Robert Frank has passed away and I would be remiss if I didn’t say a few words. Although he wasn’t just a photographer, he was also a filmmaker, it was his 1958 book “The Americans” that he is best known for. It is the Bible for street photography. Every street photographer who is asked about their influencers will always name Frank and “The Americans”. It changed how we looked at America and it changed how we photographed the world. I would flatly state that it was the most influential photography book of the 20th century and maybe of all time.
I will not quote a biography of Robert Frank, go to Wikipedia, I wish to focus on the mans work. The reason that I think that his work connects with so many people is that his point of view was the antithesis of what the image of America is to most people. The land of opportunity where the shy is the limit. Just work hard young man and you will get ahead. This is not the land that Frank sees in this book. He shows life is a struggle. This is seen the most in the images of the working people. The assembly line workers. A young girl operating an elevator. A cafeteria waitress. Life can beat you down and it is shown in these people’s expressions and body language. The people that are of the upper class are often shown with lower class people in the background who appear to be wishing that they could have a life that they will never attain.
Most of the images in the book are dark and moody. This affects the viewers take on the images. The land of milk and honey is literally shown in a different light. This is another aspect of the book that goes against the naturally perceived image of America. Frank has a feeling that things are not what they seem to be, and he is right. He shows us the inequality of our land 60 years before it became the leading issue of the day. He shows us that inequality has always been here it is just that we either weren’t looking for it or that we refused to see what is really going on in the great land of opportunity.
This vision is what makes “The Americans” such a great book. It forces you to look at the world and also to take a look at yourself. What is your place in this world. Are you making it a better place or are you a part of the machinery. Or can the world even be improved. Is this the way that it is meant to function. All of these thoughts coming from a simple photography book. And this is exactly what makes this book so great. The photographers intent is so clear. The images read like a novel. They talk to you about the condition of your fellow travelers and they beg of you to think about what can be done.
Henri Cartier-Bresson is the acknowledged father of street photography and rightly so. His work is brilliant. Many street practitioners say they want to be like him. But they should be more like Robert Frank. Have a viewpoint and express this in you images. Don’t just go for greatest hits with an instagram style. Those images are fleeting and are soon forgotten. Have passion for the world. Try to make a difference. That is what Robert Frank is saying.
If you don’t have a copy of Robert Frank’s “The Americans” go buy one now. It is one book you should own. The biography on the right above is a good read on his life. There was more to the man than this one book. The book in the center is a more scholarly collection of essays about “The Americans” and its place in our world. It is for anyone who takes their photography seriously and wants to understand how really important that Franks book is. All of the images from “The Americans” are presented as well as proof sheets and writings from Frank about the making of the book.