Robert Frank

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Robert Frank holding a pre-war Leica camera, 1954

Above all, life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference.

– Robert Frank

Robert Frank is a hugely influential film maker and photographer, best known for his seminal photo book, The Americans. One of his greatest loves was putting together handmade volumes of photographs. He enjoyed placing seemingly unrelated images together while creating new meanings and playing with repetition and contrast.

In 1955, Frank secured a Guggenheim grant and used it to travel in the United States for nine months. During the trip, he covered 10,000 miles, taking 28,000 shots and shooting 767 rolls of film. Increasingly, he had begun to see the US as a bleak and lonely place. He wasn’t comfortable with the fast pace of life or mass consumerism. He wanted to photograph feeling and emotion while creating an honest portrayal of what life was really like.

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© Robert Frank, The Americans
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© Robert Frank, The Americans
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© Robert Frank, 40 Fotos
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© Robert Frank, The Americans Contact Sheet
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© Robert Frank, The Americans
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© Robert Frank, The Americans

My photographs are not planned or composed in advance, and I do not anticipate that the onlooker will share my viewpoint. However, I feel that if my photograph leaves an image on his mind, something has been accomplished.

– Robert Frank

Back in New York in 1956, Frank worked on publishing The Americans. First, he selected the frames with the most promise from his contact sheets, then printed them, spreading them out on the floor or pinning them up on the wall. Photographs were grouped by theme (race, religion, politics or the media) and subject (cemeteries, jukeboxes and lunch counters) while he decided on the images to include. 

Frank created clever pairings, mirroring similar images on double page spreads. His starting point method of printing out and grouping photographs enabled him to see reoccurring themes in his work. He would also crop images, drawing directly onto his contact sheets with red grease pencil, and sometimes created vertical prints from horizontal negatives.

The placement of each photograph opposite a blank page seems to make them more powerful and haunting, while the pauses in between pages are meditative and emphasise meaning.

Photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans had captured America on film but he followed his gut despite treading old ground and in doing so, added his own unique spin.

The Americans is proof that even if a project isn’t original, you can still make it your own.

Recommended Reading

Robert Frank: The Americans

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Robert Frank’s The Americans first published in France in 1958 and in the United States in 1959. This book changed photography forever.

Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans

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Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans is a fascinating in-depth examination of the making of the photographs and the book’s construction. More expensive but contains a huge amount of information, including vintage contact sheets, work prints, and letters.

2 thoughts on “Robert Frank

  1. Hm, I’ve seen some exhibitions of Robert Frank (I always wonder how to pronounce his name with a swiss accent :-). Personally I like his later works much better than the works from 50ies and 60ies. But thats jsut me maybe…
    For me Frank is about photobooks and I like his rejection of “fine-art” prints.

    Liked by 1 person

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