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The 83 black-and-white photographs were culled from more than 28,000 images Frank took from 1955 to 1957 during a cross-country trip. He made the trip on a Guggenheim Fellowship secured for him by American photographer Walker Evans, whose stark pictures from the 1930s had helped define the country during the Great Depression.
“When you are an artist you are influenced by, you know, by the cars outside, by a painting, by literature, by Walker Evans,” Frank told Art in America magazine in 1996.
Frank was a shy, sad-eyed man who openly, and gruffly, preferred being the storyteller and not the subject. His photographs, deadpan and unconventionally cropped, have the feel of someone standing on the outside, intently looking on.
“The more distressing new quality in Frank’s pictures was their equivocating indirection, their reluctance to state clearly and simply either their subject or their moral,” John Szarkowski, a former head of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography collection, wrote in 1989.
Considered by many as one of the most important books of photography published since World War II, “The Americans” was not initially well received. Popular Photography could have been mistaken for the early opponents of Impressionist painting when it described the images as “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures.”
Finding a publisher had proved a challenge. The photos were perceived as a critique of American life, depicting it as bleak, dark and unhappy: Black and white passengers gazing out a racially segregated trolley in New Orleans; a tuba player at a political rally in Chicago, his face obstructed by his instrument; a parade in Hoboken, N.J., of two women looking out a brick building, their faces obscured by a fluttering American flag. “The Americans” was eventually published by Grove Press, which had a history of releasing taboo-breaking works. The introduction was by “On the Road” novelist Jack Kerouac, who directly addressed his subject: “To Robert Frank I now give you this message: You got eyes.”
“The humor, the sadness, the EVERYTHING-ness and American-ness of these pictures! …” Kerouac added.
One of the images, “Indianapolis, 1956” shows an unsmiling black couple on motorcycles staring at nothing in particular as a crowd surrounds them. As with all his photos, Frank left the interpretation to the viewer, a mysterious quality the photographer himself seemed to share.
“He has by turns been described by people who do not know him as ornery, reclusive, hard, manipulative to the point of destructive, and cold as a bowling ball. He rarely gives interviews,” Vanity Fair reported in 2008. “He speaks in short, elliptical snatches and views life with the detached outlook of an undertaker.”
A new edition of the monograph was published in 2008 by the famous German photo book publisher Steidl to mark the book’s 50th anniversary. Exhibitions on the occasion were held in 2009 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Frank is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2000 Cornell Capa Award from the International Center for Photography in New York and the 1996 Hasselblad Foundation’s International Photography. The documentary “Don’t Blink — Robert Frank,” by Laura Israel, came out in 2015.
Born in 1924, he grew up in a wealthy Jewish family that lived in Switzerland during World War II, sparing Frank the worst of the Nazis, but leaving him with a lasting awareness of human tragedy. Finding his father too materialistic and his early surroundings too narrow, he emigrated to New York in 1947. Inspired at first by European Modernism, he had already spent years working in photography studios and had assembled a portfolio of 40 pictures that later came out in book form.
In his new country, he started out as a fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar and became friends with Willem de Kooning and Allen Ginsberg, among others. After meeting Edward Steichen, then director of the Museum of Modern Art, he was included in a 1951 group exhibition at the museum, “51 American Photographers.” In the early ’60s, the Art Institute of Chicago presented a solo exhibition of Frank’s work, and MoMA again featured him in a show in 1952. The first retrospective of his work was in 1974 in Switzerland at the Kunsthaus Zurich.
Thirteen years after publication of “The Americans” in the United States, Frank produced another critically acclaimed book of autobiographic images titled “The Lines of My Hand.” His other books included “Paris” and “Black, White and Things.”
The harsh reaction to “The Americans” soured Frank on photography for a time and led him to movies, including the 1959 short “Pull My Daisy” and the notorious Rolling Stones documentary “C–ksucker Blues.” Both the Stones movie and “Pull My Daisy,” based on a Kerouac play and featuring fellow Beats Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, featured prearranged scenes shot in a style that made the action appear spontaneous.
Admirers of his work, the Stones granted Frank and his crew remarkable access to a tour known for unlimited off-stage excess. Partly in color, partly in black and white, Frank filmed the band and its entourage in a haze of snorting cocaine and shooting heroin on a private jet. The film had the intimate, off-hand look of a home movie: Keith Richards was captured removing a television set from his hotel room and tossing it over the balcony and a groupie was seen lying naked on a bed, fondling herself.
Appreciation of Frank’s artistry was soon overwhelmed by fears of imminent arrest. The Rolling Stones sued Frank to prevent him from releasing the documentary and Frank acknowledged that scenes on the jet had been staged. A court order allowed the film to be shown only a few times a year and only in Frank’s presence. Substantial portions of the movie have turned up on the Internet, and a section of Don DeLillo’s epic novel “Underworld” was named for Frank’s documentary.
“Coke sniffing backstage or in the tunnels and people sitting around a room or sleeping on a plane, that edge-of-time feeling,” DeLillo wrote. “Interviews mumbled and blotted, the simplest of earnest rehearsed queries lost and pondered and lost again … The endless noisy boredom of the tour.”