Remembering Robert Frank (1924-2019)

September 11, 2019

Robert Frank died on September 9 at the ripe old age of 94, and his seminal book remains a big influence on, and inspiration to, generations of street and documentary photographers. Indeed, Joel Meyerowitz was so taken with the book after reading it as a young man, he quit his job at an advertising agency. “[The pictures] all seemed to have drama to them. It was just thrilling to me to see that you could stop life with a camera.”

While his signature work involved shooting Americans, Frank himself arrived in the country as an outsider. He was born in Switzerland in 1924 and emigrated to the US in 1947, landing a job as a fashion photographer at Harper’s Bazaar. Frank’s big break as a documentary photographer came in the mid-50s, when he won Guggenheim Fellowships which allowed him to fund his two-year photographic road trip. Over 28,000 images were taken for The Americans, and he captured many aspects of a society, which, while enjoying the fruits of the postwar consumer boom, was also riven with inequality.

Photograph by © Robert Frank / Courtesy Pace/MacGill

Following the publication of The Americans, Frank moved into more experimental film making but published a second, more autobiographical photography book, The Lines of My Hand, in 1972. Awards and plaudits followed but Frank’s family life was, sadly, more traumatic. His daughter died in a plane crash in 1971, while his schizophrenic son Pablo died in 1994.

Photograph by © Robert Frank / Courtesy Pace/MacGill

Although a shy public speaker, Frank continued to give talks and attend photographic events until the years immediately before his death. The final word goes on Robert Frank goes to Jack Kerouac, the ultimate road tripper, who wrote an appropriately loose and jazzy introduction to The Americans. “To Robert Frank I now give this message: you got eyes.”

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