Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Robert Frank is an important and influential figure in the development of photography in both America and throughout the world. His most notable work was The Americans which came out in 1958. Frank is Swiss and The Americans took a fresh and skeptical outsider's view of the United States.

Frank's major influence was Walker Evans, and with his help he secured a Guggenheim grant in 1955 to travel across the US and photograph the society from all perspectives. He shot with a 35mm Leica, and took 28,000 shots over the next two years. The final edit and book contained 83 images. Frank took his family along on his road trips and visited several cities including Detroit, Savannah, Miami, New Orleans, Houston, LA, Reno, Salt Lake City, and Chicago. He had some trouble traveling through the South and was arbitrarily thrown in jail in Arkansas.

After returning to New York in 1957, Frank met Jack Kerouac and showed him some of the photographs he had taken. Kerouac was enthusiastic about the project and contributed the introduction to the US edition of The Americans. Frank also became friends with Allen Ginsberg, and became one of the main visual artists to document the Beat subculture. Frank was interested in the tension between the optimism of the 50s and the realities of class and racial inequality. This tension gave his work a clear contrast to the images of most American photojournalists who concentrated on the successes of American culture. Frank also used unusual focus, low lighting, and cropping that deviated from the accepted photographic techniques in his stark black and white work.

The Americans was originally published in France in 1958, and was finally published in America in 1959 by Grove Press. Initially it received negative reviews. Popular Photography derided its images as "a meaningless blur of grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons, and general sloppiness." Over time The Americans was seen to be a strong critical and dark comment on the inequality and hypocrisy of America and its stature grew, and it became a great influence on other photographers and artists. The Americans is now considered to be one of the seminal works of American photography and art history.

By the time The Americans was published in the US, Frank had started to work as a filmmaker. Pull My Daisy came out in 1959 and was written and narrated by Kerouac and had Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and others from the Beat circle in it. The Beat philosophy emphasized spontaneity, and the film had a haphazard improvised quality. Many years later the co-director Alfred Leslie revealed that it was actually carefully planned and rehearsed.

Frank also made Cocksucker Blues in 1972, which was a documentary of the Rolling Stones. The film shows the band on their '72 tour, engaging in heavy drug use and having group sex. The Stones were disturbed when they saw the finished film as it captured the loneliness and despair of life on the road. Mick Jagger told Frank it was a fucking good film, but if it showed in America they would never be allowed into the country again. 

Frank continued his interest in film and video, but returned to making still images in the 1970s. His later work is more visual autobiography and consists largely of personal photographs. The later works consists of narratives made out of constructed images and collages, using words and multiple frames of images that are scratched and distorted.

Frank moved to Nova Scotia and withdrew after the deaths of his children. His daughter Andrea was killed in a plane crash, and his son Pablo was a schizophrenic who died in a mental hospital. Frank became a bit of a recluse declining most interviews and public appearances, and his later work deals with the impact of loss and tragedy. At times he has accepted offbeat assignments. He directed music videos for New Order and Patti Smith, and his photos can be seen on the covers of The Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street and Tom Waits' Rain Dogs.

Robert Frank's work has made a major impact on the artistic approach to image making in America and throughout the world.

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