In 1955, two photographers were awarded fellowships by the Guggenheim Foundation for American survey projects: Robert Frank and Todd Webb. Frank embarked on a cross-country journey by car, resulting in the renowned publication “The Americans.” Meanwhile, Webb received a grant to traverse the United States on foot, by boat, and by bicycle to portray the disappearing aspects of American culture and the evolving way of life.
Despite their lack of awareness of each other during the application process, both photographers secured recommendations from the renowned photographer Walker Evans. They completed their cross-country surveys, but in starkly contrasting ways. Frank’s resultant work became a pivotal contribution to the history of photography, while Webb’s project remains largely obscure. “Robert Frank and Todd Webb: Across America, 1955” presents both of their 1955 projects together for the first time.
In some instances, the images captured by Frank and Webb are remarkably similar. Both documented scenes of highways and dim, smoky bars. These resemblances can be attributed to prevailing cultural trends and shared philosophies, as neither photographer was aware of the other’s work. Both, in fact, undertook projects that challenged the idealized notion of the “American road trip.” Photographs taken in the same locations, but with radically different perspectives, reveal the photographers’ diverse viewpoints and methodologies.
Frank’s gritty and off-kilter style harmonized with his unflinching exploration of the darker aspects of American life. As an immigrant from Switzerland, Frank (1924–2019) harnessed his outsider’s perspective. In contrast, Webb, a Detroit native (1905–2000), crafted tenderly composed images that celebrated the unique eccentricities of American culture. Ultimately, a comparison of these photographers’ work underscores the complexity of their projects and the futility of capturing a single, definitive vision of “America.”
Accompanying the exhibition is an illustrated exhibition catalog published in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. This revealing book is the first to publish Webb’s 1955 photographs and connects these parallel projects for the first time. More than one hundred images accompany the text, illuminating Frank and Webb’s different perspectives and approaches to similar subjects and places; the difference in reception of Frank’s iconic work and Webb’s relatively unknown series; and the role of travel in shaping American identity in the mid-century.
About the Authors
Robert Frank, born on November 9, 1924, in Zürich, Switzerland, and passing away on September 9, 2019, in Inverness, Nova Scotia, Canada, was a Swiss American photographer and filmmaker who left an indelible mark on mid-20th-century photography. He was renowned for his satirical depictions of American life.
At the age of 22, Frank commenced his career as a professional industrial photographer. During the 1940s, he achieved success as a fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar magazine in Paris. However, he found the scope of this work too limiting and chose to leave fashion photography around 1948. He embarked on a journey to the United States and later to Peru, driven by the desire to explore the creative potential of the 35-mm camera.
Following photography stints in Europe in 1950 and 1953, Frank returned to the United States. Between 1955 and 1956, he embarked on a cross-country road trip, capturing a multitude of photographs. Out of these, 83 were eventually compiled into “The Americans” (1959), a seminal photographic book featuring an introduction by the American novelist Jack Kerouac. A French-language version titled “Les Américains” had been published in 1958. Notable photographs from this series, like “Chicago, 1956,” exemplified Frank’s mature style characterized by daring compositions and a nuanced, at times acerbic, social commentary. The publication of “The Americans” firmly established Frank as a prominent creative photographer, earning widespread recognition as a classic in the field.
Born in Detroit in 1905, Todd Webb initially pursued a prosperous career as a stockbroker during the 1920s, but the devastating crash of the Great Depression led to the loss of all his financial assets. Faced with this financial adversity, Webb turned to gold prospecting across the country. It was during this period that he stumbled upon photography, developing a profound passion for the art.
In 1938, Webb joined the Chrysler Camera Club, where he crossed paths with fellow photographer Henry Callahan. He also engaged in one of Ansel Adams’s workshops. By 1946, Webb had encountered influential figures like Alfred Stieglitz and Roy Stryker in New York City. The New York School’s influence shaped Webb’s “straight photography” technique, yet his distinctive style began to take form. Webb embarked on journeys across France and the American West, capturing his experiences through photography. He left a lasting mark with his evocative street photographs of Paris and his collaboration with the automobile manufacturer Renault.
Upon his return to the United States, Webb established a close friendship with the renowned artist Georgia O’Keeffe. Following the passing of O’Keeffe’s husband, Alfred Stieglitz, Webb and his wife relocated to New Mexico to provide support to O’Keeffe. During this time, he produced many iconic and exquisite portraits of his cherished friend, Georgia, while actively participating in the local art community.
Webb’s photographic work has been acquired and exhibited on a global scale, offering a unique perspective on the history of the 20th century. Numerous monographs showcasing his artistic contributions have been published.
Robert Frank and Todd Webb: Across America, 1955
October 8, 2023–January 7, 2024
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston – USA