Robert Frank, the revolutionary 'Manet of the new photography'

Photographer Robert Frank was pivotal in changing the course of documentary photography.
Photographer Robert Frank was pivotal in changing the course of documentary photography. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • Robert Frank, one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, whose visually raw and personally expressive style was pivotal in changing the course of documentary photography, died on Monday in Inverness in Canada's Nova Scotia. He was 94.

Born in Zurich, Switzerland, on Nov 9, 1924, Frank emigrated to New York at the age of 23 as an artistic refugee from what he considered to be the small-minded values of his native country. He was best known for his groundbreaking book, The Americans, a masterwork of black and white photographs drawn from his cross-country road trips in the mid-1950s and published in 1959.

The Americans challenged the presiding mid-century formula for photojournalism, defined by sharp, well-lit, classically composed pictures, whether of the battlefront, the homespun American heartland or movie stars at leisure.

Frank's photographs - of lone individuals, teenage couples, groups at funerals and odd spoors of cultural life - were cinematic, immediate, off-kilter and grainy, like early television transmissions of the period.

They would secure his place in photography's pantheon. Cultural critic Janet Malcolm called him the "Manet of the new photography".

But recognition was by no means immediate. The pictures were initially considered warped, smudgy, bitter. Popular Photography magazine complained about their "meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons, and general sloppiness". Frank, the magazine said, was "a joyless man who hates the country of his adoption".

Frank had come to detest the American drive for conformity, and the book was thought to be an indictment of American society, stripping away the picture-perfect vision of the country and its veneer of breezy optimism put forward in magazines and movies and on television.

Yet at the core of his social criticism was a romantic idea about finding and honouring what was true and good about the United States.

"Patriotism, optimism and scrubbed suburban living were the rule of the day," Charlie LeDuff wrote about Frank in Vanity Fair magazine in 2008.

"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."

Les Americains, first published in France by Robert Delpire in 1958, used Frank's photographs as illustrations for essays by French writers. In the American edition, published the next year by Grove Press, the pictures were allowed to tell their own story, without text - as Frank had conceived the book.

After The Americans was published, Frank's artistic energies shifted to film and, although he continued to work in photography and video, he would never again reach the same level of recognition for his work. Mr Peter MacGill, a long-time friend whose Pace-MacGill Gallery in Manhattan has represented Frank's work since 1983, once posited that Frank would eventually be remembered as a film-maker more than as a photographer.

Frank's first film, Pull My Daisy (1959), is a cornerstone of avant-garde cinema. Made in Alfred Leslie's art studio loft in the East Village, it was co-directed by Leslie, narrated by writer Jack Kerouac and featured, among others, poet Allen Ginsberg, his then wife Mary Frank, poet Gregory Corso, musician David Amram, artist Larry Rivers and Frank's young son, Pablo.

He made his first feature-length film in 1965, Me And My Brother, about Julius Orlovsky, brother of poet Peter Orlovsky, who was Ginsberg's lover. With this film, he began to blur the line between documentary film-making and staged narrative scenes.

In 1972, Frank published Lines Of My Hand, a book of photographs he had made before and after The Americans. His work was becoming more autobiographical, diaristic.

While the photographs in The Americans are the most widely acknowledged achievement of Frank's career, they can be seen as a prelude to his subsequent artistic work, in which he explored a variety of mediums, using multiple frames, making large Polaroid prints, video images, experimenting with words and images and shooting and directing films such as Candy Mountain (1988), an autobiographical road film directed with Rudy Wurlitzer.

Still, it is The Americans that will probably endure longer than anything else he did.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2019, with the headline 'Robert Frank, the revolutionary 'Manet of the new photography''. Print Edition | Subscribe