Robert Frank and Emmet Gowin: A Comparison

This research paper compares Robert Frank and his book The Americans to Emmet Gowin and his book Photographs.

The theme I explore is the concept of family and the influence of that concept on their work. I examine Frank’s photographic interpretation of his larger adopted American family and Gowin’s photographs of his wife and her family.
Robert Frank’s point of view was that of an outsider looking in. Born in Switzerland and naturalized in the United States, Frank traveled the United States seeking not only to escape Nazi persecution in Europe but to gain success as an artist. Frank worked in commercial photography in Switzerland. According to Frank, he was “influenced by the standards of perfection in graphics and photography.” Experience in advertising gave him a strong sense of aesthetics and a vast working knowledge of the technical aspects of camera operation (Greenough 2009, 9). Another important skill Frank perfected in Switzerland was taught to him by an advertising photographer, Michael Folksinger. It was the technique of printing 2 1/4 contact prints of his negatives. Wolfensinger showed him how to glue contacts on cards and group them by subject and theme. This provided a valuable method of evaluating the photographs and weighing their relative strength, significance, and relationship (Greenough 2009, 11). This technique would influence and assist him as he struggled to sequence, logically and emotionally, the 83 images out of 28,000 that he selected for his publication.
In Frank’s draft of the Guggenheim grant application, he wrote that he intended “to photograph the U.S.A….people in the midst of industrialization… and the effect it has on them….The aspirations of manual workers in comparison to white-collar employees. The U.S.A. is the country that is evolving more rapidly than any other country, and my project is bound to be incomplete, but I am sure it will be a vivid and valuable report. Such a project can only be executed by complete independence” (Greenough 2009, 151). Reading Frank’s draft reveals English is not Frank’s native language. But although he hadn’t been in the country long, he forged friendships with other artists such as Walker Evans. The latter would practically write the grant and shepherd it through the Guggenheim committee. Evans testified to Frank’s artistic abilities. “This man is probably the most gifted of the younger photographers today”(Greenough 2009). After receiving the Guggenheim, Frank began his journey through America.

The resulting book, The Americans, is generally categorized as pessimistic and downbeat. Initially, critics panned the book (Szarkowski 1978, 19). To some, Frank’s style showed a sloppiness and lack of respect for the art of photography. The images were grainy, angled, and some were out of focus. America of the 50s didn’t want to be portrayed this way. Frank’s technique was not in the mainstream and was out of step with photographic convention. Frank was revealing an America that was on the fast track. There is a sense of movement, immediacy, and spontaneity (Jno, 1982). What Frank captured was an America on the go that left many behind. “These are images in which “everythingness” (from Kerouac) is based on difference” (Wagner 2006, 272).

Emmet Gowin, on the other hand, as far as geography and birth, is the quintessential family insider. He was born in Danville, Virginia, where most of the photographs in Photographs were taken. Most of the images were of his wife, Edith, and her immediate family. The photographs are very personal and conveyed a sense of familiarity, closeness, and sensuality. There is an earthiness, a sense of the pristine and primeval in Gowin’s Photographs. There are photographs of hog slaughter, urine, grass, dirt, sex, motherhood, and fertile fields. The images conjure myth, flesh, and a kind of sorcery. The Ice Fish, Mud Wasps Nests, and Edith with Berry Necklace have a solemn, respectful earthiness. In the context of the whole book, there is a sensual quality to the ice, something pagan about the rough mud nests, and something very carnal in Edith’s image with the flora necklace hanging between her breasts as she stands framed by leaves and bushes. His images revealed the familial connections, the earthly relationships of people, and the land.

Burgamy: One of the things I’ve been thinking about in this article about your work and about Frank’s work is that in the front of your book “Photographs” you said “I entered into a family freshly different from my own.”  And I look at Franks work, you know a Swiss, naturalized American and in the interviews I’ve read with him he said how excited he was when he came to the United States and how new it was to him. For him to embark on this new adventure and so I wanted to ask you about that quote, “I entered into a family freshly different from my own.”  What that meant to you and how it seems so natural the photographs you took of the family, it didn’t seem like they were new people other than the sense that you were excited about the images you were doing of the people, if that makes any sense.

Gowin: Well it does make sense and you know I can never be outside the experience and I always assume that the pictures that you print and give a public life to they have to be the clearest ones, the ones most able to take care of themselves. But you don’t really get to say that much in their defense they are rather vulnerable and fragile. So you want them to be the strongest as image and in a sense its funny Arbus says something like this; the more local they are the more universal, the more particular, meaningful of the exact moment in which they were done. It seems that makes the somehow have a more general value and people do have the feeling of understanding or recognizing something even if in your own experience its odd or peculiar. You might have had the experience and think to yourself this is quite, this is a strange thing I just saw and then somebody else is saying without knowing that “Oh I recognize this.” So the odder it is, the more particular, the more of a chance it has at being felt and understood by others. What I meant by  saying that my family is different from my wife’s family is pretty straightforward.  My family all, my mother and father both have advanced degrees, at a time when that was very rare. My father was very much a public person being involved with religion gave him a place to speak from and so his ideas were expressed all the time we knew what he thought. My wife’s family on the other hand were private people, workers, conversely, the irony of that is people who were public figures were actually private people and the private people were more open with themselves and didn’t try to hide their secret lives. So when I say freshly different, that is a strong contrast (Burgamy, 2009).

Frank in one interview with  Brian Wallis, in 1996 touched on the idea of the outsider.

BW: Yes, but it seems you still look at the United States with total amazement. Like for the first time. Don’t you feel that growing up in a foreign country allowed you to come here with new eyes?

RF: Let’s just say, I tended my old eyes and I didn’t buy glasses here. It’s a different world. You enter a different room. And this city gave me a lot. I was really inspired when I first arrived here, and it suited my temperament. It suited what I was doing–you know, film and photography (Wallis 1996, 74).

Although he is an outsider looking in, he is looking at America and New York City  with fresh eyes and  being inspired by it. The inspiration shows in his photographs not only in their quality and their presentation but by the volumes of photographs he took.

The first two photographs for comparison are Frank’s Motorama ( The Americans,  31) and Gowin’s Nancy and Dwayne (Photographs 33).

Motorama whose title suggests 1950s Americana advertising lingo like Bowl-0-rama, Dance-0-rama and a general fascination with cars and a gathering of cars and people  and a kind of go-go attitude. The name also suggests “diorama” and according to the  dictionary  definition:  “The word diorama can refer either to a nineteenth century mobile theatre device, or, in modern usage, a three-dimensional full-size or miniature model, sometimes enclosed in a glass showcase for a museum.”  So there is the possibility that Frank is familiar with both the nineteenth century usage of the word as well as the dioramas in the natural history museum in New York. Motorama is a diorama with the boys just as frozen as zebras.  The diorama/Motorama is a night photograph of young boys “hanging out”(Frank has placed this photograph in sequence with other youth “hanging out”) inside a fashionable and expensive car. They are well dressed and are lit by the dome light.  They are sitting well apart from each other, two in the back and one in the drivers seat. It is not an intimate gathering. One of the young men in the back is sitting in the middle directly under the dome light. The other boy in the back on the left is the only one staring ahead as if looking at Frank while he was photographing the scene. The boy in the front is behind the wheel. The other two boys don’t look particularly focused on any one thing. They are looking casually to their right.  The photograph appears to have been taken with a telephoto lens, giving it a voyeuristic look and feel.  It is a quintessential 50′s era scene. Nice car, good looking, well dressed boys but in contrast to the usual media/advertising look. Usually the car would be in motion and the boys laughing and looking confident in the car as Dad raced down the highway.  In Frank’s Motorama they look lost as they sit in the big car at night playing grown up but appearing bored  and  perhaps waiting on the next thing to happen.  The rich black tones and the artificial illumination of the dome light over the boy centered in the back, permeates the scene with a sense of loneliness; children brought up in a 50′s culture of seeking and reveling in American prosperity that is ultimately unfulfilling.  They have already been transported (literally) relocated via America’s rapid move to the suburbs, the building of interstate highways into the future the 1950s was racing toward.

Gowin’s photo of Nancy and Dwayne
in contrast to Motorama shows two children, members of Gowin’s extended family ,outdoors, embracing in the grass after fighting.  With the even, soft daylight, and warmer print the two bodies are perfectly centered in the composition, skin contrasted against the grass they embrace and the embrace is familiar. This photograph captures in loving manner sex, youth, love, and family.  It is at once (as Gowin says) simple and complicated, formal and informal: formal in composition, informal in subject matter.  Simple because they are children playing. Complicated because in their play, in their embrace there is something wonderfully and innocently sexual. If Gowin hadn’t told us they were wrestling and in fact angry at one point we would see two young lovers, caught in an embrace, holding one another. In an interview in 1997 Gowin says:

Nancy and Dwayne.  The two children, the boy and the girl, are so simple and so complicated. I remember in the micro moment, I was aware that her hand was whiter than everything else. They were fighting, and they fought long enough that they went from being mad to being reconciled, and then they were tired. And they were in this little moment of catching their breath. I always loved his heel. It’s a little bulb of a thing, and his shadow. In any case it’s good. It’s good in all of its aspects, down to details you could never, ever orchestrate.  (Gall, 1997)

Robert Frank had enormous influence on photography and that influence extended to Emmet Gowin.  Although their styles are vastly different here is what Gowin had to say about influence:

Gowin: No, no of course I have thought about all of this and just as I told you this story about seeing the  (Frank, ed. note) picture in the back of the book that matched the one in the front of the book, that realization of the emotional content of the picture was already a part of the viewer. When I made that discovery I realized the picture belonged to me in some way. I had participated in the making of the picture, you can say it this way you have to understand what I mean when I say it this way. The picture went unseen until I saw it and when I saw it, identified it, understood the exact temperature of that picture it was without an audience. And as audience I inherited something about that picture and what I inherited was something about myself. I was the one who decided the feeling in those two pictures was the same. And it’s very empowering it gave me a great sense of self knowledge and feeling of accuracy of observation. It may seem like a really tiny thing but what happens is that throughout your life all of your little chance experiences line up in various ways, and out of that builds a sense of confidence that the perception you’re having can be understood and can be trusted and while it absorbs and observes the large  world it’s also be created inside yourself. So it’s not something that totally outside of you nor is it totally inside of you. It’s where those two things come together.  Frank has been such an inspiration and such  a hero  no more so than Cartier-Bresson but Frank’s photos were located in a landscape that resembled the one I was living in. His pictures could have been made on any of our streets, still. And so what I did was I went around and it would be very hard not to make pictures that not look like Robert Frank. Once you knew what kind of attitude you held  and it was difficult to not see the world the way Frank saw it. That’s the way it is with any profoundly true experience it’s hard to go back. Once the door is open, you can’t close it (Burgamy, 2009).

San Francisco, 1956, p. 71.  This photograph Frank describes as one of his favorites.  Here is another excerpt from Bruce Wallis’ 1996 interview:

BW: So you think that your earlier photographs, like those in The Americans, were too voyeuristic, too appropriative?
RF: I didn’t feel then as I feel now. I am still affected by that one photograph of the man on the hill in San Francisco, the way he looked back at me. I think that’s why that’s my favorite picture in the book (Wallis, 1996).

Frank sees two sides of this image;  on the one hand viewing it as too voyeuristic, and the other naming it as his  favorite.  The image does capture a feeling of intruding, of isolation, dislike and mistrust that is carved out by the rich black and white tones of the couple sitting in the grass and contrasted by the white and soft gray tones of the city. The sidewalk further divides the couple from the city. This image creates the most unease of all the photographs in The Americans. We are intruding, along with Frank, on this couple’s space.  This photograph makes the viewer uncomfortable; we want to turn away. We are invading private space and witnessing the reaction of the couple whose suspicions are governed by years of marginalization. They are a part of the American family that has been disenfranchised. We see them sitting at a great distance from the city, watching from afar.  They are not a part of the 1950s American dream.  Their plight is not recognized by the mainstream and it is images like this that critics found disturbing. It ran counter to the prevailing power structures.  It showed the American family divided along lines of race.
Racism was assumed, just the background of every day life.  But it the 50s people were starting to feel uncomfortable about it, it was just nudging their consciousness and sense of fairness, they were just starting to have to face racism and its consequences.
On a greater scale, Americans were enjoying prosperity without having to yet acknowledge the human suffering and the  price for it .  San Francisco is one of the memorable images that put another chink in the horrible armor of racism and segregation.

Butchering. Near Chatham, Va., 1970, p. 53.  In this photograph the butcher is staring at Gowin. He appears only mildly interested and momentarily distracted from his  task of butchering hogs. Two hogs are strung up and one lays on the ground, dead. A trough of steam  is in the back center. The steam arising  presumably from entrails of the hogs still warm after their speedy removal.  The slaughter appears  corporeal, coarse, and pragmatic.   Gowin’s use of vignetting changes the image’s  space and gives the photograph  an unusual voyeuristic quality.  In one manner the vignetting adds mystery to what could be a ritual or secret ceremony performed in the back of the barn.  The vignetting also is unusual in the sense that the butcher appears to be  casually studying   us while we are looking at him.  The black man’s look  in Frank’s image of San Francisco is discomfiting while the man’s look in this photograph is not.  The viewer isn’t made to feel as they are intruding.  The vignetting was somewhat of an accident. Gowin used an 8 x 10  camera with too short a lens.  At first he would trim the circle out but later found he liked the shape. He thought the lens “contributed to a particular description of space and that the circle itself was already a powerful form” (Gowin, 101).  The circle amplifies the content of the image. It is as if we looking back in time when people ate what they killed.  This is an up close and personal view of a process no longer experienced by the vast majority of Americans.  The slaughter of animals is out of sight and out of mind.  Gowin puts us into proximity to the slaughter but the vignetting provides a space or distance from which to view. It is a window into a life that for some is normal and  everyday, although it may cause some viewers uneasiness.
In conclusion,  the photographic interpretation of Frank’s American family differs in style and substance from Gowin’s intimate extended family.   Frank’s vision was to observe and document America. His photographs revealed an America riddled  with  racism, loneliness and economic inequality. His photos provided an intense and compelling view into a drama that was playing out in the background of 1950s success stories. His spontaneous, grainy and sometimes out of focus images were carefully arranged documents that exposed forgotten segments of the American family.  Frank said, “he was always looking outside, trying to look inside, trying to say something that is true “(Greenough, xxi).

Gowin on the other hand aimed his camera at those people, places and things that were emotionally close to him.  He aimed at things deeply personal and from that look emerged a different kind of anthology of images. Those images are affectionate, spiritual and penetrating.  As compelling as Frank’s The Americans, Gowin’s Photographs speak more clearly to me.  There is an otherworldness, humor combined with solemnity of the everyday that is reverent and bestows  a visual consecration on the people he photographs.


Cook, Jno. Robert Frank’s America. Afterimage 9, Number 8 (1982).

Burgamy, Calvin. “Interview with Emmet Gowin”,   October 10, 2009.

Gall, Sally. “Emmet Gowin.”
Bombsite, Winter 1997, ART (accessed October 22, 2009)

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and Other Poems.  San Francisco: City Lights Press, 1956.

Greenough, Sarah. Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans. Washington/Steidl:                                     National Gallery of Art, 2009.

Photographs,  Emmet Gowin, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1976.

Szarkowski,  John. Mirrors and Windows . (The reviews Szarkowski refers to were  published in Popular Photography (May 196O), and were written by Les Barry, Bruce Downes, John Durniak, Arthur Goldsmith. H. M. Kinzer, Charles Reynolds, and James   Zanuto, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1978

Frank, Robert. The  Americans, Robert Frank. New York: Grove Press, 1959.

Szarkowski,  John. Mirrors and Windows. (The reviews Szarkowski refers to were

published in Popular Photography (May 196O), and were written by Les

Barry, Bruce    Downes, John Durniak, Arthur Goldsmith. H. M. Kinzer, Charles

Reynolds, and James Zanuto) New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1978.

Wagner, Anne M. “According to What.” Artforum 45   (2006):

Wallis, Brian. Robert Frank: American Visions., Art in America 84 74.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass.  Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1904.

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