Robert Frank, legendary photographer of US underbelly, dies at age 94

NEW YORK • Mr Robert Frank, a pioneering documentary photographer whose raw style placed him among the 20th century's greats, has died, according to The New York Times. He was 94 years old.

Mr Frank died on Monday in Inverness, Nova Scotia.

His death was confirmed by Mr Peter MacGill of Pace-MacGill Gallery in Manhattan, according to the New York Times.

The Swiss-born photographer rose to fame with the publication of his landmark book The Americans, an unflinching look at US society that proved hugely influential.

Mr Frank challenged predominant images of the day, viewing the country's society through the lens of an outsider to expose the poverty, racism and alienation previously ignored in portrayals of the American dream.

From passengers riding a trolley bus in New Orleans to Ford factory workers in Michigan and a lone rodeo cowboy in New York, Mr Frank's offbeat pictures struck a chord with a generation that redefined the nation's cultural identity.

Born on Nov 9, 1924 in Zurich, Mr Frank grew up in a family of German Jewish industrialists, and became passionate about photography at the age of 12.

Mr Robert Frank was a pioneering documentary photographer whose raw style placed him among the
20th century's greats.

He trained as a photo assistant in Zurich and Basel from 1940 to 1942.

After World War II, Mr Frank moved to the US, covering fashion and doing photo shoots for magazines that included Fortune, Life, Look and Harper's Bazaar.

But he grew "tired of romanticism" and, armed with his gut and a pair of Leicas, Mr Frank began recording scenes of daily life.

His seminal book - published in France in 1958 and in America one year later - emerged out of a series of road trips across the US with his family in the mid-1950s, a journey akin to those made by his friend and writer Jack Kerouac and others from the "Beat Generation".

Classic photographic techniques were of little use to Mr Frank, who snapped away as telling vignettes presented themselves, producing 28,000 images that were boiled down to 83 for a book that rewrote the rules of photo-journalism.

At lunch counters and drive-in movie theatres, on Route 66 and at champagne get-togethers, his gritty, subjective style laid bare a wide range of emotions and relationships, notably racial, that were rarely found in the popular illustrated magazines of the time.

Initially panned by critics, the volume of black-and-white photographs is now "widely celebrated as the most important photography book since World War II", according to the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

As Kerouac wrote in the preface to the book's US edition, Mr Frank "sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world".

"To Robert Frank, I now give this message: You got eyes," he wrote.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2019, with the headline 'Robert Frank, legendary photographer of US underbelly, dies at age 94'. Print Edition | Subscribe