Kafka once said, “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?” If there’s one photographer that can claim to have written such a book, it would be Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank, the photographer behind The Americans. The Americans shattered the illusion of America’s postwar idyll and offered in its place a bleak, almost hopeless, but deeply beautiful portrait of the era. It remains Frank’s signature work, the seminal photographic work on postwar America, as well as a work that redefined photographic style and form as we know it.
This past Monday, September 9th, 2019, we lost Robert Frank, and with him his knife-twisting, fly-on-the-wall photographic style. We lost a man who created one of the clearest portraits of American society, and developed the perfect style for it. Here are five photos, mostly pulled from his early work, that we think exemplify his style of photography and serve as a good introduction to his oeuvre.
Hoboken, New Jersey. 1955
Robert Frank is often described as having a “snapshot” style of photography. This is true on some level, but I find the term “snapshot” tends to imply a level of casualness that isn’t present in his images. Frank’s photography does have a candidness to it, but there’s a depth and intent to these images that places them a cut above most snapshots.
Hoboken, New Jersey from The Americans showcases this perfectly. None of the subjects in this photo, from the two people in the window, or the flag up top, are shown in their entirety, nor are they perfectly placed. They did not, by some divine or cosmic coincidence, form a classically informed photograph a la Cartier-Bresson. Frank’s genius instead lies in the ability to use the absence of traditional beauty to make his point.
Even though Frank’s subjects are not shown in full, they are presented as being fragmented, and subject to their claustrophobic surroundings. The shadows almost eat up the subject on the left, while the subject on the right is partially covered by the flag of The United States. The obscuring of the two subjects and their placement among and behind elements of their surroundings suggest an underlying anxiety and darkness in the frame, and in America itself. There isn’t much that’s traditionally beautiful about this photo, but then again, that might be the point.
Railroad Station, Memphis, 1955
Among other things, Robert Frank was adept at getting himself into the right situations, and for letting those situations speak for themselves. Take for example his photo of a shoe shiner in a railroad station in Memphis, Tennessee. The slight crookedness of the photo makes it look like we’ve stepped into this dingy restroom as Robert Frank, and that we ourselves are at least a little taken aback by what we’ve found. It’s a man getting his shoes shined by what looks to be the railroad station janitor, not a foot away from a whole row of urinals. His hand is partially holding his head up, as if he can’t believe this is actually happening here, in this railroad station restroom.
This is jarring image on its own, but when taken into the context of Frank’s book The Americans, it takes on a greater importance. One of the most common criticisms of The Americans when it came out was that it portrayed postwar America not as a glamorous, prosperous nation, but one filled with anxiety and limited opportunity. And if you ask me, getting your shoes shined next to some urinals at a railroad station is pretty inopportune, in America or elsewhere.
Downtown NYC, 1954
Pictures of skylines come with a certain set of clichés. They’re usually supposed to imply a sense of grandeur and inspire some sort of admiration for human achievement. Robert Frank’s photo of the Manhattan skyline is anything but, and speaks from a distinctly different point of view on the subject of a big city.
Frank’s sense of timing and technical brilliance shows in this photo, as he’s somehow managed to frame the biggest parts of the Manhattan skyline within the girders of the Manhattan Bridge, while also keeping the Brooklyn Bridge in frame. He also implies a sense of motion, the slower shutter speed blurring the girders, giving the effect of traveling in a car towards Manhattan.
Technique aside, this photo of the skyline is devoid of the usual clichés. The sky is gray and possibly stormy, the buildings seem to loom from behind the shadows of bridges, and we seem to be hurtling towards them whether we like it or not. Framed like this, even one of the biggest cities in the world doesn’t seem grand or glamorous at all – it seems terrifying. The fact that Frank used one of America’s most iconic skylines to prove this point is a small example of his genius.
Wellfleet, Massachusetts. 1962
The loss of America’s innocence (or at least the breaking of that illusion) remained a constant theme in Robert Frank’s work even after The Americans was published. This photo of kids playing on a beach with an American flag, one of them reading a paper with the shouting headline “MARILYN DEAD” might be a bit on the nose, but it does a very good job of portraying a loss of innocence, and what that means for children moving forward.
There isn’t a whole lot to say technically about this photo other than that it is exceptionally well framed. The girl running across the frame spreads the American flag across the sky, underneath which a boy reads that Marilyn Monroe has died. The boy has a confused, uncertain look on his face, amplified even more by the relative freedom of childhood surrounding him and the symbol of freedom flowing right above him. Frank is suggesting that these children may not be able to enjoy American idealism the same way previous generations did, and that they’ll have to figure out what that means on their own.
Robert Frank is mostly known for his work on Americans, but we’ll close this one out with a picture from across the pond. This is an older photo, taken back in 1951 in postwar London.
For all of Robert Frank’s eschewing of traditional photographic composition, I personally love this photo because of its resemblance to a somewhat traditionally beautiful painting, “Paris Street; Rainy Day” by Gustave Caillebotte, an 1877 painting which actually owed much to the then-recent development of photography itself. Coincidentally (or not – we may never know), both the painting and the photograph make good use of the same photographic technique – depth of field.
Caillebotte’s painting was renowned for its photographic realism, particularly in the way that its figures became more indistinct as they were placed closer to the horizon, a function of depth-of-field. Robert Frank utilizes this same technique in his photo. The figure in the foreground wearing the top hat (also eerily present in the Caillebotte painting) is distinct, in focus, and walking towards the camera, but most of the figures are walking away and eventually dissolving into a literal fog. Frank also angles his camera slightly sideways to give a slight vertigo to the image, as well as a sense of candidness, which adds realism and Frank’s visual signature.
Robert Frank will be sorely missed, but his influence and legacy lives on in nearly every single documentary-style photographer to come after him. Everybody’s taken a tip from his style at some point. If you’re interested in more of his work, I’ll list a few volumes to get you going.
Further reading –