Remembering Influential Documentary Photographer Robert Frank

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

This article is more than 3 years old.
Photographer Robert Frank holds a camera in 1954. His photo book, The Americans, changed the way people saw photography and the way they saw the U.S. Frank died on Monday at the age of 94. (Fred Stein Archive/Getty Images)

Influential photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank has died at the age of 94. He died of natural causes on Monday night in Nova Scotia, Canada. His death was confirmed by his longtime friend and gallerist Peter MacGill.

He was best known for his 1959 book The Americans, a collection of black-and-white photographs he took while road-tripping across the country starting in 1955. Frank's images were dark, grainy and free from nostalgia; they showed a country at odds with the optimistic views of prosperity that characterized so much American photography at the time.

His Leica camera captured gay men in New York, factory workers in Detroit and a segregated trolley in New Orleans — sour and defiant white faces in front and the anguished face of a black man in back.

Trolley – New Orleans, 1955.
Trolley – New Orleans, 1955. (Robert Frank/National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Maria and Lee Friedlander)

The book was savaged — mainstream critics called Frank sloppy and joyless. And Frank remembered the slights.

"The Museum of Modern Art wouldn't even sell the book," he told NPR for a story in 1994. "I mean, certain things, one doesn't forget so easy. But the younger people caught on."


Eventually, the photographs in The Americans became canon, inspiring legions. Photographer Joel Meyerowitz remembered watching Frank at work early on.

"And it was such an unbelievable and powerful experience watching him twisting, turning, bobbing, weaving," Meyerowitz said in 1994. "And every time I heard his Leica go 'click,' I would see the moment freeze in front of Robert."

Parade – Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955.
Parade – Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955. (Robert Frank/National Gallery of Art, Washington, Robert Frank Collection, Robert B. Menschel Fund)

Born in Switzerland in 1924, Frank came to the United States in 1947. Even then, his pictures were seen as too rough, spontaneous, personal. He was turned down by the respected photo agency Magnum.

But Frank knew what he wanted to do and he had the training to back up his vision, as the late poet Allen Ginsburg pointed out in 1994.

"Robert has this fantastic education since he was 17 as an apprentice to an industrial photographer," Ginsburg said. "So he knows the chemicals of it. He knows how to light a factory with magnesium flares. So he's got fantastic discipline which he applies to being able to be spontaneous."

Restaurant – U.S. 1 leaving Columbia, South Carolina, 1955.
Restaurant – U.S. 1 leaving Columbia, South Carolina, 1955. (Robert Frank/National Gallery of Art, Washington, Robert Frank Collection, The Robert and Anne Bass Fund)

Ginsburg was a friend and photography student of Frank. He also starred in Frank's first film, 1959's Pull My Daisy. It was based on part of an unproduced play by Jack Kerouac and featured the author as narrator.

Pull My Daisy, and the other experimental, autobiographical films Robert Frank made, were his reaction to a restlessness he felt around still photography.

"In still photography, you have to come up with one good picture, maybe two or three," he told NPR in 1988. "But that's only three frames. There's no rhythm. Still photography isn't music. Film is really, in a way, based on a rhythm, like music."

Yet Frank's films shared a lot with his photographs. They were personal; they evoked emotions as much as they told stories. They're like home movies, and he made more than 20 of them before returning to photography. By then, he was a legend, acknowledged as an inspiration by such noted artists as Ed Ruscha, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand.

What comes through in all of Frank's work is his ability to catch a moment. And that came from truly looking.

"Like a boxer trains for a fight, a photographer, by walking the streets, and watching, and taking pictures, and coming home, and going out the next day — same thing again, taking pictures," Frank said in 2009. "It doesn't matter how many he takes, or if he takes any at all. It gets you prepared to know what you should take pictures of."

"New York City, 7 Bleecker Street," 1993.
"New York City, 7 Bleecker Street," 1993. (Robert Frank/National Gallery of Art, Washington, Robert Frank Collection)

In one 1985 video called "Home Improvements," he films his own reflection through a glass door. He seems to capture how he saw his work in the voiceover narration.

"I'm always looking outside trying to look inside," Frank says. "Trying to tell something that's true. But maybe nothing is really true. Except what's out there, and what's out there is always different."

Copyright 2019 NPR.