The Sunday Read: ‘The Man Who Saw America’
Chronicling the human condition with one of the most influential photographers in history.
Chronicling the human condition with one of the most influential photographers in history.
How, in a single photograph, Robert Frank captured the ongoing story of a divided nation.
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.
Robert Frank’s The Americans greatly influenced the course of 20th and 21st-century photography. His contemporaries, and those who followed, reflect on the enduring significance of his work
The array of moments that Frank captured and presented is a statement on the broad, unwieldy idea on which the nation is premised.
nation that is premised on an idea—not on an alleged shared bloodline or eons of history on common acreage—is prone to periodically question exactly who and what it is. The matter that binds Americans, as much as any doctrine or document, is the pursuit of a definition of who Americans are. There are facile adjectives applied to us—optimistic, volatile, swaggering—but they more often seem to apply to pretensions that we wear before the world. Who we are in our unguarded moments, and even what portion of people are included in the word we, is another matter entirely. This is part of the reason that Robert Frank’s photographic essay “The Americans,” published in France in 1958 and released in the U.S. a year later, is both an indelible reflection of American culture and one of the works that helped define it. To produce it, Frank, who died this week, at the age of ninety-four, spent two years scouring the country in a used car, courtesy of a Guggenheim grant, a contrail of dust his most constant companion.
Danziger Gallery presents an exhibition devoted to Robert Frank American photographs, his best known and arguably most important work. The exhibition will be comprised of 40 photographs – 15 from Frank’s seminal book “The Americans” (now celebrating the 60th anniversary of its American publication) and 25 unpublished works from Frank’s travels at the time.
Photographer Robert Frank, one of the most pivotal figures in history, has passed away at the age of 94. Frank's 1958 book The Americans red...
Robert Frank died today. As Sean O’Hagan wrote for The Guardian “it is impossible to imagine photography’s recent past and overwhelmingly confusing present without (Robert Frank’s) lingeringly pervasive presence. Frank was 31 in 1955 when he secured the Guggenheim Grant… He shot around 28,000 pictures. When Les Americains was published by Robert Delpire in France in 1958, it consisted of just 83 black and white images, but it changed the nature of photography, what it could say and how it could say it… it remains perhaps the most influential photography book of the 20th century… (Robert Frank) caught what Diane Arbus called the ‘hollowness’ at the heart of many American lives, the chasm between the American dream and the everyday reality.” One of the photographers I know in Cape Breton, Chad Tobin, @tobinchad, has been photographing Robert Frank at his summer home in Mabou, Nova Scotia for ten years now. He and Robert Frank had a special connection.
The photographer, who died on Monday, captured bleedingly raw images of postwar America.
It may be impossible to convey to people who weren’t percipient in the early nineteen-sixties the profound, exulting shock that Robert Frank’s “The Americans” delivered to me, among many others, at the time of its release. The book, which was published in the United States in 1959, ranked with Dylan, Warhol, and Motown as a revelation something like a celestial visitation and something like being knocked off a cliff into a free fall so giddy as to obviate any fret about hard landings. The toughest part, from today’s perspective, was that the impact of Frank’s pictures had only passingly to do with their social, political, and otherwise thematic content, now so serviceable to this or that mode of critique. We were formalists then, and anti-formalists—not alternatively but both at once. Frank had exalted photographic form by shattering it against the stone of the wonderful and (oh, yeah) horrible real.
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.
Mr. Frank, best known for his groundbreaking book, “The Americans,” had a visually raw and personally expressive style that made him one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century.
Thousands of Robert Frank’s unpublished photographs taken during and after his journeys that led to “The Americans” have never been seen before by wide audiences.
Only 83 of the nearly 28,000 photographs Mr. Frank made during his journeys appeared in the book, which was published in France in 1958 and then in the United States a year later. In 1978, Mr. Frank sold the rest of those photos, along with his entire archive at the time, to cover living expenses and fund his filmmaking. While some of those photographs have since been exhibited at various museums and galleries, there are still many thousands more that, with apologies to Mr. Kerouac, have been seen before on film — but never by a wide audience.
Watch a rare interview with famed photographer Robert Frank as he discusses his seminal book of photography, The Americans.
To create the work, Frank shot around 27,000 images across the U.S.–a series that was ultimately whittled down to 83 black-and-white photographs.
The Laura Israel-directed Don’t Blink made its world premier last fall during the New York Film Festival and according to our reviewer Judy Gelman Myers, the documentary offers a multifaceted view of the photographer so well known for The Americans. “This is Robert Frank the funny guy, the experimental filmmaker, the fan of the ’60s Beat scene,” she wrote.
When the current Robert Frank exhibit at New York University closes next week, it’s really closing: The images will be handed over to photo students who will, in a private ceremony, draw on them or sculpt them into some creation of their choosing. Then they will destroy them.
In some of the only footage available of the reclusive photographer, Frank talks about losing a friend, the photographer Danny Seymour.
Over the next 50 years, Frank made many films, but perhaps his most notable was a documentary few have ever seen. “[expletive] Blues” got its start in 1972, when the Rolling Stones asked Frank, who had photographed them for their album “Exile on Main Street,” to go on tour with them. Frank’s only condition was that he could bring along a friend: the young photographer Danny Seymour
Looking back with Robert Frank, the most influential photographer alive.
Looking back with Robert Frank, the most influential photographer alive
In 1959, Robert Frank's The Americans dramatically altered how photographers looked through viewfinders and how Americans saw themselves.
During his trip, Frank shot 767 rolls of film yielding about 27,000 images. He edited that down to about 1,000 work prints, spread them across the floor of his studio and tacked them to the walls for a final edit. Out of a year and a half of work, Frank chose just 83 images.
An Exclusive Interview with Robert Frank, Robert Frank’s Studio, New York, July 22, 2007
You are free and you risk something by taking a photograph. It’s not taking a snapshot of your sister. You risk because this is maybe not the way people think one should photograph. So you go out on a more different road. There is a risk involved in that. And I think if an artist doesn’t take risks, then it’s not worth it.
Joel Meyerowitz speaks of his first days as a street photographer, when he worked with Robert Frank 50 years ago
Mid-century Motor City images from Robert Frank's iconic American road trip