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Remembering Robert Frank Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

10 September 2019

Robert Frank, who could be considered the Alexis de Tocqueville of photography for his seminal tour of the country published as The Americans in 1958, passed away Monday in Nova Scotia, Canada. He was 94.

While he moved from still photography to movie making, he made his mark driving across the continental United States in a used car on a Guggenheim fellowship. It was 1955. The movies ad glamorized us and television hadn't yet shown us what we really looked like.

Frank's camera mirrored the nation.

He was born in Zurich in 1924 and studied photography there. To escape the family business importing radios, he went to New York in 1947. He was able to make his living as a commercial photographer.

But in his free time, he wandered the streets of New York with his Leica framing the world he found in his viewfinder. He thought of taking pictures as training.

'I was tired of romanticism. I wanted to present what I saw, pure and simple.'

"It doesn't matter how many he takes or if he takes any at all," he said of photographers in general. "It gets you prepared to know what you should take pictures of or what is the right thing to do and when."

In 1954, he applied for a Guggenheim fellowship to create an "observation and record of what one naturalized American finds to see in the United States." Walker Evans and Edward Steichen wrote references and Frank got the grant. He bought a used Ford and fired it up in June 1955, driving through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan.

He was jailed in Arkansas for driving an old car full of cameras and speaking in an accent. They suspected he was a spy.

But he was only de Tocqueville out to see the nation that had welcomed him with open arms.

He shot 767 rolls of film, making roughly 27,000 images that he culled to 1,000 work prints which, after a year and a half of looking at them, became the 83 images in The Americans.

One of his favorites was of a couple in a private moment on a hill in San Francisco. Beyond them is the city and above them the gray sky. But the man has seen Frank photographing them and stares back at him.

"All I could do is just stand there with my camera and just keep photographing, but a little bit away from him so he could think and accept that maybe I photographed the panorama of the city," Frank said.

"I was tired of romanticism," Frank said of the project, "I wanted to present what I saw, pure and simple." And what he saw was us.

In his introduction to The Americans, Jack Kerouac wrote:

That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that's what Robert Frank has captured in the tremendous photographs taken as he travelled on the road around practically 48 states in an old used car (on Guggenheim Fellowship) and with the agility, mystery, genius, sadness and strange secrecy of a shadow photographed scenes that have never been seen before on film. That is why Frank will be considered one of the great photographers. After seeing the pictures you don't know what is sadder, a jukebox or a coffin.

Today, as we salute Robert Frank, the coffin is certainly sadder.

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