Robert Frank – Paris

Copyright of Robert Frank published 2008 by Steidl

After purchasing and reading Robert Frank’s Paris, published by Steidl in 2008, I have been hesitating to publish my book review. Part of my procrastination was purchasing a copy of Frank’s The Americans, published by Steidl as part of their “Robert Frank Project”, as a baseline for comparison. And I am happy that I did buy The Americans, as it does make even more apparent the designer hack-job done on Frank’s Paris.

As background, Paris is a re-edit of prior work for a newly conceived bookwork developed from Frank’s photographs made between 1949 and 1952 while he bounced between Europe (mostly Paris) and United States (mostly NYC). Two other newly conceived bookworks that Steidl has recently published of Frank’s early photographs are London/Wales and Peru, which I have not seen yet. I hope that they have fared better.

For me, it was of great interest to see the photographs that Frank was making up to creating The Americans. The biggest issue of course is that the body of work is edited some 50+ years after the fact, with all of the historical baggage and current thinking. If we were to step back in time, perhaps we could see what the context that Frank was developing prior to The Americans. But we can not, so we need to see what Frank has extracted now from what he had created then, and dig that data mind with him.

So with that, the bad news/good news and I need to get the bad news out of the way first, to give myself some space to discuss the photographic content within the covers. Simply that the book design suffers!

Okay, that felt good, but now why. Unlike the republished The Americans, in which Frank has a design say, this book was designed for design sake. Someone forgot to remind the designers that they are there to work for the photographer and his body of work, to place it in the best light. Unlike The Americans, every photograph in Paris is bleeding off the page, off every conceivable edge. The photographs are then further diminished by running many across the gutter and losing content in that same gutter. We get a glimpse of the potential and not the whole story.

We deserve better than this design crap, uber scheisse, and Frank does not need to have his work trashed. Shame on you Gerhard Steidl and Sarah Winter for putting your self first at the expense of the photographer, whom you say you are trying to tell his story. Let him fail on his own accord, don’t push him into the ditch. I guess this why publishers don’t like to have the photographer help with the book designs, might bring in some common sense and true design sensibility. Alright, I am done venting…

Now for the good news, when you can put together enough of the pieces and see the hints of the photographs left behind by the design team, you will find that same wit, even with my limited knowledge of the French language, iconic vision and delightful essence of The Americans. Such that we can see we are been seen. There are more atmospheric images in Paris, dealing with figures in the hazy fog, adding a different context of mystery. All of that unsettling vision of his is ever evident.

Is Paris now a controversial book for the Parisians as Frank’s The Americans was for the Americans in the late 1950’s, early 1960’s. I don’t think so, as that cutting edge is gone, if not dulled, by time and the images are not that contemporary by today’s standards. The book does provide a broader insight into what Frank’s photography was developing into at the time, that The Americans was no fluke.

I just can not recommend this book, as good at the photographs are, the design flaws can not be overcome, they are too great a distraction, the content has been too hacked. Maybe there might be improvement in the second edition? I would not hold my breath.

If you want to have a great book about Robert Frank in your photographic book collection, I would rather recommend you purchase The Americans, and not waste your money on Paris. I think you would be much happier in the long run.

Best regards, Doug Stockdale

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