Find five images in The Americans where symbols are used. Explain what they are and how they function in the images.
Read the introduction to The Americans by Jack Kerouac.
Find symbolic references that you can also identify in Robert Frank’s photographs – not necessarily the five images that you chose for the first part of this exercise.
“In semiotics the word ‘symbol’ is used own a special sense to mean literally any sign where there is an arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified” (Hall 2012: 32).
I’ve become fairly familiar with The Americans since getting a copy a couple of years ago and having blogged about it twice already. I took it off the shelf today and was pleasantly surprised to see that last time I looked through it I’d annotated every image with comments on a post-it note, and many of these referred to symbolism. So I’d kind of inadvertently done half of this exercise already!
Note that I’m not claiming any insight into Frank’s mind regarding any conscious intent with any symbolism, rather I am placing my own interpretation on the images.
Flag = America
There are a lot of US flags in The Americans; it’s the most obvious recurring motif. It’s hard not to see each flag picture as making a statement about the nation. In this instance my interpretation of the symbolism employed is that the identity of the USA is bigger than the individual, and that its people are alone, anonymous and disconnected.
Cross = death
Another recurring icon is the crucifix, often in the form of a gravestone. I read this as being symbolic of death more than of religion. What I found interesting in this particular image is that the tree and the prone body form a cross – so it’s a signifier of a signifier of a signified.
Jukebox = the ‘spectacle’
Jukeboxes feature prominently in several pictures. In this one it glows like a religious icon, centrally placed, commanding your attention. To me the jukebox is symbolic of what Guy Debord later called ‘the spectacle’ – mass media / entertainment / consumption etc. This consumerist spectacle has overtaken religion as a guiding framework for life. If Frank did intend this interpretation, his symbolism was ahead of his time.
Light and dark = morality
The use of light to denote good and dark to denote evil was well established in art long before Frank. The symbolism here places the three characters at positions on the good-evil continuum: one fully dark, one fully lit, with these two looking at the third who is half lit, half shaded – who in turn directly addresses the camera. This may be a stretch but I think the symbolism here is reflecting back to the viewer (like a mirror) that we’re all capable of both good and evil. And perhaps the car symbolises America.
Left = the past
The symbolism here is an action rather than an object. Looking to the left in a photograph often implies looking to the past (and by the same token looking to the right implies the future). This is simply because we (with western eyes at least) read from left to right. Given that this depicts an older couple I read the leftwards look to mean harking for a past that they preferred to the contemporary present. And it is again set in a car, another common Frank symbol and possibly a metaphor for America.
The Kerouac introduction talks about symbols enough to make me think that Frank either intended or at least retrospectively recognised the symbolism in his selection of photographs for this book.
- Jukeboxes get mentioned in the very first sentence, and compared to coffins (as you end up “finally not knowing which is sadder”)
- Funerals are mentioned and Kerouac discusses death as photographic subject, though not specifically crosses
- Cars are referenced throughout the text, as they are dotted through the photos
- The US flag gets a mention, specifically in an image that I nearly included “Madman resting under American flag canopy in old busted car seat in fantastic Venice California backyard”
- Kerouac talks about roads a lot, such as what they “promised us in the vision of the west” – so roads as symbol of escape, optimism (of course, On The Road was his breakthrough novel so he had a thing about them…)
Debord, G. (1992) The Society of the Spectacle. London: Rebel Press.
Frank, R. (2008) The Americans. Gottingen: Steidl.
Hall, S. (2012) This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. London: Laurence King.