“The eye should learn to listen before it looks.” ― Robert Frank

Robert Frank is best known for his 83 black and white documentary photographs carefully curated from his take of over 28,000 shots made during three road trips in 1955-1956. In 1957 Frank met Jack Kerouac, author of “On the Road.”

Early life

Robert Frank was born in Zurich, Switzerland. His mother was Swiss. His father, a stateless German due to World War I, had to apply for Swiss citizenship for himself, Robert and Robert’s older brother. The family was safe during World War II. Frank studied graphic arts and photography and apprenticed in both disciplines. He was an admirer of the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Frank was noticed by the legendary art director of Harper’s Bazaar, Alexy Brodovitch, who gave him some assignments for the magazine. He worked for Fortune, Life, Look, Vogue, McCall’s, and the Ladies Home Journal for 10 years. One of his inspirations was the book “American Photographs” by Walker Evans.

“When I first looked at Walker Evans’ photographs,” he wrote in the U.S. Camera Annual in 1958, “I thought of something Malraux wrote: ‘to transform destiny into awareness.’ One is embarrassed to want so much of oneself.”

Frank applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1955 with letters of recommendation from Evans, Brodovitch and Edward Steichen. The award allowed Frank to acquire a pair of cameras, boxes of film and a black Ford Business Coupe.

Robert Frank

The Americans

These poignant images were first published in 1958 in France under the title “Les Americains” by Robert Delpire who used Frank’s photos to illustrate essays by French writers. The work was published in the United States in 1959 and titled “The Americans,” with an introduction by Kerouac.

“That crazy feeling in America,” Kerouac wrote, “when the sun is hot and music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that’s what Robert Frank has captured in tremendous photographs taken as he traveled on the road around practically forty-eight states in an old used car (on Guggenheim Fellowship) and with agility, mystery, genius, sadness, and strange secrecy of a shadow photographed scenes that have never been seen before on film.”

“The Americans” was a direct challenge to the documentary of classically composed, sharp, well-lit photographs in the first half of the twentieth century. Frank’s work portrayed individuals, teenage couples, people at funerals in an immediate cinematic style that was often grainy and “off-kilter.” Janet Malcolm called him the “Manet of the new photography.”

Snapshot aesthetic

Robert Frank’s photographs may have had the effect of changing photojournalism to be more spur-of-the-moment. His work seemed to be an offhand style that was spontaneous and authentic. Photographers in the 60s felt this influence and put it to work in their subjects and the frame of the viewfinder as well. Frank’s style was not accepted by the contemporary photographic press.

Popular Photography magazine considered Frank’s work:

“meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons, and general sloppiness.” And that he was “a joyless man who hates the country of his adoption.”

Charlie LeDuff writing in Vanity Fair magazine (March 17, 2008) about Frank stated:

“Patriotism, optimism, and scrubbed suburban living were the rule of the day, Myth was important then. And along comes Robert Frank, the hairy homunculus, the European Jew with his 35-mm. Leica, taking snaps of old angry white men, young angry black men, severe disapproving southern ladies, Indians in saloons, he/shes in New York alleyways, alienation on the assembly line, segregation south of the Mason-Dixon line, bitterness, dissipation, discontent.”

After “The Americans” came filmmaking

Frank moved into making movies. While he continued making photographs, ultimately he would be known as a filmmaker. His first film “Pull My Daisy” became a cornerstone of avant-garde cinema. It was co-directed by Alfred Leslie and narrated by Kerouac. The film ran 28 minutes and was adapted from Kerouac’s play “The Beat Generation.” It became a cult favorite for its expression of the Beat philosophy of improv and spontaneity. Later Leslie revealed that the film was carefully planned and rehearsed.

Excerpted from the New York Times obituary of Robert Frank, “Robert Frank’s Unsentimental Journey” by Charlie LeDuff in Vanity Fair and “Robert Frank Revealed the Truth of Postwar America” also published in the New York Times.

Read about other influential photographers in On Photography.

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