Peeling Back The Veneer: Robert Frank

The Americans. The book most would say forever changed the photography world. The 50’s were an idealistic time. We had won WWII, many people in the country were prospering and on there way to living the American Dream. There was a veneer of everything being perfect, but Photographer Robert Frank shocked people when he peeled back that veneer to present his honest, no-holds-barred images of what life in America was really like.

Born in 1924 in Zurich, Switzerland, Frank was raised in a comfortable home. When he was 18 and had graduated high school he began an apprenticeship with photographer Hermann Segesser, who lived in the same apartment building as Frank’s family. He found what he loved to do and began to learn all that he could. He soon moved on to working for a commercial photographer and then on to the United States where he was hired to work for Harper’s Bazaar. He got bored very quickly there and quit within a month, deciding to travel to South America. He spent most of his time in Peru using a 2 1/4 inch camera as well as a 35mm Leica. Rather than photographing the landscapes and monuments, he focused on the people, saying he preferred “things that move”.

One of his greatest loves was putting together handmade books of photographs, the first of which was called 40 Fotos. He concentrated on making sequences of images, sequences that were non-narrative and non-chronological. They were sequences that he hoped would create impact and address larger ideas rather than just telling a story. He was considered to be a “poet with a camera” although his photographs were rarely published.

After traveling for several years, Frank returned to New York and applied for a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. With recommendations from people like Walker Evans and Edward Steichen, he was awarded the fellowship in 1955 and began the project which would ultimately become The Americans. Over a nine month journey, Frank covered 10,000 miles, took 767 rolls of film, and was thrown in jail twice (once because the police found an second set of license plates in his trunk and once just because he looked foreign). When he returned, he was, of course, anxious to publish his images. He narrowed the over 28,000 photographs down to 1000 8×10 work prints and then down again to the 83 that were used in the book. Those 83 images were specifically chosen and put in the order he wanted them in, and, some would say, that is part of it’s genius. All of them belong together; it is not a complete work taken separately.

After all of this hard work, Frank had a very difficult time finding a publisher. Even though he had people supporting him, like the poet Jack Kerouac (who loved the work so much that he wrote the book’s introduction), the people who mattered did not understand what he was trying to say. It was finally picked up by a French publisher in 1958, and then eventually published in America in 1959. The book received harsh reviews. Critics used terms like “a sad poem for sick people” or  “a slashing and bitter attack on some U.S. institutions” and, my favorite, “a wart covered picture of America.” They called Frank a “joyless man who hates the country of his adoption….a liar perversely basking in the kind of world and the kind of misery he is perpetually seeking and persistently creating.” People were not ready for Frank’s candid depiction of what America really was. I think because he had come here at an older age, because he wasn’t raised here, he was able to see more clearly that America was not the idyllic place we thought it to be. He put a mirror in front of people, showed them what they didn’t want to see, and they weren’t comfortable with that.

His style of photography was also under criticism. Popular Photography said the images were “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness.” It was a completely different style than what people had seen before. Before Frank came along, the composition of photographs had been straight – either horizontal or vertical and the subject was always obvious. You knew what the photograph was about. Frank changed that. He was not looking for technical perfection. His pictures were messy and grainy, and he purposefully used obscure lighting. He was photographing feeling. He wanted to evoke an emotion when people saw the photographs. They have the look of being taken by an outsider. He never spoke to his subjects, just brought the camera to his eye, shot and moved on. Some would notice, others would not, but very rarely were they happy and never were they posed. Elliot Erwitt said of Frank’s work:

“Quality doesn’t mean deep blacks and whatever tonal range. That’s not quality, that’s a kind of quality. The pictures of Robert Frank might strike someone as being sloppy – the tone range isn’t right and things like that – but they’re far superior to the pictures of Ansel Adams with regard to quality, because the quality of Ansel Adams, if I may say so, is essentially the quality of a postcard. But the quality of Robert Frank is a quality that has something to do with what he’s doing, what his mind is. It’s not balancing out the sky to the sand and so forth. It’s got to do with intention.”

The Americans was rejected in the art world until the 1960’s when generations had changed and baby-boomers were growing up. People began to see life the way Frank showed it. They were ready to face the struggles of racism and the poor and not look at the country through rose-colored glasses. Frank was ahead of his time. By the time the book became popular, however, he had moved on. He decided to set aside still photography and made his first film, Pull My Daisy  (which is considered to be the beginning of  the New American Cinema). He went on to make several films after that. His most famous was one few have ever seen. Cocksucker Blues chronicled all of the behind-the-scenes debauchery of a Rolling Stones tour back in 1972. When it was finished, the Stones decided it was too controversial and fought Frank in court to keep it from being released (even though they were the ones who had commissioned it). Not only did it capture the heavy drug use and partying of the band and their groupies, it also clearly depicted the loneliness and despair of life on the road. Like his photographs, the film was a candid portrayals of reality. The court ruled that the film could only be shown five times a year and always had to be in the presence of Frank.

In his lifetime, Robert Frank has made 25 films and published a dozen books. He will always be known for The Americans, however. Not only did it open the door for a new style of photography, but these are the images that showed us that life is not always beautiful. Sometimes life is hard and sad and, sometimes, it’s just boring and ordinary. No matter what the subject is, though, life is worth recording, as long as we remember what Frank said, “There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment. This kind of photography is realism. But realism is not enough – there has to be vision, and the two together can make a good photograph.”

View images by Robert Frank on Pinterest


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