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Photographer Robert Frank has passed away:


“Patriotism, optimism, and scrubbed suburban living were the rule of the day,” Charlie LeDuff wrote about Mr. Frank in Vanity Fair magazine in 2008. “Myth was important then. And along comes Robert Frank, the hairy homunculus, the European Jew with his 35-mm. Leica, taking snaps of old angry white men, young angry black men, severe disapproving southern ladies, Indians in saloons, he/shes in New York alleyways, alienation on the assembly line, segregation south of the Mason-Dixon line, bitterness, dissipation, discontent.”

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RIP, Robert Frank. 

"In Frank’s transforming vision of America, a car is a casket, a trolley a prison, a flag a shroud."

Tod Papageorge, "Walker Evans and Robert Frank – An Essay on Influence

Also from Papgeorge's essay:

"The few critics who bothered to write about Frank’s book [The Americans] when it was first published [1959] detested it; words like “warped,” “sick,” “neurotic,” and “joyless” were used to characterize the work. Although, in retrospect, this response appears hysterical, it should be remembered that these critics – for the most part, writers in the photographic press – were reacting to a style of picture-making as much as they were condemning what they regarded as a captious attack on America. At a time when the dominant public sense of photography’s possibilities was identified with photojournalism and with the cherubic buoyancy of Steichen’s “Family of Man” exhibition, The Americans presented harsh, difficult reading."

I suspect that Frank was one of those artists who may have influenced his detractors as much as his admirers. Not a bad legacy, when all is said and done.

I took a few moments to read through some of the comments on the Times' obituary (I know, I know, never read the comments) and it was interesting to note that there were harshly critical takes among them, some of Frank's style, some of what they view as an immigrant's temerity to depict America in a less-than-flattering light. 

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Chester Higgins in today's Times describes a visit to Robert Frank this past January "to thank him, for having the clearness of heart to make these 1950s images that gave black people like myself the same decency and agency usually reserved for whites."  One of the most moving elements of many in "The Americans."

Walker Evans, whose own journey through America Frank was in part following, wrote sharply in his original but not used introduction to "The Americans" -

"Since it is the fashion to say that Americans can afford everything, let us say they can afford to have an astringent, abrasive picture of America ... Those who know the language of images and the speech of the eye ... will instantly recognize this photographer's intellect, his ungentle poetry, his ferocious wit and his educated morality."

And that book was basically a moral philosophy of photography, photographic aphorisms – that showed you could do and couldn't do as a photographer. It was an antidote to such overly ambitious shows such as Edward Steichen's "The Family of Man" which fuzzily said that everyone is the same person, everyone has the same experience.

Frank lived all those years in a small, green-fronted loft on Bleecker Street just off Bowery, "poor as a church mouse" as a friend used to say. There was always a light bulb on during the day – or maybe it was only on when he and June Leaf were in Nova Scotia. Originally the little loft seemed to me like a fishing boat among fishing boats, and as the years went on it was still a fishing boat but now seemed to be completely surrounded by yachts (cafes, chic hat shops, etc).





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Some more Frank tibutes

How Robert Frank’s Photographs Helped Define America by Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker

Wanting to See Like Robert Frank by Amanda Petrusich in The New Yorker

The Shock of Robert Frank’s “The Americans”  by Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker

Robert Frank Revealed the Truth of Postwar America by Arthur Lubow in The New York Times

How Robert Frank's Vision Influenced and Inspired Generations of Photographers by Keith Jenkins, NPR

Jim Casper's 2008 review for Lens Culture of the 50th anniversary re-issue of The Americans, which was supervised by Frank himself. (Note: Tod Papageorge groused about the way Frank re-cropped the images in The Americans when the book was re-issued in the 80s.)

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