Published:  11:04 PM, 11 September 2019

Robert Frank, photographer of America’s underbelly, dead at 94

Robert Frank, photographer of America’s underbelly, dead at 94
Robert Frank, a trailblazing
documentary photographer whose raw, piercing aesthetic placed him among the
20th century’s greats, has died, according to his gallery. He was 94 years
old.

The Swiss-born photographer rose to fame with the publication of his
landmark book “The Americans,” an unflinching look at US society that proved
hugely influential.

A spokesperson from the Manhattan gallery Pace/MacGill told AFP that Frank
died overnight of natural causes in Inverness, Nova Scotia.

His seminal book — published in France in 1958 and in America one year
later — emerged out of a series of road trips across the United States with
his family in the mid-1950s, a journey akin to those made by his friend and
writer Jack Kerouac and others from the “Beat Generation.”

Eschewing classic photographic techniques, Frank pioneered the snapshot,
capturing telling vignettes in black and white as they presented themselves,
exploring the realities of everyday people for whom the American Dream rang
hollow.

He produced 28,000 images that were boiled down to 83 for the book that
rewrote the rules of photojournalism.

As Kerouac wrote in the preface of the US edition, Frank “sucked a sad poem
right out of America onto film.”

At lunch counters and drive-in movie theaters, on Route 66 and at champagne
get-togethers, his gritty, subjective style laid bare a wide range of
emotions and relationships, notably racial, that were rarely found in the
popular illustrated magazines of the time.

Praising Frank’s “extraordinarily keen intellect,” his gallerist and friend
Peter MacGill said the artist “changed the way the world looks at America.”

“Through the unvarnished, phenomenally capable eye of an immigrant, he saw
us for what we are.”

– ‘Tired of romanticism’ –

Born on November 9, 1924 in Zurich, Switzerland, Frank grew up in a family
of German Jewish industrialists, and became passionate about photography at
the age of 12. He trained as a photo assistant in Zurich and Basel from 1940
to 1942.

After World War II, he moved to the United States, pursuing fashion and
reporting photography for magazines that included Fortune, Life, Look and
Harper’s Bazaar.

He grew “tired of romanticism,” and, armed with his gut and a pair of
Leicas, Frank began recording scenes of daily life.

He developed a friendship with fellow photographer Walker Evans, whose
Depression-era photos intrigued him.

But Frank pursued themes including alienation, mass culture and veiled
violence with a spontaneity that stood in sharp contrast to Evans’ carefully
crafted work.

A Guggenheim fellowship gave him the opportunity to visit 48 US states, and
he brought back frames of a weary, hard and divided country.

He also found beauty in the overlooked, photographing cars, diners and
jukeboxes that went down in the iconography of American life.

And yet, “he never crossed over into celebrity,” said photographer Nan
Goldin. “He’s famous because he made a mark. He collected the world.”

– Sick of goodbyes –

As his reputation grew, Frank abruptly shifted into underground filmmaking,
making several films, including “Pull My Daisy” (1959), based on Beat icon
Neal Cassady, and a documentary about The Rolling Stones called “Cocksucker
Blues” (1972).

After learning of his death, the legendary English rockers he chronicled
dubbed him a “visionary,” saying in a statement that Frank “was an incredible
artist whose unique style broke the mold.”

Frank returned to photography after tragedy struck his family with the
death of his daughter Andrea in a 1974 plane crash.

He divorced his first wife and had two children. His son Pablo, who
suffered from schizophrenia, killed himself in 1994.

In the meantime, Frank’s work had “shifted from being about what I saw to
what I felt,” he told The Guardian. “I didn’t believe in the beauty of a
photograph anymore.”

He began to create montages, write on his pictures and scratch the
negatives.

Remarking on one of Frank’s staged silver gelatin prints from 1978 —
called “Sick of Goodby’s” for a phrase in it that is cursorily daubed on a
mirror — the late rocker Lou Reed said “the photos speak of an acceptance of
things as they are.”

“Robert Frank is a great democrat,” Reed said. “We’re all in these photos.
Paint dripping from a mirror like blood.”

“I’m sick of goodbyes. And aren’t we all, but it’s nice to see it said.”


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