While the 83 images that made the final cut indeed have a certain effortless ease, Frank’s process involved prolific photographing and editing. “Whenever Frank went into a new town,” Greenough said, “he tried to find one or two objects or scenes that for him symbolized that place.” That doesn’t mean he was cozying up to the diner counter and getting to know the locals. “You don’t get the sense that he’s really talking with people,” Greenough added—but rather drifting in the background, shooting in hotel lobbies and bars, at funerals and political rallies and outside auto factories.
Occasionally, a pair of back-to-back photographs rhyme with each other explicitly—an image of a car in California, covered by a tarp, followed by the body of a car-accident victim in Arizona, covered by a blanket—but in general, the flow of The Americans is unpredictable. It skitters from wealthy, fur-wearing senior citizens in a Miami Beach hotel to cowboy wannabes in New Mexico, gamblers in Nevada, or motorcycle toughs in New York.
Greenough pinpoints the unique mixture of influences informing Frank’s method, who had befriended Beat poet icons like Allen Ginsberg. “Frank is both sort of a quintessential Beat artist—responding immediately and intuitively to the world, seeming to live in a very disorganized, chaotic environment—he’s also fundamentally Swiss, too,” she said, alluding to the calm rationality of Frank’s home country. “Beneath what looks like chaos, there’s often a lot of order to his life.” In order to give himself some boundaries, Greenough explained, Frank set out seeking specific types of pictures—of flags, politicians, or cars, for instance.