In Broken Manual, which tells a loose narrative of caves and hermits, the photos rely more on their neighbors. Many of them depend on being in the book and I don't think they would be successful as single photos.
I've been wondering about this photo in particular.
I don't know what the story was, if Soth just happened to find himself in Butte and shot the thing from memory, or if he made a special trip and asked for that particular hotel room. Whatever the case, he either wound up one floor lower than Frank, or (more likely) the pipe in the middle ground was extended. Here's how it looked fifty-two years earlier.
Frank focused on the distant town. Soth on the curtains. What I like about Frank's photo is that it's so banal. A window looking onto rooftops in a small mining town? What is that saying? By Geoff Dyer's reckoning the photo's only purpose is "to confirm that the view, partly hindered by net curtains, doesn't merit a second glance." In fact if you accept the silly premise that banal equals boring, this photo would probably be Exhibit A putting photography on a downward spiral.
I think the photograph itself proves that theory wrong. It's so banal that, in Dyer's words, "it demands that we return to it again and again." And indeed it's been surprisingly influential.
I'm guessing that Andrew Hetherington's hotel room series was at least partly inspired by Frank. What could be more banal than a series of nondescript hotel views? Yet I have to admit I find them strangely fascinating. They're almost as depersonalized as Google Streetview photos, but instead of being shot by a robot they're tracking someone's daily life. Another night, another town, the life of a working pro.
Peter Marlow's hotel rooms feel a bit more precious. Rather than purely documenting, he uses the rooms as sets for compositional exercises. It's another night, another town, yet the squinted eye never turns off. These photos would never be confused with Streetview.
Some folks have paid homage to Frank more directly. David Lee Guss's photo could have been shot from the same hotel, though the view is so altered it's hard to be sure.
Even coloring books have gotten in on the action.
Yes, Frank's photo has had a nice long life of rebirths. The Broken Manual reprise is only the most recent.
It turns out Robert Frank made his image looking east from a middle floor of the Hotel Finlen on East Broadway Street in Butte. In this contemporary view of the Finlen by George Keith, you can see the large pipe that appears in both Frank's and Soth's photos. I've outlined the window where I think the photo was made.
Here's a top view of Butte today courtesy of Google, with Frank's view superimposed.
Here's a shot looking down Broadway posted on Flickr by New Tait. I can't tell if it's a colorized photograph or some other type of image, but it seems to be roughly contemporary with Frank's image. The white billboard in the lower right of this image can be seen on the far left edge of Frank's photo.
And here's a modern ground level view looking east down Broadway in Butte courtesy of Google Streetview.
You can easily visit this spot on your own in Streetview and walk up and down the street and do 360s and take in the view in all directions. It makes you wonder if Frank were shooting The Americans today, would be even bother documenting Butte? Would a list of Google Streetview coordinates serve the same purpose?
Alec Soth would probably say no. Otherwise why else would Soth make this photo?
It's shot in Nome but it might as well be Butte or Reno or Pocatello or main street in any other small western outpost. Trucks, electric lines, an architecture based on functionality. Banality. I think this is what Frank was trying to show too in 1956. Another day, another town in the life of a traveling photographer.
You can look up the Nome address in Streetview but all you'll find is raw information. The photo won't tell a story. It won't stand on its own. Without a lot of curation and editing Streetview is just Streetview. Another day, another town in the life of a nontraveling nonphotographer.
For me Nome, Alaska describes a lot on its own, but it also leans heavily for meaning, like an old friend, on its the immediate neighbor in the book, Frank's View.