“My photographs are not planned or composed in advance and I do not anticipate that the onlooker will share my viewpoint. However, I feel that if my photograph leaves an image on his mind – something has been accomplished.”
Robert Frank (born in 1924 in Zürich, Switzerland) rose to fame with his photographic essay about the USA in the 1950’s: “The Americans”. His visual exploration of post World War II America is considered to be one of the most influential photography books of the 20th century. Granted with a Guggenheim fellowship, Swiss born Robert Frank who’d emigrated to the US in the 1940s, travelled throughout the United States between 1955-1957. In the end, he had taken around 27.000 images, of which 83 were later published in “The Americans”. When the book came out in Paris in 1958 and one year later in New York, it wasn’t anything like what people had expected.
Frank’s often blurry and grainy black and white pictures drew a rather dark picture of the US. Many critics thought of it as an inadequate record of life in America and disqualified Frank’s work as a wrong interpretation of a stranger, a non-American, lacking patriotism and pride for a nation that had just come out victorious of World War II and was experiencing an economic boom. On the other hand, a whole generation of young photographers embraced Frank’s work, celebrating it as an unadorned and complex analysis of American society. The book is divided into four chapters, each addressing a different aspect of American culture.
With “The Americans”, Robert Frank forced Americans to look at themselves in a very different way than they were used to.
But Frank’s images did not only cause controversy over what they showed, they also meant a disruption from what had been aesthetically accepted in a photograph up to that point. They were raw – grainy and blurry; not set-up photographs that brought the people to live – almost as if they stepped out of the frame. With his images, Frank raised an immediate desire in the observer to know more about the people and the circumstances.
“When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.”
In a certain way, Frank’s images have a so-called snapshot-feeling to them, which makes reference to their apparent informality: captures of brief, maybe even random moments; someone picking up a camera and clicking the shutter button. But in fact Frank’s images were all very deliberate. They may look like snapshots but yet Frank knew very well what he wanted to say with his photographs. That’s what makes his work so complex and important.
Up to that point, images in photojournalism were used to illustrate the text which was considered to be important. They weren’t meant to tell a story themselves. Frank wanted his images to be more ambiguous. He understood his photographs as visual poetry and wanted people to engage with them. Robert Frank himself once put it that way: “When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.”
The 5 Best Photography Movies About Robert Frank
- “Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank” (2005) Director Gerald Fox paints an intimate portrait of Robert Frank, who’s never been very fond of conceding interviews. In this film, Frank does not only talk about his photographs but also talks about his career as a film director.
- “Fire in the East: A Portrait of Robert Frank” (1986) Another intriguing documentary about Robert Frank giving insight in the thinking of one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century.
- Inside Photographer Robert Frank’s “The Americans” Sarah Greenough, senior curator of photography at the “National Gallery of Art”, is going through Robert Frank’s most important work and explains some of the most iconic images, putting them into the context of the time when they were made.
- Streetwise – Robert Frank and The Americans Deborah Klochko from the “Museum of Photographic Art” talks about the aesthetics of Robert Frank’s pictures.
- Robert Frank interviewed by Peter Burchett This is one of the few interviews with Robert Frank: The great photographer is looking back at his legendary career.
You might also like to watch: “Pull My Daisy”. This is not a movie about Robert Frank, but directed by him. In the late 1950’s he withdrew partly from photography and dedicated himself to directing films. The movie is written and narrated by Jack Kerouac who’d also earlier written to Frank’s book “The Americans”. Frank’s other cinematic work is a documentary about the Rolling Stones called Cocksucker Blues.
If you are interested in photography films, please check out the list of the 10 best photography movies of all times.