A Portrait of America That Still Haunts, Decades Later

If you have ever doubted the worth and power of Photojournalism now is the time to revisit Robert Frank's book The Americans.

Robert Frank chose this image for the cover of his eye-opening book of 83 photographs, “The Americans,” published in 1959. He had crossed America by car, seeing it as an outsider, a Swiss who left Zurich in 1947 in search of broader horizons.

What he found fascinated and disturbed him. Most horrifying was the ingrained racism. “That trip I got to like black people so much more than white people,” he told Nicholas Dawidoff in The New York Times Magazine in 2015.

“Trolley — New Orleans” is all about division. Two rows of windows, each window a frame. This is the segregated South, in which African-American riders on public transportation were consigned to the “back of the bus.” The sequence from the front to the rear reads like a step-down hierarchy.

In the foremost seat is the only passenger obscured by pulled-down glass. The veiling of his spectacled face makes him a pale spectral presence. The decorative element that hovers above his head amplifies his mysterious power. The woman behind him stares with pursed-lip disdain at the man snapping her picture Notice, too, the arabesque W of the Walgreens drugstore logo behind her. It is like an insignia that ranks her as an officer in the governing establishment, placing her just below the man in front of her. Because that element over his head, by strange coincidence, features a similar but larger swoop. Dead center we see the future — two white children, presumably brother and sister, with a dark presence looming in the background. Could it be their black nanny, who will take a seat in the “colored” section just behind them? New Orleans streetcars had movable barriers, to adjust to the racial make-up of the ridership at any time.

The portrait of the man gazing with infinite sadness out of slightly unfocused eyes is unforgettable. And what about the woman in the last seat? Unlike the three before her, she is looking out sideways from the frame. Is she talking to someone on the street? Hard to know. What is clear, however, is that — seemingly alone among these riders — she is affable and engaged.

Each portrait tells its own story.


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