Uncomfortable truths tend to carry consequences for the teller. When Robert Frank’s book The Americans was released, Practical Photography magazine dismissed the Swiss-born photographer’s work as a collection of “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness.” The book’s 83 images were taken as Frank crisscrossed the U.S. on several road trips in the mid-1950s, and they captured a country on the cusp of change: rigidly segregated but with the civil rights movement stirring, rooted in family and rural tradition yet moving headlong into the anonymity of urban life.
Nowhere is this tension higher than in Trolley—New Orleans, a fleeting moment that conveys the brutal social order of postwar America. The picture, shot a few weeks before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., was unplanned. Frank was shooting a street parade when he saw the trolley passing. Spinning around, Frank raised his camera and shot just before the trolley disappeared from view. The picture was used on the cover of early editions of The Americans, fueling criticism that the work was anti-American. Of course Frank—who became a U.S. citizen in 1963, five years after The Americans was published—simply saw his adopted country as it was, not as it imagined itself to be. Half a century later, that candor has made The Americans a monument of documentary and street photography. Frank’s loose and subjective style liberated the form from the conventions of photojournalism established by life magazine, which he dismissed as “goddamned stories with a beginning and an end.”
Explore more iconic images that changed the world.Visit the TIME Shop to purchase prints, posters and more.Visit the Shop