Influential photographer, author of ‘The Americans’
NEW YORK — Robert Frank, a giant of 20th century photography whose seminal book “The Americans” captured singular, candid moments of the 1950s and helped free picture-taking from the boundaries of clean lighting and linear composition, has died. He was 94.
Frank died Monday in Inverness, on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, according to his second wife, June Leaf. The couple divided their time between Nova Scotia and New York.
The Swiss-born Frank influenced countless photographers and was likened to Alexis de Tocqueville for so vividly capturing the U.S. through the eyes of a foreigner. Besides his still photography, Frank was a prolific filmmaker, creating more than 30 movies and videos, including a cult favorite about the Beats and a graphic, censored documentary of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 tour.
Black-and-white Super 8 pictures by Frank were featured on the cover of the Stones’ “Exile On Main Street,” one of rock ’n’ roll’s most acclaimed albums.
But he was best known for “The Americans,” a montage that countered the 1950s myth of bland prosperity and opened vast new possibilities for photography, shifting the paradigm from the portrait to the snapshot. As essential to post-war culture as a Chuck Berry song or a Beat poem, Frank’s shots featured jukeboxes, luncheonettes, cigars, big cars and endless highways, with an American flag often in the picture.
The 83 black-and-white photographs were culled from more than 28,000 images Frank took from 1955 to 1957 during a crosscountry 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.
Considered by many as one of the most important books of photography published since World War II, “The Americans” was not initially well received. 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, New Jersey, 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.”
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.