Robert Frank, whose gritty photography along the roadways, streets and landscapes of America influenced generations of photographers, died at age 94 this week, according to several media outlets.
Frank remained best-known for his 1958 book, “The Americans,” that contained one image along Route 66 in Arizona.
Frank made a big impact on other photographers who preferred realism and authenticity. That included Pulitzer Prize-winning Edward Keating, whose 2018 book, “Main Street: The Lost Dream of Route 66,” was profoundly influenced by Frank and even received some advice from him.
Frank also influenced former Oklahoma City resident Ed Ruscha, whose photography book “Twentysix Gasoline Stations” — with several images on Route 66 — also made an impact on pop art.
Frank emigrated from Switzerland to New York City as a 23-year-old after being frustrated by what he perceived as artistic constrictions in his native land.
The New York Times wrote in Frank’s obituary about the 1958 book “The Americans,” a collection of 83 photographs from more than 20,000 he snapped on several road trips across the United States:
“The Americans” challenged the presiding midcentury formula for photojournalism, defined by sharp, well-lighted, classically composed pictures, whether of the battlefront, the homespun American heartland or movie stars at leisure. Mr. Frank’s photographs — of lone individuals, teenage couples, groups at funerals and odd spoors of cultural life — were cinematic, immediate, off-kilter and grainy, like early television transmissions of the period. They would secure his place in photography’s pantheon. The cultural critic Janet Malcolm called him the “Manet of the new photography.”
But recognition was by no means immediate. The pictures were initially considered warped, smudgy, bitter. Popular Photography magazine complained about their “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons, and general sloppiness.” Mr. Frank, the magazine said, was “a joyless man who hates the country of his adoption.”
Mr. Frank had come to detest the American drive for conformity, and the book was thought to be an indictment of American society, stripping away the picture-perfect vision of the country and its veneer of breezy optimism put forward in magazines and movies and on television. Yet at the core of his social criticism was a romantic idea about finding and honoring what was true and good about the United States.
One of the images that made it into the book was “Car accident: U.S. 66 between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona, 1956.” The image, of four people gazing down at a dead body covered in a blanket by the roadside, can be seen at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art website here.
Frank talked to the museum about that image and others in “The Americans.”
Popular culture eventually came around to Frank’s vision. First-edition copies of “The Americans” now fetch thousands of dollars. For the budget-minded, reprints of the book are available and inexpensive.
(Screen-capture image from a video of Robert Frank in 2015)