Robert Frank (Photographer, b 1924 Switzerland) is best known for his 1959 classic ‘The Americans’, a collection of 83 American pictures (selected from 27,000 taken over 4 years) now recognized as a masterpiece of street photography.
A friend of the beats, Frank’s ragbag imperfect black and white pictures were the antithesis of studio perfection and captured the real socio-political life of 1950s USA.
In his introduction to the book Jack Kerouac wrote:
"Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand, Robert Frank has sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film.”
Although the establishment took a long time to come round, the cool kids ‘got it’ almost immediately. Photographer Ed Ruscha:
"I’d never seen anything like it. Robert Frank came out here and he just showed that you could see the USA until you spit blood."
There’s an excellent article and an NPR radio programme about the book here.
Frank was an accidental innovator, liberated by the post-war availability of cheap portable photographic technology. His approach typifies a certain style of photography, the shy anonymous snapper who snatches what they see around them, simply, quickly without fuss or preparation. It was, as Slate magazine put it, placing a premium on immediacy over beauty.
Frank did not speak to his subjects, it was almost as if he trawled them up in a big net and fed off their sadness and their souls. It is a street style that is very common today, in groups such as this one, and indeed my own street photography. It is brilliant and immediate, but at the same time often reminds me of the Sex Pistols’ lyric:
Many of these photographs have become iconic, like the picture of the segregated passengers on the New Orleans trolley bus used on the book cover - faces peering out from behind bars like a jail cell, the black and white passengers separated by the apartheid laws that ruled the south in 1950s USA. Frank shot this a few days after cops in Arkansas arrested and detained him for being a “foreigner”—and a few days before Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus in nearby Montgomery. It was a picture of America that many would have preferred to have left unseen.
The picture of the woman breastfeeding her child was featured in MOMA’s Beat photography exhibition this Spring and predates Frank’s continental road-trip by at least two or three years, but shows the same sensibility which made his Americans so compelling.
It is striking that unlike the anonymous voiceless street photography, this picture demanded some conversation and intimacy.
It is a picture of Frank’s wife Mary, and their baby son Pablo, taken in February 1952. Mary reveals her left breast, ready for Pablo’s feeding. She is posed, but more for the breastfeeding than for the photographer. She seems to welcome her husband’s gaze, perhaps with a glimmer of tolerance of his obsession. The mother cat and her kitten on the floor beside the bed make a charming juxtaposition - emphasising that this is no ‘Madonna and child’ portrait, but a quick earthy portrait of a genuine life being lived.
Frank’s photography asks questions as much as it reveals truth. Is this the real America? Is this the America the country wants to be? Is this street photography exploitation or revelation? The answers are not always straightforward.
Here’s a photograph of
Robert Frank himself
with his camera
in New York City
12 notes, April 25, 2011