperware party whereby housewives get together and listen to a sales pitch on the new product. The women listen attentively as the speaker present the benefits of the plastic items.

The connotations that first come to mind for me based on the signifiers of this photo is middle American housewife boredom. That anyone should be interested in plastic storage devices with such interest defies believe. In the faces of  some of the women we might draw out that curiosity mixed with inattentiveness. The subject goes so far to engage the women, but not that far. The middle class American household, indexical ly relevant to the style of the home and medium level wealth, shows that this is a suburban life environment, which again forms a part of the American dream of living with your own garden patch, distant from the city.

The various ornaments and gadgets that are indexical of a certain disposable income reinforces the idea that this is a middle class suburban home setting.

Photo 5.

In the final photo we have the image of a woman (out of focus) with a crowd in the background. There is a mixture of pleasure and bemusement on the faces of the mainly women populated audience.

The Connotations of the signifiers here I feel are various. It is interesting the that the woman in the foreground (an actress?) is well-to-do but the one looking least happy to be there. There appears a sense of reticence in her face, maybe she is star weary? The opulence portrayed and the gap between the apparent wealth and the obvious mainly working class costume of the women behind make the picture into a symbolic gesture of juxtaposition between classes. The privileged and the those that get to look on as spectators.

Part 2. Kerouac’s introduction to the The Americans

Picture of a man next to a juke box in a bar.

In this photo a man looks nonchalantly down at a juke box in a darkened space. In the background is a circular window, the scene is low lit by ambient light. The sadness that is bought out in Kerouac’s intro here is a connotational emphasis to the low light and the gesture, low mood of the photo. It potentially evokes that kind of feeling. There is something lonely in this picture, that perhaps is a subjective experience of Frank projected effectively through the camera? In the connotational mode we can also talk about emotions and feelings that are connected to thoughts as this emphasis is more conditioned.

A man asleep on the grass with his shoes off in a park


In this image a man lies asleep, shoes off, half divided by a tree that is in front of him in the frame. This has an interesting feel to it. The connotational elements might be that he is part of a divided society, not all is as it seems. The shoes off could represent a sense of freedom and care-freeness, a part of the American myth.

Kerouac gives a denotive reference in his text intro: ‘tattooed guy sleeping on grass in park in Cleveland on a Sunday afternoon…’  but its not clear how one might see the image. Indexically the image is about tiredness and perhaps we can assume that the guy works hard all week and needs a break from it all. He finds solitude in the park for a while.

Final image: a black women holds a white baby

In many of Frank’s images there is the awareness of segregation and the zeitgeist of the times somewhere in his vision. I say this because the image referred to above is a classic example of how often he is capturing black and white people together (such as the trolley bus for example). In this particular image, Frank depicts a middle aged black women holding a pure white almost angelic like baby. For me the connotations of this image are quite strong in relation to race and how, the baby has no notion of skin colour or the concept or belief in the other. There is an undefiled vision that is not yet conditioned by societies prejudices and the like. The scene is serene and the two beings seem relatively at peace. I’m astonished at this photo in some ways as it seems to fly in the face of the prevailing times and all that was going on between blacks and whites and racial tension.

The photo symbolises the beautiful, a transcending quality that goes beyond petty differences and prejudices and as such is one of my favourites of Frank’s work.


Feuerherd, P. The many meanings of Marlyn Monroe (2017) [online] https://daily.jstor.org/the-many-meanings-of-marilyn-monroe/ [accessed December 2019]

Sleek. Art and photography, The Photographers Dismantling the American Dream
[online] https://www.sleek-mag.com/article/american-dream-photography/v [accessed December 2019]

Published by Truevisionphotography

I'm a student photographer studying through the OCA a UK based arts university. I'm in the foundation year of my studies and enjoying it immensely. I'm also a yoga teacher and co-founder of Bodhiyoga a buddhism based yoga teacher training program that runs in the UK and Spain each year. As a photographer I'm interested in all forms of fine art. I find the arts really important in my life. I love nature and aim to be in the outdoors as much as I can. Generally I think that all the different strands of my life are flowing to towards self development in the greatest sense of the term. The arts, buddhist practice yoga and meditation are all tools to that end. I feel committed to communication the these values in the world both through the visual arts as well as teaching.

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