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Robert Frank Revealed the Truth of Postwar America

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Robert Frank kicked documentary photography into the present with a loud clang. In place of the detached formalism of Walker Evans and the poetic lyricism of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Andre Kertesz, he brought a moody, cool intensity that stamped his pictures with a readily identifiable hallmark. Using a 35-millimeter Leica, he could compose images as elegantly framed as if he’d set up a tripod, or as blurry and off-center as an amateur snapshot. He took whatever means he needed to express a vision that was alternately empathetic and obstreperous, as contradictory as the man himself.

Before Mr. Frank, documentary photographers didn’t necessarily attempt to be objective — like Dorothea Lange or Russell Lee, they were often advancing a political agenda. But when the Swiss-born Mr. Frank, supported by a Guggenheim fellowship, took the road trips across the United States in 1955 and 1956 that resulted in his groundbreaking book, “The Americans,” he wasn’t so much depicting his newly adopted country as he was recording his reactions to it. This personally expressive style of documentary photography was something new.

Appearing during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism and foreshadowing the rise of the New Journalism, Mr. Frank’s approach was in sympathy with the ethos of the age, valuing emotional forthrightness and personal engagement as artistic virtues. It was his attitude from the outset. In 1946, when he was in his early 20s and still living in Zurich, where he was born, he put together a handmade book, “40 Fotos,” which included two zoo pictures of caged animals snarling in impotent fury at their confinement.

It was his way of saying how he felt about his own living situation in the stodgy, convention-bound land of his birth. He arrived in New York on March 14, 1947. He had escaped from his prison. New York would remain his home, at least for part of the year, for the rest of his life. He died Monday at 94.

Rigorously unsentimental in his attitude to the world around him, Mr. Frank deviated from form in 1950, taking what was arguably his most romantic picture. He had his reasons. He was in love. The year before he had met artist Mary Lockspeiser, who became his first wife. In “Tulip/Paris,” he photographed a young man who is holding behind his back a tulip — presumably intended for the woman standing in the background. An old man, at the other end of life’s arc, approaches the viewer. It is a classic romantic Paris street photograph. The knowledge that Mr. Frank had gotten a friend to pose (much as Bill Brandt did in his “candid” photographs a decade before) does nothing to diminish its charm.

A later picture made in the same city, “Couple/Paris,” 1952, is also lovestruck. The nighttime shot epitomizes the ability of an artist with a fast camera to capture the fleeting nature of emotion — in this case, pure exhilaration. The woman grins gleefully. The sharpness of the steering wheel and chassis contrast with the blur of the man’s ecstatic face and the highlights on the surrounding darkness, heightening the dizzy-making sensation.

Before he landed on “The Americans” as a means of presenting his photographs, Mr. Frank tried unsuccessfully to make a living by packaging them to suit the demands of picture magazines, particularly Life. One of his projects, a photo-essay called “People You Don’t See,” chronicled the daily lives of his neighbors on East 11th Street. He entered it in a Life contest for young photographers. He won second prize, which carried the substantial stipend of $1,250. The best picture in the essay portrayed a Mr. and Mr. Feiertag, taking their car out of the garage. Garry Winogrand’s “Park Avenue, New York, 1959,” bears an uncanny resemblance to it. Of all the great street photographers who came of age in the ’60s, Winogrand was most directly influenced by Mr. Frank.

Mr. Frank never succeeded as a Life photographer. He embedded with a Welsh miner’s family to produce a great series of pictures that the magazine never ran. His photographs were too dark for Henry Luce’s magazine: black in mood, and very often, so subtly graduated in grays and blacks that they were hard to reproduce. Mr. Frank chafed like a bridled horse at conforming to a preordained narrative — as he phrased it, “those goddamned stories with a beginning and an end.”

When first published in France in 1958 as “Les Américains,” Mr. Frank’s pictures were accompanied by texts by French writers, often critical of America. That format placed the images in the subordinate illustrational role that he decried. Reappearing the next year in the United States as “The Americans,” the photographs stood on their own, open-ended.

Mr. Frank carefully sequenced them to form a visual epic poem, with internal pacing and rhymes. One of the most mordant juxtapositions was between “Covered Car — Long Beach, California,” circa 1955/1956, a formal composition that Walker Evans might have taken, of a big sedan protected by a shiny sheet beneath two palm trees in crepuscular light; and “Car accident — U.S. 66, between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona,” 1955, a grainy shot that could have been cut from a newspaper, of four people standing by a body covered with a tarp as a powdery snow falls.

Mr. Frank’s discovery of America was partly a journey of disillusionment. “Fourth of July — Jay, New York,” 1954, is one of the pictures that led his critics to criticize “The Americans” as anti-American. The threadbare flag and littered lawn don’t measure up to the story Americans told about themselves and their heritage. Most critics despised the book when it came out.

Cutting deeper still is “Trolley — New Orleans,” 1955. Using the ready-made partitions of the window supports, Mr. Frank displayed the racial divisions that beset his adopted country. The haughty face of the white woman and the privileged look of the two children contrast poignantly with the weary expression of the African-American man consigned to the back of the streetcar. Adding to the formal élan of this great photograph, the reflections on the upper windows provide a framed series of abstract beauty.

Less than a decade after the publication of “The Americans,” the Museum of Modern Art presented a now-renowned three-artist survey, “New Documents,” in which the director of photography, John Szarkowski, focused on three artists who used the documentary form “to explore their own experience and their own life and not to persuade somebody else what to do or what to work for,” as he told me in a 2003 interview.

Along with Winogrand, he included Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander. By that time, Mr. Frank was established as a master. All of his successors were advancing a boundary line that he had established in “The Americans.” In one obvious instance, the series of pictures that Friedlander took in the early ’60s of image-bearing television sets in a room had been presaged by Frank’s photograph, “Restaurant — U.S. 1 leaving Columbia, South Carolina,” 1955.

But by the time of “New Documents,” Mr. Frank was essentially finished with straight photography. Although he took occasional magazine reporting assignments, he devoted much of the rest of his long professional life to making movies and to crafting photo composites and text-and-image pieces. He was a restless, impossible-to-satisfy man. He left to others the task of cultivating the field he had plowed.



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