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Robert Frank

(b. 1924)


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(1924– ).

Photographer and filmmaker. His controversial 1959 book The Americans crystallized an alienated sensibility and set the pace for a generation of photographers. With its introduction by Jack Kerouac, it probably exerted more influence than any other photographic book of its era, although many abhorred its seemingly casual style and gritty content. The volume's contemporary iconography of disaffection and pessimism gave the nation an unsettling look at postwar American society. It also revealed the power of a subjective, uncondescending, and unaestheticized approach to unexceptional subjects. The book first appeared in France, as Les Américains (1958), after publishers in the United States rejected it. Frank was born in Zurich, where he learned the rudiments of photography and became acquainted with the medium's modernist achievements. In Paris he achieved success as a fashion photographer before coming to the United States in 1947. In New York he continued fashion and freelance work, while also photographing the streets with a small, 35 mm camera. Until 1953 he spent much time abroad, traveling in South America and Europe. In 1955 and 1956 his mature vision coalesced while he traveled the country on Guggenheim grants. He exposed about eight hundred rolls of film, from which he selected the eighty-three images of The Americans. What Frank found was neither picturesque nor inspiring, but rather, commercialized, spiritually empty, and inherently inexpressive. The anxious and lonely individuals he observed undercut the period's bedrock beliefs about the virtues of religion and democracy. However, the freshly seen content of Frank's photographs could also accommodate lyricism, irony, and low-key astonishment. Although powerfully original, Frank's images nevertheless resonated with intellectual and cultural currents of the 1950s. Walker Evans, who offered personal encouragement, provided the most important photographic model. Frank expanded on Evans's fondness for popular culture and advertising, his deadpan, nonjudgmental attitude, and his taste for absurdity. Other observers of modern life, such as André Kertész and German-born British photographer Bill Brandt, also influenced Frank's direction. In addition, the independent spirit of the abstract expressionist painters attracted his notice, as did their dedication to art and their rhetoric of personal authenticity.

In 1959 Frank made his first film, the prize-winning Pull My Daisy. Co-directed with Alfred Leslie and narrated by Kerouac, this improvisatory lark exemplified the beat generation's antibourgeois temperament. Other participants included Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Alice Neel, and Larry Rivers. During the following decade Frank devoted most of his time to filmmaking. Around the time he moved to the tiny community of Mabou, Nova Scotia, in 1970, he began to work again with still photography. In 1972 he published a retrospective survey of his work, The Lines of My Hand. He has continued since then to produce individual photographs, including a 1991 documentary series shot in Beirut. However, in general more involved with relationships between images and the interaction of pictures with words, he has crafted complex art works comprising two or more photographs, often in combination with lettering or painting. He also makes videos. All of this work explores the inner self, often invoking themes of mourning (particularly in relation to the deaths of two children), the passage of time, and the ambiguities of experience.

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Subjects: Art.


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