Brow Beat

The Man Who Saw America

Robert Frank changed photography—and the way a country viewed itself.

Robert Frank's Trolley—New Orleans, 1955
Trolley—New Orleans, 1955.
© Robert Frank from The Americans, courtesy Pace/MacGill

Robert Frank, the most influential photographer of the past half-century, died on Monday at the age of 94. In the summer of 1955, Frank, then a 30-year-old Jewish Swiss émigré, set out on a yearlong road trip across America, with a handheld Leica camera and a Guggenheim Fellowship, “to see,” as he put it, “what is invisible to others.”

The result, The Americans, published by Grove Press in 1959, was unlike any photo book ever seen—83 black-and-white snapshots, carefully selected from 27,000 exposures that he snapped along that journey. He took pictures of diners, drive-ins, jukeboxes, gas stations, and factory lines, shooting along the peripheries, on the go, capturing an essence of the country—its mix of vibrant tempo and aching loneliness—that only an outsider could tap into.

Jack Kerouac, who saw these photos as a resonant companion to his recent hit novel, On the Road, wrote, in the book’s introduction, “Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand, he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.”

Frank, who hadn’t previously explored America beyond a few square miles of Manhattan, was appalled most of all by the blithe segregation he witnessed in the Deep South, and much of The Americans documents its sorrows and absurdities, just before the civil rights movement gained national traction. Most poignant is a photo of a black nanny or nurse cradling an ivory-white baby—entrusted with caring for someone’s precious child but barred from enjoying equal freedoms after hours. The baby’s expression is haunting but ambiguous. Should we read it as an innocent blank slate, on which a different future might be sketched—or as a portrait of chilling indifference, passed down through the genes and doomed to persist?

Robert Frank's Charleston, South Carolina, 1955.
Charleston, South Carolina, 1955.
© Robert Frank from The Americans, courtesy Pace/MacGill

The iconic Frank photo—he put it on the book’s cover, though, like most of his pictures, it was snapped by chance, as the subject zipped by—shows a New Orleans trolley, looking like a prison, its passengers separated by the bars between each open window. At the front of the trolley, a white woman glares with suspicion at Frank’s camera—at us. Behind her, two children stare with curiosity. Behind them, a black man looks out with a desperate expression, though behind him a black woman smiles at something off to the side, maybe at her own thoughts. Beneath this tableau, the trolley’s dark, shiny chassis reflects blobs of light and shadow, like a metallic abstract painting. Above it, mirrored panels reflect blurs of people and objects on the sidewalk, like a twisted collage.

Frank was also struck by the hollowness of America’s political rituals. He titled the book’s first photo Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey, but it doesn’t show a parade. Instead, it’s a close-up of a building that presumably overlooks a parade. We see two windows, separated by a section of brick wall, and above them a flapping American flag, though it’s cut off at the top. Two women look out from behind the windows, but we barely see their faces: One is partly covered by a shade, the other by the flag. The next photo, titled City Fathers—Hoboken, New Jersey, shows a row of tuxedoed men on a viewing stand, probably looking out at the same parade, but this title too is ironic: A more thuggish, listless, and un-civic looking bunch would be hard to imagine.

Robert Frank's Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955.
Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955.
© Robert Frank from The Americans, courtesy Pace/MacGill

The book was panned by critics when it came out. The editors of Popular Photography were so outraged that they published three reviews, all unfavorable. One slammed the book as “an attack on the United States,” an “intense personal vision marred by spite, bitterness, and narrow prejudices.” Another slammed Frank’s technique—the pictures’ “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness.”

Just 1,100 copies were sold. After one year, the book went out of print.

But the work lingered. In 1961, the Art Institute of Chicago exhibited Frank’s work. The next year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York did the same. Then, in 1968, the year of rebellion on campuses and rioting in the streets, Aperture published a new edition, and it was acclaimed as a revelation, a work of prophecy. The Village Voice called it “a quietly ticking time bomb which has yet to be defused.”

Over the next decade and beyond, Frank’s work inspired a generation of street photographers—Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz, Cindy Sherman, and others. Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen have both said they leafed through The Americans for images and ideas while writing their songs.

In 2008, looking forward to the book’s 50th anniversary, the National Gallery of Art in D.C. mounted an exhibition of the original photos (which traveled on to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and elsewhere), issued a massive collection of scholarly essays about Frank’s work, and commissioned German publisher Steidl to print a new, pristine edition of The Americans.

Cultural context was everything. Just as Frank set out on his road trip in 1955, a photo exhibition called The Family of Man opened at the Museum of Modern Art, a gargantuan show consisting of 503 pictures taken by 273 photographers in 68 countries—an upbeat visual saga of birth, life, love, labor, and death, intended, in the words of its curator, Edward Steichen, to serve as “a mirror of the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world.” By the time The Americans was published, Steichen’s show had traveled to 40 countries, been seen by 9 million people, and come to be regarded as the model of what photographic art should look like and how it should make viewers feel.

The Americans was rubbing raw against this model, not only in its sociopolitical outlook but also in its aesthetic style.

Frank came to the United States from Zurich in 1947, at the age of 22. Already an accomplished photographer, he found work at the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar but soon left to take pictures on his own. In 1953, he met Walker Evans, the most celebrated photographer of the time. Evans taught him that ordinary objects and people could be the subject of great art. He also recommended Frank for the Guggenheim Fellowship that underwrote his road trip. Frank took with him Evans’ book American Photographs as inspiration for what sorts of pictures to take.

At the same time, Frank was living in Greenwich Village and reveling in its boisterous artistic scene. He befriended Willem de Kooning, the abstract expressionist painter, and admired his concept of art as a spontaneous creation, a confrontation with the canvas. The poet Allen Ginsberg, the emerging avatar of the Beat movement, urged him further along on this improvisational quest. (“First thought, best thought,” Ginsberg would say, though he did a lot of rewriting, just as Frank would do a lot of post-shoot cropping, to make the work seem more spontaneous.)

Evans taught Frank what he could photograph, but de Kooning and Ginsberg inspired his ideas on how to do it. Evans would line up his shots with fastidious care and wait, taking hours sometimes, for just the right light. His portraits of impoverished farmworkers were heartbreaking, but they were also gorgeous—and the dissonance gnawed away at Frank’s sensibility. He started taking pictures that put less emphasis on compositional beauty, more on improvisational discovery.

By the time Frank was properly discovered in the late 1960s, not only did the content of his work resonate with the time, but so did the raw vitality of its style. The painter-photographer Ed Ruscha told the New York Times in 2015, “I was aware of Walker Evans’s work. But I felt like those were still lives. Robert’s work was life in motion.”

Steichen’s The Family of Man inspired TV ads about human harmony and togetherness. Frank’s The Americans inspired a new way of looking at the restless diversity and tensions of a widening, splintering world.