NEW YORK (AP) — Robert Frank, a giant of 20th century photography whose seminal book “The Americans” captured singular, candid moments of the 1950s and helped free picture-taking from the boundaries of clean lighting and linear composition, has died. He was 94.
Frank died Monday in Inverness, on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, according to his second wife, June Leaf. The couple divided their time between Nova Scotia and New York.
The Swiss-born Frank influenced countless photographers and was likened to Alexis de Tocqueville for so vividly capturing the U.S. through the eyes of a foreigner. Besides his still photography, Frank was a prolific filmmaker, creating more than 30 movies and videos, including a cult favorite about the Beats and a graphic, censored documentary of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 tour.
Black-and-white Super 8 pictures by Frank were featured on the cover of the Stones’ “Exile On Main Street,” one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most acclaimed albums.
But he was best known for “The Americans,” a montage that countered the 1950s myth of bland prosperity and opened vast new possibilities for photography, shifting the paradigm from the portrait to the snapshot. As essential to post-war culture as a Chuck Berry song or a Beat poem, Frank’s shots featured jukeboxes, luncheonettes, cigars, big cars and endless highways, with an American flag often in the picture.
The 83 black-and-white photographs were culled from more than 28,000 images Frank took from 1955 to 1957 during a cross-country trip. He made the trip on a Guggenheim Fellowship secured for him by American photographer Walker Evans, whose stark pictures from the 1930s had helped define the country during the Great Depression.
“When you are an artist you are influenced by, you know, by the cars outside, by a painting, by literature, by Walker Evans,” Frank told Art in America magazine in 1996.
Frank was a shy, sad-eyed man who openly, and gruffly, preferred being the storyteller and not the subject. His photographs, deadpan and unconventionally cropped, have the feel of someone standing on the outside, intently looking on.
“The more distressing new quality in Frank’s pictures was their equivocating indirection, their reluctance to state clearly and simply either their subject or their moral,” John Szarkowski, a former head of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography collection, wrote in 1989.
Considered by many as one of the most important books of photography published since World War II, “The Americans” was not initially well received. Popular Photography could have been mistaken for the early opponents of Impressionist painting when it described the images as “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures.”