Embracing the work of the photographer, who died on Monday, at age ninety-four, meant that you, too, could abide a certain amount of ambiguity.
The photographer Robert Frank died on Monday, on Cape Breton Island, in Nova Scotia. He was ninety-four. Frank’s pictures were spontaneous and imperfect—usually grainy and overexposed, often crooked—yet consistently devastating to behold. I bought his best-known book, “The Americans,” when I was sixteen, in part because Jack Kerouac had written the introduction, and I was young enough to still be thoroughly and guilelessly enraptured by Kerouac’s beautiful, ecstatic ideas about personal freedom. Frank shot the book in 1955 and 1956, after receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to crisscross the country in a Ford Business Coupe, with his 35-mm. Leica camera and hundreds of rolls of film. He was always looking—peering in and out of windows, ducking around corners, lingering off to the side of the action. There is something furtive and nearly supernatural about his photographs. It often feels as if his pictures aren’t of vistas or faces or rooms, but of secret American feelings. “He sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world,” Kerouac wrote.