Semiotics: Robert Frank – The Americans

First of all, a few terms from the Semiotic models and terminology, taken from Context and Narrative, pg 122 – 124, to immerse myself a bit more in thinking in signs and symbols!

Signifier: The form which the sign takes

Signified: The concept it represents

Representamen: The form that the sign takes

Interpretant: not an interpreter, but rather the sense made of the sign

Object: To which the sign refers

Studium: The general enthusiasm or polite interest in the photograph

Punctum: That which arrests attention, dependent upon the individual; that ‘which pierces the viewer.’

Symbol: Something that represents something else, the relationship must be learnt. the signifier does not resemble the signified.

Icons: The signifier is perceived as resembling or imitating the signified; similar in possessing some of its qualities, such as a portrait, a cartoon, a scale model, metaphors, sound effects and imitative gestures.

Indexical signifier: Physically or causally linked to the signified, for example storm, thunder, footprints.

My kids’ school has the most fantastic library, I just found out that they have The Americans on their shelves! It feels almost as sacred as the Bible and I thoroughly enjoyed reading and looking through it. The order of the images and the content emphasizes the themes and symbolism even more than having a look at the single images online.

City Fathers

In City Fathers the first thing I notice are the hats of the men and the expressions on their faces. These men are proud, distinguished and seem to take a special place on a decorated stage at some public celebration. The hat is a symbol that keeps on coming back in other images as well. The owners all seem to be representatives of the ruling class, that exists of white men in their 50s. What strikes me very much about this image are the expressions on the men’s faces, each representing a different aspect of dominion. The man on the right has a snobby look, vain and looking down on the crowds. The man next to him seems to be a visionary, with a strong, determined expression. The man in the middle looks a bit tired, but very comfortable being amid these men. The one on the left looks a bit older and has a weary expression, I wonder what kind of experiences he has had.

The same hat comes back in the following image:


The chairs lead the eye from the front desk to the banker in the back, with a hat on the table in front of him. The papers and pen in the front signify the importance of the job that is being done here, and the hat emphasises how the ruling class also rules over finances.

Metropolitan Life Insurance Building – New York City

Through his images Frank focuses on the class differences in the United States, how wealth, opportunities and status is compartamentalized, but how each compartment have the American dream in common. All seem to be striving to get forward, but each in their individual way. There is hardly any communication between the people in Frank’s images, they are all staring ahead or are on their own way. Windows symbolise this compartmentalisation. The image above accentuates the pattern of the windows and the magazines, forcing the eye to look at the individual windows and covers.  We see a big variety in titles and in the back a monotonous building. It reflects again how different people all are unified in the same building, the American dream which gives Life Insurance.

Canal Street, New Orleans

As I mentioned above, there is hardly any communication between the people in Frank’s images, leaving the viewer with an idea that American society is cold and individualistic. The image above is a striking example of that. Even though there are about 20 people in the image, everybody is going their own way, nobody is laughing and most people look stressed. I find that these expressions signify a disconnection between the Americans, which in other images, like the one below is shown through segregation of class and race as well.

Charleston, South Carolina
Robert Frank shows that through the selection of the subjects and angles he has photographed he is able to communicate his impression and thoughts about the American people. In the total of the work, his decisions on which photographs to put in and in which order, the reader is presented a view on a society that is divided, distant and lonely and where the individual feelings and expressions don’t come out.
In his introduction Kerouac mentions a number of symbolic references as well, the jukebox, coffin, windows, flag, canes, hat, road, telephone poles and television. These are signs of advancement, life and death, communications and status. Kerouac reads the images like poetry:
Anybody doesn’t like these pitchers don’t like poetry, see?
Anybody don’t like poetry go home see television shots of big hatted cowboys being tolerated by kind horses. 
With this strophe he joins Frank in his comments on the American culture, its superficiality, lack of empathy and individual isolation.
Frank, R. (1958) The Americans. Edited by Jack Kerouac. 4th edn. New York City: Aperture Inc.
Short, M. (2011) Basics creative photography 02: Context and narrative. Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA.

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