Aug 19 2008

how “the americans” changed my life

Published by at 8:38 pm under documentary,portraits,press,process

NPR has a wonderful feature on how “The Americans” change photography.

There will be many deserved celebrations on the 50th anniversary of the publishing of Robert Frank’s seminal book “The Americans”. For me I will be celebrated the 31st year that seeing the book changed my life.

americans how the americans changed my life

I was still in college and visiting Chicago, supposedly to walk into an amazing internship with successful studio photographer Gus Gregory. Another student, one of my photography/quantum mechanics teacher, Paul Corneil, had started the internship, and this was my chance to continue the tradition.

What disrupted the plan was seeing a copy of The Americans the night before.

This was the end of a summer where I was playing Charles Kuralt with a still camera on a bike. I rode with my friend Jim around Western Michigan looking for the quirky out of the way stories that The Grand Rapids Press didn’t normally cover. The film and our attempts at writing a story were mailed back and converted into features that normally ran in the Sunday magazine. We featured an Olympic bicycle coach that was running an early, successful mail-order business of racing bike supplies out of Cadillac, witnessed the home-town President Jerry Ford, being upstaged in a Traverse City cherry-blossom parade by Ronald McDonald and the Hambugler, and were one of the few audience members to see Chubby Checkers twist the night away in a Cheboygan High School gymnasium that was nearly empty because of two weddings in town that were scheduled the same night.

portuesi how the americans changed my life

Our first feature on Olympic bicycle coach Gene Portuesi.

On the final story we covered, a magician’s conclave, I met Chicago Sun-Times staffer Scott Fincher taking photos as well. A conclave is a gathering in of magicians and magic fans that happened every year in Colon, the home of Abbott Magic Company. Famed magician Harry Blackstone founded Abbott, and Scott was covering the conclave for the Sunday magazine of his paper. I was mostly in awe of meeting a real staffer from the big city and he was being kind to a young upstart. I mentioned the upcoming trip to Chicago and he volunteered his place as a crash pad.

colon3 how the americans changed my life

In addition to being a news photographer, Scott is also a very fine street photographer that was busy preparing a fine art show of his personal work. As we were talking about his photos he mentioned a reference to Robert Frank and after noticing that I was clueless promptly produced a copy of The Americans.

Jack Kerouac has as the most poetic description of how Frank managed to suck “a sad poem right out of America onto film”. I wanted to run out and look for every 50′s jukebox and diner I could find. I had discovered my muse.

Still high on the experienced I biked my way to the studio of Gus Gregory and was given the grand tour of the studio and was showed the results of the recent jobs of shooting hot rollers and stereo speakers. I now appreciate the expertise in both landing these national advertising jobs and the skill involved in lighting these difficult products.

rollerset2 how the americans changed my life

Hot rollers similar to what I saw in Gus Gregory’s studio.

With out the introduction to Robert Frank the night before, I might have been justifiably impressed; instead I’m afraid I came off as under whelmed. Instead I followed the siren song of the street and the printed page.

trolly how the americans changed my life

Echos of the cover of “The Americans” from a GR Press feature on photographers.

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