When I discovered Robert Frank’s work it fundamentally altered my perception of what, and how much, photography could mean. Mr. Frank passed away Monday in Mabou, Nova Scotia at the age of 94.
Though born in Zurich in the twenties, Frank immigrated to New York in 1947 where he worked as a photographer at Harper’s Bazaar. Early in his career he was rejected by Life magazine and passed over by Robert Capa at Magnum. Capa said his images were “too horizontal” for the magazine work they typically went after. In 1955 Frank received a Guggenheim Fellowship to document America after being championed for the award by friend and former recipient, Walker Evans. He spent the next two years traveling across the country, putting more than 10,000 miles on a used Ford.
He went where the people were. Beaufort, South Carolina. New Orleans, Louisiana. Butte, Montana. Del Rio, Texas. Detroit, Michigan. Glendale, California. North Platte, Nebraska.
He took 27,000 pictures, which were eventually whittled down to the 83 images that made it into his seminal work, The Americans. He was fascinated by the powerful complexity of peoples’ stories. The notion of Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment seemed simplistic to him. He was more interested in “some moment I couldn’t explain.” Of his own images, he said, “They don’t have an end or a beginning. They’re a piece of the middle” (from this excellent NY Times Magazine article). He captured ordinary people doing ordinary things. The mundane. The profound. He revealed deeper truths about the lives of his subjects, about the sometimes-cutting threads that bind us together.
He trawled for unguarded, private moments, a careful, obsessive, secretive observer of public intimacies. In only one image in The Americans was the moment spoiled. In that image, an African American couple laying in the grass turns to peer at him over their shoulders, brows furrowed. But he still took the shot. Frank once watched a friend begin to reach for his camera to capture a poignant moment in a psychiatric hospital, then think better of it. Moments later the friend heard: “You should have taken it.” Robert Frank would’ve taken the shot.
Throughout his life, he cared about the work. Over and over he eschewed both fame and wealth, though both were there for the asking. He once sold a series of paintings given to him by friend, Sanyu, for millions of dollars. He created a foundation and donated the money to it. His photographs can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars each, yet he lived simply, repeatedly turning down awards and honorary degrees.
Bruce Springsteen has a copy of The Americans he keeps for inspiration. “‘It’s an 83-picture book that has 27,000 pictures in it … We’re all in the business of catching things. Sometimes we catch something. He just caught all of it.’”