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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