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"Frank killed the grandfather of photography"

Robert Frank was born in Switzerland to a wealthy Jewish family. As a young man he turned to photography to avoid integration in the family business. He worked for graphic designers and in 1946 created his first handmade book, 40 Fotos. The next year he emigrated to the United States and became a fashion photographer in New York City. After several jaunts to South America and Europe he returned to the United States in 1950.

Frank met Walker Evans who encouraged him to apply for a Guggenheim grant to photograph American society. In 1955, he embarked on a road trip across the United States during which he took 28,000 photos. Frank's photographic attitude and style were quite different from anything seen before. His images resonated with the literary style of the Beats, Ginsberg, Burroughs and Kerouac who were acquaintances. Frank's vision was not that of an American, but that of an immigrant. It was a new look at America, seen through European eyes, with European values.

Finally in 1958, after many refusals by American publishers, Robert Frank's book, Les AméricainsAm?ricains, was published in Paris by Robert Delpire. It contained 83 images presented successively on right-hand pages. A year later, Grove Press in the United States mustered the courage to publish the book as The Americans. It was initially received with substantial criticism and first sales of the book were poor. His images were derided as "meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness." But as time passed, more enlightened individuals began to have some comprehension of the work. The Americans was eventually recognized as a seminal work in the history American photography.

Jno Cook wrote about The Americans in Exposure magazine: "Most striking about The Americans is the amalgam of public and private which in combination raises the effectiveness of both. The Americans is overtly public in subject matter, yet deeply infused with personal feelings -- recognizable even in the 1950s as a tone of disapproving sadness which had never before been allowed in photojournalism." "What first struck the about The Americans was the refusal of any of the images to adhere to recognizable stereotypes. None of them had a look of familiarity about them. [ ] What we see in each new photograph is what we recognize as having been seen before in all other photographs. But the images of The Americans were not familiar, and at the same time they were all too familiar. For most readers they presented a surrealist's view on life: absurd, ambiguous, and inconclusive."

Frank said of his photography: "I am always looking outside, trying to look inside. Trying to say something that's true. But maybe nothing is really true. Except what's out there. And what's out there is always changing." "I love to watch the most banal things, things that move."

Cook continues, "Many of the pictures - even those taken from a stable, fixed spot - look like they were taken on the move. America was becoming a place to be seen from a car, a country that could be seen without stopping. In Frank's pictures, it is as if the camera only just succeeded in stopping time."

Robert Frank had quite a different sense of time. Whereas Cartier-Bresson and his followers sought to capture the significative point of an action, Frank captured something about what happens in between. Maybe what Frank saw was like"The twilight [that] is the crack between the worlds", as Don Juan said to Carlos Castaneda.

Jno Cook says: "Frank brought to a close photography's quest for the decisive moment -- the ever more decisive moment which had been defined in terms of the perishable and publishable moment which was easily recognized and quickly read by the public. In The Americans, America stood still, frozen into a frightful pose between moments." "One soon gets the feeling that Frank's sense of timing is based on catching a more general and unlikely gesture. In effect, a stance rather than a gesture is caught."

Time, for Frank, also went beyond the individual image frame. According to Cook, "The book went far beyond diary and document, that in rejecting the mannered and predictable style of photojournalism of the period. Frank produced a radical critique of photography itself. Radical, because it returned photography to the vernacular of vision..." "The Americans uses a form completely different from the narrative, the illustrative, even from the diaristic and album type of photographic literature, and certainly from the ‘photo essay'."

Frank presented the pictures in his book within a particular structure akin to cinematic sequencing. Images flow as one ‘take' flows to the next in a film. Turning pages acts like a ‘wipe' as a screen. Then, he appears to use thematic ‘jump cuts' to confront the viewer. This gives the individual images even more ‘edge' than simply expressed by their content.

Sarah Greenough and Philip Brookman state in their book Moving Out: "Frank's understanding of the potential of a tightly orchestrated sequence of photographs to collapse or even to subvert time, to present multiple and layered meanings, to a listed numerous and often conflicting emotional responses, and to recreate experience further than merely describe it has resulted in some of the most passionate and universal expressions the medium has ever produced. Frank has used for the photographic sequence as a means to reveal the dense mysteries of everyday reality with a rare intensity and vision that few other photographers have been able to equal."

Walker Evans' book American Photographs might have given some hints to the kind of book structure that was to come, but what Frank accomplished in The Americans was certainly original. The viewer was obligated to consider the images in relation to the global structure and sequencing of the book. Since its publication other photographers have emulated, in their own manner, Frank's cinematographic structural attitude. Ralph Gibson's trilogy The Somnambulist, Deja-Vu, and Days at Sea are cited as examples.

Just what had Frank accomplished with The Americans? First, he established a new way of looking at life, photographic seeing that springs from somewhere in the subconscious of the individual. Second, he demonstrated a new approach and style concerning time and the photographic image. Third, he demolished the sacrosanctity of the individual image by forcing the viewer to consider the individual image within a cinematographic structure where the parts are greater than the whole. Frank confirmed this in the content, style and structure of his book Lines of My Hand that is undeniably cinematographic.

Subsequently and quite naturally, Frank moved on to produce films "where (as he said) there are no decisive moments, and where one doesn't turn away after the click."

Yes, Robert Frank did slay the dragon! "Frank killed the grandfather of photography." A new paradigm was born.

Cedric Pearson
April 2009
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