In 1955–1956, Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank traveled ten thousand miles by car around the United States making pictures of his adopted country. By turns raw, edgy, and tender, his pictures of people engaged in everyday activities challenged the postwar myth of American prosperity and greatness. They revealed a country riven by race and class, in thrall to consumerism, and reckless with its natural resources. In 1958, Frank published The Americans, one of the most important photography books of the twentieth century.
In 2020, photography collector David Dechman and his partner Michel Mercure gave the High three prints from The Americans, each of which had been made in the American South. Savannah, Georgia contrasts the stylish femininity of a woman with the aggressive bravado of her partner, who stares at the photographer as he chomps on a weapon-like cigar. Café, Beaufort, South Carolina offers a tender yet unnerving picture of a tiny infant on the floor of a bar, alone save for a gleaming jukebox that stands in for parent and protector. Funeral—St. Helena, South Carolina captures a close-knit Black community, bound together by grief and loss yet buoyed by grace. Most likely made in the late 1960s for the 1969 edition of The Americans, these extraordinary gifts were originally in the collection of Steve Liebman, a close friend of the artist and an influential photography teacher. Among Liebman’s students was photography dealer Peter MacGill, who suggested to Dechman and Mercure that these works should belong in the High’s renowned collection of Southern photography.