Robert Frank  

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"Robert Frank's (...) enormously influential The Americans is in ways reminiscent both of Tocqueville's analysis of American institutions and of the analysis of cultural themes by Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. Frank presents photographs made in scattered places around the country, returning again and again to such themes as the flag, the automobile, race, restaurants—eventually turning those artifacts, by the weight of the associations in which he embeds them, into profound and meaningful symbols of American culture." --Howard S. Becker


"So many of the prints [in The Americans] are flawed by meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness."-- Arthur Goldsmith, Popular Photography

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Robert Frank (November 9, 1924 – September 9, 2019) was a Swiss photographer and documentary filmmaker, who became an American binational.

His most notable work, the 1958 book titled The Americans, earned Frank comparisons to a modern-day de Tocqueville for his fresh and nuanced outsider's view of American society.

Frank later expanded into film and video and experimented with manipulating photographs and photomontage.

Frank's 1972 documentary of the Rolling Stones, Cocksucker Blues, is arguably his best known film. The film shows the Stones on tour, engaging in heavy drug use and group sex. Frank said of the Stones, "It was great to watch them — the excitement. But my job was after the show. What I was photographing was a kind of boredom. It's so difficult being famous. It's a horrendous life. Everyone wants to get something from you."

The Americans

The Americans (photography)

Inspired by fellow Swiss Jakob Tuggener's 1943 filmic book Fabrik, Bill Brandt's The English at Home (1936), and Walker Evans's American Photographs and on the recommendation of Evans (a previous recipient), Alexey Brodovitch, Alexander Leiberman, Edward Steichen, and Meyer Schapiro, Frank secured a Guggenheim Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 1955 to travel across the United States and photograph all strata of its society. Cities he visited included Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan; Savannah, Georgia; Miami Beach and St. Petersburg, Florida; New Orleans, Louisiana; Houston, Texas; Los Angeles, California; Reno, Nevada; Salt Lake City, Utah; Butte, Montana; and Chicago, Illinois. He took his family along with him for part of his series of road trips over the next two years, during which time he took 28,000 shots. 83 of these were selected by him for publication in The Americans.

Frank's journey was not without incident. He later recalled the anti-Semitism to which he was subject in a small Arkansas town. "I remember the guy [policeman] took me into the police station, and he sat there and put his feet on the table. It came out that I was Jewish because I had a letter from the Guggenheim Foundation. They really were primitive." He was told by the sheriff, "Well, we have to get somebody who speaks Yiddish." ... "They wanted to make a thing out of it. It was the only time it happened on the trip. They put me in jail. It was scary. Nobody knew where I was." Elsewhere in the South, he was told by a sheriff that he had "an hour to leave town." Those incidents may have contributed to the dark view of America found in the work.

Shortly after returning to New York in 1957, Frank met Beat writer Jack Kerouac on the sidewalk outside a party and showed him the photographs from his travels. Kerouac immediately told Frank, "Sure I can write something about these pictures." He eventually contributed the introduction to the U.S. edition of The Americans. Frank also became lifelong friends with Allen Ginsberg, and was one of the main visual artists to document the Beat subculture, which felt an affinity with Frank's interest in documenting the tensions between the optimism of the 1950s and the realities of class and racial differences. The irony that Frank found in the gloss of American culture and wealth over this tension gave his photographs a clear contrast to those of most contemporary American photojournalists, as did his use of unusual focus, low lighting and cropping that deviated from accepted photographic techniques.

This divergence from contemporary photographic standards gave Frank difficulty at first in securing an American publisher. Les Américains was first published in 1958 by Robert Delpire in Paris, as part of its Encyclopédie Essentielle series, with texts by Simone de Beauvoir, Erskine Caldwell, William Faulkner, Henry Miller and John Steinbeck that Delpire positioned opposite Frank's photographs. It was finally published in 1959 in the United States, without the texts, by Grove Press, where it initially received substantial criticism. Popular Photography, for one, derided his images as "meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness." Though sales were also poor at first, the fact that the introduction was by the popular Kerouac helped it reach a larger audience. Over time and through its inspiration of later artists, The Americans became a seminal work in American photography and art history, and is the work with which Frank is most clearly identified. Critic Sean O'Hagan, writing in The Guardian in 2014, said "it is impossible to imagine photography's recent past and overwhelmingly confusing present without his lingeringly pervasive presence." and that The Americans "changed the nature of photography, what it could say and how it could say it. [ . . . ] it remains perhaps the most influential photography book of the 20th century."

In 1961, Frank received his first individual show, entitled Robert Frank: Photographer, at the Art Institute of Chicago. He also showed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1962.

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first publication of The Americans, a new edition was released worldwide on May 30, 2008. For this new edition from Steidl, most photographs are uncropped (in contrast to the cropped versions in previous editions), and two photographs are replaced with those of the same subject but from an alternate perspective.

A celebratory exhibit of The Americans, titled Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans, was displayed in 2009 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The second section of the four-section, 2009, SFMOMA exhibition displays Frank's original application to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (which funded the primary work on The Americans project), along with vintage contact sheets, letters to photographer Walker Evans and author Jack Kerouac, and two early manuscript versions of Kerouac's introduction to the book. Also exhibited were three collages (made from more than 115 original rough work prints) that were assembled under Frank's supervision in 2007 and 2008, revealing his intended themes as well as his first rounds of image selection. An accompanying book, also titled Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans, was published, the most in-depth examination of any photography book ever, at 528 pages. While working as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jason Eskenazi asked other noted photographers visiting the Looking In exhibition to choose their favorite image from The Americans and explain their choice, resulting in the book, By the Glow of the Jukebox: The Americans List.

Films

By the time The Americans was published in the United States, Frank had moved away from photography to concentrate on filmmaking. Among his films was the 1959 Pull My Daisy, which was written and narrated by Kerouac and starred Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and others from the Beat circle. The Beats emphasized spontaneity, and the film conveyed the quality of having been thrown together or even improvised. Pull My Daisy was accordingly praised for years as an improvisational masterpiece, until Frank's co-director, Alfred Leslie, revealed in a November 28, 1968 article in the Village Voice that the film was actually carefully planned, rehearsed, and directed by him and Frank, who shot the film with professional lighting.

In 1960, Frank was staying in Pop artist George Segal's basement while filming The Sin of Jesus with a grant from Walter K. Gutman. Isaac Babel's story was transformed to center on a woman working on a chicken farm in New Jersey. It was originally supposed to be filmed in six weeks in and around New Brunswick, but Frank ended up shooting for six months.

Frank's 1972 documentary of the Rolling Stones, Cocksucker Blues, is arguably his best known film. The film shows the Stones on tour, engaging in heavy drug use and group sex. Frank said of the Stones, "It was great to watch them — the excitement. But my job was after the show. What I was photographing was a kind of boredom. It's so difficult being famous. It's a horrendous life. Everyone wants to get something from you." Mick Jagger reportedly told Frank, "It's a fucking good film, Robert, but if it shows in America we'll never be allowed in the country again." The Stones sued to prevent the film's release, and it was disputed whether Frank as the artist or the Stones as those who hired the artist owned the copyright. A court order restricted the film to being shown no more than five times per year, and only in the presence of Frank. Frank's photography also appeared on the cover of the Rolling Stones' album Exile on Main St..

Other films by Frank include Me and My Brother, Keep Busy, and Candy Mountain (the last was co-directed with Rudy Wurlitzer).

Filmography

  • 1959: Pull My Daisy (with Alfred Leslie)
  • 1961: The Sin of Jesus
  • 1963: O.K. End Here
  • 1965/1968: Me And My Brother
  • 1969: Conversations in Vermont
  • 1969: Life-Raft Earth
  • 1971: About Me: A Musical
  • 1972: Cocksucker Blues
  • 1975: Keep Busy (with Rudy Wurlitzer)
  • 1980: Life Dances On
  • 1981: Energy and How to Get It (with Rudy Wurlitzer)
  • 1983: This Song For Jack
  • 1985: Home Improvements
  • 1987: Candy Mountain (with Rudy Wurlitzer)
  • 1989: Hunter
  • 1990: C’est vrai! (One Hour)
  • 1992: Last Supper
  • 1994: Moving Pictures
  • 2002: Paper Route
  • 2004/2008: True Story




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Robert Frank" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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