Robert Frank was an artist who showed what photography could reveal about ourselves.
Great art shows us something fundamental about ourselves. It can show us things in a fresh way that we thought we knew; it can show us something that we may not have known; and it can show us something that we may not want to know.
Photographer Robert Frank was an artist who specialized in showing Americans things about themselves that they may not have seen. Frank was born in Zurich in 1924 and emigrated to the United States in 1947, right as the country was stepping into its new role as leader of the free world and the example of the expansive power of capitalism. In the mid-1950s he cross-crossed the country documenting what he saw. He published his photographs in a 1959 book called TheAmericans.
His work reminds us of the grim truth that there can be profound loneliness in a crowd. That an attempt to build a culture around entertainment can be soul-crushing. That a culture built on the pursuit of abundance can be an empty, dead-end. Vanity Faircalled the book “a morose and gritty document of the American landscape and street corner,” each of its photographs a dagger plunged directly into the heart of the American myth.
One day last week I pulled a copy down off the shelf and started looking through it. The pictures cover the country from New Jersey to New Orleans, California to Vermont, and portray life in big cities, little towns, and desolate empty stretches of wilderness. I couldn’t pick a favorite—all the pictures are so skillfully composed and so full of meaning.
When the book was published most people didn’t consider photography to be fine art—but if it was it certainly didn’t look like this. Popular Photographymagazine reviewed it and tore it apart. But real art has a way of rising above such things. The Art Institute of Chicago put on a show of Frank’s work in 1961 and photographs from The Americans toured museums as an exhibit on their own as recently as 2009.
In his introduction to the book, poet Jack Kerouac said that the faces one encounters in it “don’t editorialize or criticize or say anything other than ‘This is the way we are in real life’….” With his “little camera,” Kerouac said, Frank “sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.” While never particularly or overtly sad thereissomething both poetic and vaguely cautionary in his images of various Americans.
Robert Frank was one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century and he ranks with Ansel Adams as a photographer who clearly demonstrated the artistic capacity of the medium, and the fact that, the more art reveals about us, the more effective it is.
Frank died last week in Nova Scotia where he had a summer home. He was 94.