Robert Frank Profile
Robert Frank was born, wealthy and Jewish, in 1924, in Zurich. He made his way to the USA in 1947. There, that great patron of photography, Alexei Brodovitch of Harper’s Bazaar, took him on as a fashion photographer. But it wasn’t for Frank. “There was no spirit there,” he said. He took his camera to Peru, Paris, London, Spain, Wales. He constructed home-made books of his pictures. Then, in 1955, encouraged and aided by Walker Evans – the photographic chronicler of the rural American Depression – he applied for a Guggenheim scholarship to make and photograph a journey across the United States.
In his submission, he referred to the eye that “sees freshly” and looks for things ‘“easily found, not easily selected and interpreted”. A modern De Tocqueville with a Leica. He spent two years on the project, driving 10,000 miles across the US in a five-year-old Ford Business Coupé, sometimes with his wife and two small children. He worked his way through 760 rolls of film, mostly the sensuously pliable Kodak Tri-X – which had come on the market only six months earlier. He took 28,000 photographs. In 1958, he published The Americans, a distillation of all that driving and looking: the book which made his name and has sustained his reputation ever since. It contained just 83 photographs, each on its own right-hand page, with the scantily detailed captions set apart at the back of the book. The photographer William Klein smartly pointed out that when we look at pictures, we can think of each image as 1/25th of a second of the photographer’s life. So, with Frank, we are effectively considering him and his work through 3.3 seconds of his life. What do we see in those almost impossibly brief moments? Bars, drive-ins, elevators, crucifixes and crosses, offices and factories, department stores and coffee shops, political conventions, urinals and a shoe-shine in Memphis railway station, cemeteries, roads.
A poetics of surface. Race and class are constant, though never overstated, subjects. There’s a lot of eating and drinking and flags and cars. The car window as framing device is perhaps his most distinctive formal innovation. When his wife and children finally appear – in the last image of the book – they are captured through the windscreen of that old Ford, on a late afternoon on US 90 ‘en route to Del Rio, Texas, 1955’, as the caption has it. Like most images in the book, it’s hazy and lopsided. Low light, fuzziness, arresting crops and shapes – these are the effects and techniques of Frank’s photographs.
A complete counterpoint to, say, the contemporaneous clarity, urbane drama and high-maintenance sheen of Irving Penn. “Blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons,” wrote Popular Photography. That this was meant as savage criticism is a measure of Frank’s influence. Simply (or perhaps not so simply) he reshaped our idea of how a photograph should look. Contemporary comment saw it, essentially, as a disdainful attack on the US. “A degradation of a nation!” in the words of Aperture magazine. In time, though, another view emerged, one which saw it as realistic, democratic, non-judgmental, all-encompassing, unafraid of difference – or, even, the frankly weird. A new, essentially modern vision of modern America – the modern world, in fact. Whichever view prevails, Frank’s images remain magisterially resolute.
With Walker Evans and film noir at their shoulder, they lead the eye and the camera towards Diane Arbus, William Eggleston, Jean Pigozzi, Quentin Tarantino even. If his subsequent career seems less stellar, it’s only by comparison. He pretty much gave up photography after The Americans. “A wife can stop loving you. Photography? I loved it, spent my talents on it. I was committed to it. But when respectability and success became part of it, then it was time to look for another mistress or wife.” His life and work didn’t stop there, of course. He made movies, scratched prints, messed around with Polaroids, shot videos and did the piece of work that gave him the public audience The Americans never reached: The Rolling Stones used an image of his for the cover of Exile on Main Street. He made Cocksucker Blues, too – a barely-seen verité documentary of the band’s 1972 tour. Since then, his life has been mostly private, split between a loft in Greenwich Village and a house in Nova Scotia. Of those children in the old Ford, one died in a plane crash, the other became a psychiatric inmate.
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