Robert Frank (Switzerland / USA) – 1924 to Present
I come to profile Robert Frank, not to praise him. With apologies to Shakespeare, that subtle but important distinction is one the reader needs to understand. To this point, with the exception of some shooters whose contributions to street photography have been exaggerated (e.g. Henri Cartier-Bresson), I have attempted to stay neutral in terms of photographers’ legacies. Frank is different, however. His represents a milestone in street photography. His tour de force work, the 1958 tome The Americans, was a seminal piece in the genre—slowly building a cult following until it was recognized as a master work. Frank’s shots marked the final, sighing bridge between artistic and gritty work that was the precursor to the snapshot aesthetic popularized in the 1960s. It wasn’t attributed solely to Frank, but it could have been.
There is a danger, however, when one encounters milestones. There is a temptation to stop at these way points, add stones of admiration of your own, and turn a simple signpost into a shrine. That is what happened with Robert Frank. Shooters ignored the fact that he was influenced by Transitional photographer Walker Evans, whose matter-of-fact style stripped away the narrative that magazine editors demanded and showed life as it happened—messy, emotive, accessible. Frank took that notion and stripped away Evans’s smooth style to add his own grit and contrast. As Nicholas Dawidoff’s excellent NY Times essay on Frank quoted Frank:
“If I put a piece of cheese on the table and said, ‘Photograph it,’ his would be different from my piece of cheese. His pictures were more careful. I was fast. Hurry! Hurry! Life goes fast.”
Evans, per the Times, was “English shoes and patrician airs.” Frank was and is uncombed hair, rumpled clothes and days-old growth of beard. He was Lt. Columbo in a rumpled coat, coming to interrogate life with a camera, and his persons of interest either didn’t notice or weren’t intimidated by him. That, of course, gave him access to life unfettered from the glowering presence of the camera. Frank has said he shoots quickly, before people notice the camera and change their reaction. As his most famous shots show, that is not strictly true, but here it wasn’t the style that mattered; it was the process. And that distinction is where many modern photographers have gotten lost.
The street shooters who followed him almost uniformly praised his work despite the fact that his contemporaries often bristled at his style and his rejection of their artiness. Indeed, his contemporary, Elliott Erwitt, summed up Frank’s style:
“It was the beginning of that kind of photography that Robert did, seemingly sloppy, but not — and very emotional. The acceptable pictures then were sharp and technically excellent. But the pictures of Robert Frank were very different. … We all respected Robert’s talent and ability and knew he was difficult and fought with everyone — could be quite vindictive with some. We just dissolved the friendship. I felt he felt I’d gone the wrong way, the non-artist way.”
The non-artist way, as it turned out, was the way of the street, photographing that which existed in a fast, unguided manner. The then-prevalent definition of acceptability rankled him, as evidenced by his response later in life when asked, “What makes a good photograph?” Frank’s tongue-in-soured-cheek answer to Vogue Magazine was, “Sharp. See the eyes. Sometimes the nose.”
His process of shooting, though not his style, would later be embraced by shooters as talented as Garry Winogrand and as humble as the author of this post. The less-educated of us embraced what they believed to be his street aesthetic, over simplifying his style to be black and white, high contrast, up close … frank. It’s a style, and reflects his life, but does not represent some innate truth about photography.
As I stated in my opening, I do not come here to praise Robert Frank. That is not due to my having soured on his work, which stands tall on its on measure, but due to the failure of uninformed followers to separate Frank’s style from his personality, his aesthetic from the genre’s. He painted street photography with the dim colors of his pain-soaked brush to the extent that young shooters now believe that his style reflects the sole defining measure of street photography instead of his black and white view of society.
“Black and white are the colors of photography. To me, they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected.” – Robert Frank
He shot in high-contrast monochrome because it suited the world he saw. It was great art and also the fiction of truthiness—looking like life, but painted with the colors the artist brought to the work so cleverly that those who followed mistook black and white for the colors of the street. To understand what I mean, let’s go back to Frank’s beginnings.
Robert Frank was born in Zurich, Switzerland to a Swiss mother and a German father, Hermann Frank, who’d lost his citizenship for being a Jew. According to the Vogue piece, and inferences given by Frank in interviews, his mother and father were obsessed with money. “It is the dominant dinner topic, Vogue writes, “the focus of everything. Their son, despite his awards and sales later in life, will choose to abide by ‘a low-living standard.’ ” Frank reported, in the NY Times, “If my father had a good day, dinner would end and my father would take out his wallet and give my mother 100 Swiss francs. ‘I was driven by negative influence. I wanted to get away.’’
His getaway took him to America in 1947, a land vast and vastly different than the one of his upbringing. He rejected, largely, the wrappings of wealth and lived humbly. He married, had two children, and he worked. The work was everything. He’d begun photography before emigrating to the U.S. and secured work as a fashion photographer for Harper’s in New York. He left shortly after and traveled to South America and Europe, publishing a handmade book of photos (his second) upon his return to the States.
Back in New York, he met Edward Steichen and participated in the show 51 American Photographers at the Museum of Modern Art. Few museums embraced photography in those days, and the showing was a honor. Despite marriage and children, he began to see a different world than before. The excitement he felt upon arriving in the U.S. gave way to feelings that it was often a bleak and lonely place.
Scarred by his upbringing, Frank soured at Americans’ seeming obsession with wealth. According to ex-wife, Mary Lockspeiser Frank, they lived “very chaotically in every way,” finding furnishings on the street and living in run-down sections of the city. He moved his family to Paris and back, returning in 1953. He took work with magazines such as McCall’s, Vogue, Fortune. He failed with Life, whose publisher, Henry Luce, “favored linear, neatly partisan narratives.” The world Frank lived in was not neat, and partisan lines were often blurred.
Fortunately for the photography world, Frank was also passed over by Magnum, the elitist corps of overrated photographers, led by Robert Capa. ‘‘Capa said my pictures were too horizontal,” he told the NY Times, “and magazines were vertical.’’ Capa was a fraud and an idiot, but he was in charge. It likely didn’t help his cause that Frank was no fan of Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose contrived concept of a decisive moment seemed overly simplistic to Frank. [Author’s note: Robert Frank was right. See our post on “The Fallacy of the Defining Moment” to understand why we agree.] Not working for Magnum meant he was free to find his own assignments, free from their control and self-promotion.
Walker Evans helped Frank secure a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 1955, he set off, headed for Detroit, in a black used Ford Business Coupe with two cameras and a boatload of film. When he’d finished, in 1956, he’d traveled 10,000 miles, often with his family in tow, and taken roughly 20,000 photos, of which 83, a mere 0.4% formed his masterwork, The Americans. He’d filmed the people who Magnum and others forgot. His wife once asked him why he only shot poor people, but that wasn’t the case. He shot the differences in class, in society, in wealth. He shot the black and the white. Frank was once arrested in Arkansas for being a “Commie” because he had a foreign accent, cameras, and he stank. He was a spy … a spy for America’s underclass.
His previously smooth style, as seen in his European and South American photos, gave way to starker contrasts. He destroyed conventions by trapping subjects in tight spaces, often hidden behind large objects like flags or squeezed into seats. Americans were no longer merely the prosperous, beautiful people seen in Life Magazine. They were ordinary, like the black nanny holding the alabaster baby who almost certainly could not have sat with the family she took care of in a public restaurant. They were the heretofore largely unseen blacks, dressed nicely, attending a funeral. They were the people on Main Street in Savannah, Georgia, with a black man surreptitiously eyeing passerby and himself being given the dead eye by an attractive white woman. His images were filled with poetry, but as the merest fraction of his total work, it was a created narrative, like Life Magazine’s, but with a different theme. However, it was enough to loosen the editorial grip. Life wasn’t always happy or pretty, Frank showed, but it was almost always art.
Acclaim built slowly, but once it did, Frank’s career was made. He embraced it by moving on from photography, shooting documentaries with the likes of Jack Kerouac and the Rolling Stones. In 1970, he returned to photography and produced more books, starting with The Lines of My Hand in 1972. His marriage to Mary ended in 1969, and he remarried, to sculptor June Leaf, and moved to Nova Scotia. His daughter died in a plane crash in 1974 and he lost his remaining child, son Pablo, in 1994. Much of his work since then, according to some critics, has reflected the impact of the loss of his kids. However, loneliness was always a subject of Frank’s work. Even the 1972 Rolling Stone film, Cocksucker Blues, spent a great deal of its focus on life on the road, with loneliness as companion and the group sex and drugs meant to stave it off.
Frank, like other photographers, took photos not of the world, but of their own emotional makeup, painted in image fragments of life on the street. Sadly, too many people have mistaken them for reality. In latter years, he’s published more books, Pangnirtung, Paris, You Would, Park / Sleep, Valencia 1952, Tal Uf Tal Ab, and Hold Still Keep Going, but none have had the same impact as Americans. Frank himself told The Guardian’s Sean O’Hagan, “The kind of photography I did is gone. It’s old.” That sad self-assessment is not entirely true, but seems so due to sheer idiocy of modern street shooters. As O’Hagan writes,
“The Americans challenged all the formal rules laid down by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans, whose work Frank admired but saw no reason to emulate. More provocatively, it flew in the face of the wholesome pictorialism and heartfelt photojournalism of American magazines like Life and Time. The Americans was shocking – and enduringly influential – because it simply showed things as they were.”
Did you catch that “… work Frank admired but saw no reason to emulate?” That’s the core of his legacy—that he picked up a camera and responded not to what he was taught or had seen in other photographers, but what was inside him. Frank gave wise photographers permission to call bullshit on all the rules, all the trends, every style. The best style, we learned, is the one that makes the shooter feel something. In a perfect world, it will make us feel it too.
I came not to praise Robert Frank, but to profile him. Praising him, I’ll do in private. I think he’d like it better that way.
To Learn More:
- “The Day I Met Robert Frank,” Joel Meyerowitz (video)
- “Robert Frank at 90: the photographer who revealed America won’t look back,” Sean O’Hagan, The Guardian, 7 November 2014
- “The Man Who Saw America,” Nicholas Dawidoff, The New York Times Magazine, 2 July 2015
- “New Documentary About Robert Frank Goes Beyond The Americans,” Rebecca Bengal, Vogue, 27 September 2015
- “Robert Frank,” Atget Photography.com