Icons of Photography: Robert Frank

Robert Frank was born, wealthy and Jewish, on November 9, 1924, in Zurich. In 1947 and already a photographer, he made his way to New York. His portfolio so impressed Alexey Brodovitch of Harper’s Bazaar magazine that he took the young Swiss on as a fashion photographer. But fashion wasn’t for Frank. ‘There was no spirit there,’ he said.

Instead, he took his camera to Peru, Paris, London, Spain, Wales. He constructed home-made books of his pictures. Then, in 1955, encouraged and aided by Walker Evans – pretty much the reigning king of American photography – he applied for a Guggenheim scholarship to make and photograph a journey across the United States. In his submission, he referred to the eye that ‘sees freshly’ and looks for things ‘easily found, not easily selected and interpreted’. A modern De Tocqueville with a Leica. ‘The visual impact should be such as will nullify explanation,’ he wrote in his Guggenheim application.

He spent two years on the project, driving 10,000 miles across the US in a five-year-old Ford Business Coupé, sometimes with his wife and two small children. He worked his way through 760 rolls of film, mostly the sensuously pliable Kodak Tri-X – which had come on the market only six months earlier. He took 28,000 photographs.

It became a book, The Americans, a distillation of all that driving and looking: the book which made his name and has sustained his reputation ever since. The original edition contained just 83 photographs, each on its own right-hand page, with the scantily detailed captions set apart at the back of the book. All black and white. ‘The colours of reality,’ he once said.

As William Klein said, when we look at a picture we can think of it as 1/25th of a second of the photographer’s life. So, with Frank, we are effectively considering him and his work through the time represented by 83 pictures — just 3.3 seconds of his life. What do we see in that 3.3 seconds? Bars, drive-ins, elevators, crucifixes and crosses, offices and factories, department stores and coffee shops, political conventions, urinals and a shoe-shine in Memphis railway station, cemeteries, roads. A poetics of surface. There aren’t many smiles – there are a few kisses, though.

Race and class are constant, though never overstated, subjects. There’s a lot of eating and drinking and flags and cars. The car window as framing device is perhaps his most distinctive formal trick. When his wife and children finally appear – in the last image of the book – they are captured through the windscreen of that old Ford coupé. It’s a late afternoon on US 90 – as the caption has it, ‘en route to Del Rio, Texas, 1955’. Like most images in the book, it’s hazy and lopsided.

Low light, fuzziness, arresting crops and shapes – these are the effects and techniques of Frank’s photographs. A complete counterpoint to the clarity, urbane drama and high-maintenance sheen of, say, his contemporary Irving Penn. Vehicle windows are, by the way, to Frank’s work as the building window is to Edward Hopper’s: he later did a whole series of photographs taken through a New York bus window.

He couldn’t get a deal in the US so the book first appeared in France, as Les Américains, published by Robert Delpire, the great Parisian patron of photography. The accompanying text did, it must be said, present it as a piece of anti-Americanism. When the book finally appeared in the US, the following year, it had a new text – a ferociously overheated splurge by Jack Kerouac, then at his cultural height as the author of On The Road.

Even then, The Americans was seen, initially at least, the way it had been in France: as a disdainful commentary on the country, the nation, its people and its mores. ‘A degradation of a nation!’ said Aperture magazine. ‘Blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons,’ wrote Popular Photography. That these comments were meant as savage criticism is a measure of Frank’s influence. Simply – or rather, not so simply – he reshaped our idea of how a photograph should look.

Another view of Frank’s book soon began to emerge. This saw it as realistic, democratic, non-judgmental, all-encompassing, unafraid of difference – or, even, the frankly weird. A new, essentially modern vision of modern America – the modern world, in fact. This, of course, made him a big deal for the downtown crowd — the artistic, the disaffected, the aesthetes of the left. In 1961, he was in the MoMA show 51 American Photographers.

Whichever view prevails, Frank’s pictures remain magisterial and resolute. With Walker Evans and film noir at their shoulder, they lead the eye and the camera towards Diane Arbus, William Eggleston, Larry Clark, Jean Pigozzi, Quentin Tarantino even. The great modern war photographer James Nachtwey, too. ‘The work is so raw and immediate,’ he wrote. ‘It seemed there were no boundaries between photography and living.’

If his subsequent career seems less stellar, it’s only by comparison. He made other photobooks – striking, challenging ones. But, almost by design, they could not have the same wider impact of the Americans. Soon, he pretty much gave up photography. Gave up on it, too. ‘A wife can stop loving you. Photography? I loved it, spent my talents on it. I was committed to it. But when respectability and success became part of it, then it was time to look for another mistress or wife.’ He made films instead, experimental ones mostly.

An established figure of the American avant garde, he quite unexpectedly found a far wide audience in 1972 when a selection of his photographs were used by the Rolling Stones for the montaged cover of Exile on Main Street. It’s an edit of his pictures that mostly draws on the gothic and grotesque elements of his work. One picture, of a man with three balls in his mouth – taken in New York or perhaps on Route 66, in 1950 – was used on billboards.

This brief moment outside the experimental shadows introduced Frank to an audience who, even if they didn’t catch his name, fixed his work in their mind as an exploration – maybe even celebration – of the marginal. Where his first viewers found – probably wrongly – a critique of his adopted country, these new one found a celebration of strangeness – certainly wrongly.

The Stones liked his work – and him – so much that they arranged for him to make Cocksucker Blues, a verité documentary of their 1972 tour. Not that they liked the finished film too much. They effectively suppressed it, only letting it be shown if Frank himself was there at the screening. They did, though, use good splashes of it in their own version of themselves, the 2012 documentary Crossfire Hurricane.

His life and work didn’t stop there, of course. In 1972, he published The Lines Of My Hand, a ‘visual autobiography’, with deliberately damaged images. It included these words: ‘When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of poetry twice.’ Almost passed over at the time, its influence grows with every year.

He kept making movies, scratching prints, messing around with Polaroids, shooting videos. Having already made the classic Beat movie, Pull My Daisy, he later directed Candy Mountain, a surprisingly amusing road movie. He made videos with New Order (Run) and Patti Smith (Summer Cannibals). ‘I’m always looking outside trying to look inside, trying to tell something that’s true.’

Since then, his life has been mostly private, split between a loft in Greenwich Village and a house in Nova Scotia. (His mentor Walker Evans went up there and made his last great photograph, an poetic image of Frank’s aged kitchen stove.) Of those children in the old Ford coupé, the daughter died in a plane crash in 1974, the son developed schizophrenia and died in 1994. Robert Frank died in 2019.

© Peter Silverton 2019

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