Robert Frank's "Charleston, South Carolina" (1955), on display at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco in 2009.
One of the most influential of photographers, Robert Frank (1924-2019) helped define a style of street photography that eschewed classical portraiture and instead created intimate, moody portraits of an America struggling to define itself in a post-war world. His black-and-white photographs, and later underground films, were a democratic portfolio of a country racked by economic disparity and divisions of race and class. Above all, Frank's art showed a determination to capture on film people and places often ignored.
Credit: Jeff Chiu/AP
"Central Park South"
"Central Park South" (1948) by Robert Frank.
Born in Zurich, Switzerland on November 9, 1924, Robert Frank apprenticed for the photographers Hemann Segesser, Michael Wolgensinger and Victor Bouverat. After the war, in 1947, he emigrated to New York City, where he worked as a photographer for Harper's Bazaar, and contributed to such publications as Life and Camera.
In his 1951 series "People You Don't See," Frank documented the daily lives of six people on his lower Manhattan block (representing the city's six million inhabitants). One such subject was Connie Damiani, who worked at the Plymouth Toy Company.
This photo was titled: "After lunch, Connie jokes with other workers outside the factory."
"The Americans" was a landmark in documentary photography, focusing on subjects rarely captured by magazine or commercial photographers, from the clash of high- and low-class and people operating on the edges of celebrity, to laborers, the disenfranchised, and the isolation that exists in both crowded cities and lonely rural landscapes.
While some criticized Frank's images as being derogatory towards their subjects, or just downright sloppy, his work came to be revered for expertly capturing the moods of a variety of urban and rural environments. By messing around with exposure, focus, shadows and cropping instead of aiming for sharpness and brilliant lighting, he created some haunting vistas, and portraits of characters that spoke of an American Dream that was hard-fought or inaccessible. This was not an America bathed in post-war optimism or nostalgia; it was a land of suffering, often quiet or overlooked.
An example of Frank's unorthodox framing that captured a spontaneity in his subjects - and in the photographer.
In 2015 Frank told The New York Times, "Photography can reveal so much. It's the invasion of the privacy of the people. … Often I had uncomfortable moments. Nobody gave me a hard time, because I had a talent for not being noticed."
Frank's unorthodox subjects and framing endeared him to the Beat poets and artists of the day, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He collaborated with them on a short experimental film, "Pull My Daisy" (1959), a humorous, improvisational tale of avant-garde artists crashing a party, written and narrated by Kerouac.
In 1996 the Library of Congress inducted "Pull My Daisy" to its National Film Registry.
The Rolling Stones
Frank filmed a cinema verite-style documentary about the Rolling Stones' 1972 American tour, with an unprintable title ("C********r Blues"). The band objected to just how much Frank revealed in the film about the group members' drug use and blocked its release. In a court settlement they agreed to limited screenings, but the film has never had general distribution, adding to its notoriety.
His prints and films have been the subject of exhibitions around the world, from New York City, Washington, D.C., Long Beach, Calif., and Houston, to Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Germany, Valencia, Spain, Yokohama, Japan, and Zurich.
In addition to "The Americans," Frank's images were published in several other monographs, including "New York to Nova Scotia," "Lines of My Hand," "Black White and Things," "Moving Out," "Thank You," "HOLD STILL … Keep Going," and "London/Wales."
Photographer-filmmaker Robert Frank, with his collaborator and publisher Gerhard Steidl, pause to consider a question from the audience at the opening of the exhibition, "Robert Frank: Books and Films, 1947-2016," at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts Jan. 28, 2016, in New York.
Credit: Kathy Willens/AP
"New York City, 7 Bleecker Street"
"New York City, 7 Bleecker Street" (September 1993).