Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Robert Frank

 Robert Frank is a Swiss-born American photographer best known for a volume of photos from 1958 called The Americans. Unintentionally, it is a grittier look at American life than was presented in the American photographs contributed to the well-known photo anthology The Family of Man by Edward Steichen, from 1955.

It was in 1955, funded by a Guggenheim grant, that Frank packed up his family and took a series of road trips that yielded some of the most iconic images of an America that doesn't always like itself. Having met beat writer Jack Kerouac on one of those trips, Frank showed Jack some of his portfolio and Jack agreed to write the introduction. Poet Allan Ginsberg became a life-long friend of Frank; their respective forms of expression were compatible in their shared viewpoint on class and race differences and the underclass that reared its head despite the rosy, American-as-apple-pie depictions in the mainstream.

Needless to say, Frank had a difficult time finding an American publisher and thus the book was published first in Paris. Les Américain was to finally be published in the U.S. a year later and was met with substantial criticism, not only for its subject matter but also what was then unorthodox photographic techniques such as blurred images and off-kilter perspectives.

The eighty-three photographs contained in the book, were culled from the twenty-seven thousand photos he took in Detroit, Miami, New Orleans, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and Butte, Montana, among other places.

While driving through Arkansas in 1955, Frank was stopped, detained and questioned by police for "suspicious activity", which included being in possession of several cameras.

Here is a sampling of what I think are the most evocative photographs from The Americans.

  " I don't call my photographs masterpieces."

 Hoboken, New Jersey

 Charlestown, South Carolina

 Butte, Montana

 Detroit, Michigan

Frank produced a few films, the most notorious of which is  Pull My Daisy, an adaptation from an act in Jack Kerouac's unfinished play, The Beat Generation. The title of the film is a poem by Allan Ginsberg,  who stars in and narrates the film. To my surprise, the American painter Alice Neel was also involved in the film.

Other Frank films include Sin of Jesus and Cocksucker Blues, a unreleased documentary film about The Rolling Stones; to this day mired in legal red tape.

Frank returned to photography after moving to Cape Breton Nova Scotia, his still work taking on a very personal and introspective vein after a couple of personal tragedies, including the death of his daughter in a 1974 plane crash.

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  1. This bloke could take photos. I love the top one and the one with the lady and kids in the car, in particular. Very documentary.

  2. They certainly are fine photos Gina

  3. one of us!
    A first 'blogger'

    Aloha from Honolulu

    Comfort Spiral

    > < } } ( ° >

  4. he's one I'm unfamiliar with, so thanks for turning me on to him. I really like Hoboken, N.J., but all of them really. Butte Montana...superb. happy day to you Gina.

  5. This is a very fascinating post and I'm grateful to you once again for the introduction to an artist I hadn't known about previously. My memories of childhood in 1950's Canada are also much grittier than the old postcards show. The first one reminds me of El Meyer's Grill in Toronto where my mother used to meet her workmates for breakfast before going to her job. Naturally, I didn't accompany her often but the place left an impression.

    The review of his Stones documentary was pretty wild.

  6. Some of those photos blow me away. Especially the "Merry Christmas" one and the one in Butte, MT.

  7. the photos are very thought provoking, it looks like he is capturing peoples secrets, the expressions we make when we think no one is watching, wish I could find a word for that , thanks for sharing them

  8. 'I don't call my photographs masterpieces' ... but they are, of course. I can see that they were just him being true to himself, but to us ... truly amazing work.
    Thank you for sharing in this post. I really enjoyed it and the photographs just take you to the place, in time, becuse he has captured the essence of the moment, just as description in a novel can, using words rather than images.

    My guest post is on The Oliva Reader blog (Spangle) this Saturday, if you want to read it.

  9. SB - sometimes it takes getting out there in the nooks and crannies to come up with something great as well as meaningful. Thanks!

    Jams - yes, they!

    Cloudia - a photo blogger, yet!

    Becky - thanks so much! The drive-in shot is a bit out of character what what I was trying to convey about Frank's social meaning but it is such a great photo and I love drive-ins! :-)

    Yogi - the diner Merry Christmas photo is my favorite of the bunch. Thanks as always for coming by.

    Susan - there are still a few diners left out here in Western Mass. They are great for nostalgic value but the food is generally terrible! Perhaps diner food was always bad! There is Toronto diner prominently featured in Margaret Atwood's novel The Blind Assassin. When I think of Toronto I think of Margaret and I think of you. :-)

    Jane - I'm not sure there is a word for it...candid, maybe? But you expressed what you meant very well. Welcome to the blog!

    Aguja - thanks for stopping in. I would love to read your contribution in The Olivia Reader!

    Peace and love to everyone!


  10. Margaret Atwood's Toronto is a place I well remember and the reason I couldn't live there any more. It was too tight a fit.

  11. Wow! Like several others who commented above, you have introduced me for the first time to this genius. Like real-life Norman Rockwell, but through a more honest lens. I'm partial to the first one...What a moment to capture -- the subject's expression is enough, but the juxtaposition with the XMas ad above her is priceless.

    Mom, as a separate note: Not sure you're aware of how true a way you have with words. You are quite the journalist, and it seems rather effortless. I'm proud that I can say this honestly. :) Love you too much.

    Thanks for sharing,

  12. Thanks, Ursula. I wish I could write more *creatively* but I am lazy and impatient with myself when it doesn't come easily.

    Thanks for the vote of confidence, Sweet One. Love you.

  13. He might not call his photographs masterpieces but I surely like them.

  14. Glad you enjoyed the photos, JM! I know I certainly enjoy *yours*. :-)

  15. Thanks for the introduction to this photographer. Amazing, gritty (as you say) stuff. Love it.

  16. Very interesting photos; little slices of life.

  17. Sandy and Judy - I'm glad you liked the post! Good to see you both.

  18. Hey Gina, I've missed your posts, but I understand when someone needs a bit of a blogging break. I went to a lecture by Taryn Simon yesterday - a contemporary photographer. She's probably most famous for her Innocents series (and those are my favorite photos, especially Larry Mayes). I left disappointed. She is way too cerebral for me. There is little emotion in her work, and therefore little emotional response from the viewer in my opinion. but the lecture hall was full, which surprised and pleased me. But I learned that I prefer photography that elicits an emotional response, like Mr. Frank's. Someone asked her where she gets her inspiration and her answer? Science journals. It all came together for me with that answer. She's talented, but I wouldn't want to purchase one of her photos. At any rate, just wanted to share my latest artist's date with you. Hope you're doing fine, and I look forward to when you're back posting again. All in your own good time! happy day to you my friend.

  19. Hi,

    Apologies for the off-topic comment, but I couldn't find a contact email for you.

    I recently put out an ebook of my writing, called The New Death and others. It's a collection of short pieces, mostly dark fantasy.

    I was wondering if you'd be interested in doing a review on your blog.

    If so, please email me: news@apolitical.info. Let me know what file format is easiest for you, and I'll send you a free copy.

    You can download a sample from the ebook's page on Smashwords:


    I'm also happy to do interviews, guest posts, or giveaways. Just let me know what you'd prefer.


  20. Becky - I just googled Taryn Simon and looked at some of her work and nothing took my breath away, either.

    I have an idea for a post coming up, based on an exhibition I saw of carved gourds, of all things! They were amazing!


  21. I dearly want to learn how to capture people on film. Seeing it done well moves me more than anything I currently do in nature photography.

  22. CR - I find people really hard to photograph. When I do, I prefer black and white. But it eludes me how to get that look of the old film photography. Those old gelatin prints are especially hard to beat; for any subject.

    If you start experimenting with photographing people, give me a few pointers!


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