Being Frank: Eyes on America

A DocDays screening at Curzon Soho and an exhibition at Hamilton’s gallery in Mayfair both celebrate the work of legendary photographer Robert Frank.

This year, Robert Frank’s 'The Americans' celebrates its 60th anniversary. It was first published in France in 1958 and then in the US in 1959. It remains a landmark work in documentary photography, whose influence has waned little. It was also a controversial body of work that stood in contrast to a key movement that celebrated humanism in a post war world.

Robert Frank and Mary Frank, from Gerald Fox's  Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank

Robert Frank and Mary Frank, from Gerald Fox's Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank

In January 1955, New York’s Museum of Modern Art opened ‘The Family of Man’. Curated by noted photographer, and MoMA’s Director Photography, Edward Steichen, it was intended as a contrast to the bleak images of conflict and suffering that had come out of the Second World War.

The Family of Man

Featuring some of the finest photographers of the day, it focused on the human experience, from birth to death. By the end of its world tour, some eight years later, it had been seen by over nine million people.

Around the same time, Robert Frank received a Guggenheim Fellowship (his application was supported by another photography legend, Walker Evans) to travel across the US and record life as he saw it. Though the essence of ‘The Family of Man’ and ‘The Americans’ was essentially the same – a desire to document contemporary life – the results were markedly different.

At the start of his journey, Frank was little known outside photographic circles. Steichen had included him in the 1950 exhibition ’50 American Photographers’, which had seen his stock rise.

Having experienced Nazi oppression in Europe and travelled through South America for publications such as Harper’s Bazaar in the late 1940s, Frank initially saw America as a beacon of democracy. But by the early 1950s, his opinion began to change. He witnessed an obsession with money and rapid increase of consumerism. Racism was rife. And he was to experience antisemitism first hand, courtesy of an encounter with a bigoted sheriff in a small Arkansas town.

Looking In

Frank spent two years travelling around the majority of US states, often with his family. From the 28,000 shots he took, 83 were chosen for the book. (Contact sheets featuring a selection of similar images, along with those that almost made the book, can be found in the catalogue that accompanied the 2009 exhibition, ‘Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans’.)

Opening with ‘Hoboken, New Jersey’, a shot of two neighbouring apartments, with one window obscured by a tired-looking American flag, the images in ‘The Americans’ were ordered to create a relationship between each shot.

We see black children playing in a car, a white audience at a rodeo, a Willy Stark-like politician rallying from a building ledge, a lone lift operator servicing the rich, the haves and have nots of Hollywood, bikers, couples, workers and the dead.

One of the most famous images, which graces the cover of the 2009 Steidl imprint is a passing shot of a tram in New Orleans. It was taken just before Rosa Parks made her historic stand against segregation and in the faces of the tram’s occupants Frank successfully conveyed the disparity between races in America. The image was one of the reasons why the book was so controversial on its initial publication in the US.

The Americans

Frank, who was born in Switzerland and made a US citizen in 1963, was accused of being un-American. But to many, all he was doing was shining a mirror up to a deeply fractured society.

Pull My Daisy

Shortly after completing the book, Frank encountered the Beat novelist Jack Kerouac on a New York street. Kerouac’s response to the images was immediate and visceral. In his introduction to the book he wrote, “After seeing these pictures you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin.” In his conclusion, he addresses the photographer directly: “To Robert Frank I now give this message: you got eyes”.

Their collaboration would not end there. By 1959, Frank had all but given up photography, instead expressing an interest in film. Pull My Daisy (1959) featured impromptu narration by Kerouac and starred, amongst others, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso.

Frank’s subsequent career, along with his early life and the making of ‘The Americans’ is covered in Gerald Fox’s fascinating Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank (2005). An irascible artist, who isn’t the easiest interviewee, Frank nevertheless proves to be a fascinating guide as Fox explores his career. Rather than separate his work into periods or disciplines, Fox identifies Frank’s career as one long journey in search of a platform that can best communicate his preoccupations.

Robert Frank, from Gerald Fox's  Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank

Robert Frank, from Gerald Fox's Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank

It touches on Frank’s work prior to ‘The Americans’, a selection of which appears at Hamiltons gallery in Mayfair. There are examples of his photography from France in the late 1940s, along with later shots of bowler and top-hatted businessmen in the City of London. There are also images of his time in the Welsh valleys. He stayed with one miner in order to accurately and intimately capture life in the pits – he travelled down into the mines – and the close-knit communities whose existence were dependent upon them. It’s his ability to capture everyday life with such power, whilst teasing out larger societal issues, that made Frank such a great photographer. And it’s why ‘The Americans’ remains a landmark work in the history of photography.

Robert Frank, from Gerald Fox's  Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank

Robert Frank, from Gerald Fox's Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank

Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank is showing a Curzon Soho on Wed 2 May, followed by a Q&A with director Gerald Fox.

Robert Frank is showing at Hamilton’s gallery until 11 May

 ‘The Short Story of Photography’ by Ian Haydn Smith is published on 7 May