In Memoriam: Robert Frank
ROBERT FRANK 1924-2019
“It’s nice how film survives. It’s not the way photographs are. It’s still alive. A photograph is just a memory.”
Swiss-born photographer and documentary filmmaker Robert Frank has passed away. He was 94. Renowned and celebrated as one of the defining artists of the 20th century, Frank leaves behind a legacy of work spanning across the mediums of still imagery, film and video. More importantly, however, he leaves behind inspiration for unveiling the truth.
Although his career spanned across 70 years, Frank’s timeless classic, The American’s, published in 1958, is certainly what gained him his notable recognition around the world. His photographs unapologetically subverted the misconceptions of the ‘American Dream’ of the 1950’s, exposing a deep sadness within wider cultural psyche of the time. Jack Kerouac, in his introduction for the book, marvels at the truth in Frank’s work, stating, “The humor, the sadness, the EVERYTHING-ness, and American-ness of the pictures!” With The American’s, Robert Frank would truly change the face of photography.
If the 1960’s were about change and cultural revolution, then the 50s were America’s supposed golden time in a post-war society. A time of national pride and the blossoming of the suburban image. An upper-class dream of abundance and peace. This was the message that was received across the globe. This was the message that Robert Frank disputed. ‘I had never travelled through the country,’ Frank said, ‘I saw something that was hidden and threatening. It is important to see what is invisible to others. I felt no tenderness.’ Through The American’s, a collection taken comprised of road trips across the states, Frank showed that while his pictures went against the perceived ideal that was America at the time, they were undoubtedly exposing it for what it truly was.
“I think I always had a cold eye. I always saw things realistically. But, it’s also easier to show the darkness than the joy of life. Life is not beautiful all the time.”
This drive to capture the truth in a moment remained a key aspect of Frank’s work throughout his career. From The American’s, to The Lines of My Hand, Frank made his mark by exposing what was often uncomfortable to some, and yet maintained a sense of beauty in the rough imperfections which he captured. His film career maintained this unwavering exposure of what was real. 1972’s, Cocksucker Blues, a documentary following The Rolling Stones as they toured America, remained unreleased due to its incriminating nature in baring the band’s activities for all to see. Frank remained fearless in his drive to document what he saw.
While Frank’s early work ignited a shift in photography of the 20th century, his message and ethos remains prominent today. If not even more so. In a 2011 interview with ‘American Suburb X’, when asked what he thought to be most important when taking photos, Frank replies: ‘You are free and you risk something by taking a photograph. […] You risk because this is maybe not the way people think one should photograph. So you go out on a more different road. There is a risk involved in that. And I think if an artist doesn’t take risks, then it’s not worth it.’ Frank’s vision echoed a need for risk in photography. A risk to capture a moment as he saw it in order to show others.
His legacy of uncovering the truth and his influence will remain timeless.