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Robert Frank:
poet of the flipside

Adrian Shaughnessy

I’ve had an obsession with the work of Robert Frank since I discovered his mournful, elegiac photography in the 1980s. Is there a better photographer alive today? Robert Frank was born in Switzerland in 1924, where he received a rigorous training in photography and graphic techniques. He emigrated to America in 1947. To my mind he is the equal of Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Robert Mapplethorpe and many of the other greats of American photography. And yes, I think he is the greatest living photographer.

Robert Frank. Moving On. Scalo/National Gallery of Art, 1994

Why? Well, for many reasons, but mainly for his book The Americans. It was first published in France in 1958, and was the result of a grant Frank received in 1955 to travel across the USA and photograph what he found. But rather than documenting the grandeur and wealth of post-war America, he chose to chronicle the neglected and least celebrated corners of the nation.

His pictures showed an alternative America to the one presented in the ads and magazines of the time. It was a nation populated by disenfranchised African Americans; a nation of sad-eyed elevator girls and lonely men playing jukeboxes in dead end bars; a nation of lunch counters, back streets and funerals; it was the United States of Alienation.

When The Americans was eventually published in the USA in 1959 (with a foreword by Jack Kerouac), Frank’s off-kilter, black and white depiction of the flipside of the American dream was met with outrage. It was not a portrayal of their great country that many Americans recognised. But even stronger condemnation was reserved for his revolutionary, anti-formalist technique. His photographs were dismissed by one photo magazine for their “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness.”

Yet these are precisely the qualities that make Frank’s pictures so compelling. His seemingly haphazard framing, his lack of interest in classical composition, and his willingness toshoot people from behind or half obscured by objects, resulted in a new sort of unselfconscious, semi-automatic photography. It is the photography of looking rather than picture making.

Robert Frank. Photofile. Thames and Hudson, 1991

While his early style spawned armies of imitators, Frank himself moved into film. In 1959 he co-directed the Beat classic Pull My Daisy. Later he worked for the Rolling Stones, and is perhaps best known for his contribution to the cover of Exile on Main Street (1972), and his rarely seen, yet mythic Stone’s film, Cocksucker Blues (1972). He has made music videos for New Order, Patti Smith and others.

In 1971 he moved to Nova Scotia, Canada. Today, he divides his time between his home there and an address in Bleecker Street in New York. Since his move to Canada, his work has become more autobiographic, often involving handwriting gouged into the emulsion of his prints.

Here is a selection of Robert Frank books I’d find it hard to live without.

Robert Frank. Come Again. Steidl, 2006

Robert Frank Hasselblad Award 1996. Scalo, 1997

Robert Frank. frank films, the film and video work of robert frank. Scalo, 2003

Robert Frank. Thank You. Scalo, 1996

Robert Frank. The Lines of my Hand. Pantheon Books, 1989



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