In­flu­en­tial pho­tog­ra­pher, au­thor of ‘The Amer­i­cans’

Baltimore Sun - - OBITUARIES - By Hil­lel Italie

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.

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