September 20, 2019

9 Photographs by Robert Frank Reveal His Mastery and Evolution

9 Photographs by Robert Frank Reveal His Mastery and Evolution


In little more than a decade of feverish creativity, Robert Frank broke the rules of documentary photography and reset the template for postwar Americans who plied their art with a camera on the street. Here are some unforgettable images from the era.

1946

Robert Frank was born in Switzerland in 1924. When he was in his early 20s and still living in Zurich, he put together a spiral-bound, handmade book, “40 Fotos,” which included multiple photographs in two-page spreads and juxtaposed seemingly disparate subjects (such as radio tubes with live musicians). These are zoo pictures of caged animals snarling in impotent fury at their confinement. Mr. Frank felt much the same about his own living situation in the land of his birth.

The young man seen from behind is carrying a tulip to give, presumably, to the woman in the background. A man at the other end of life’s arc approaches. 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) explains how the photograph came to be — without diminishing its charm.

1951

In February 1947 Mr. Frank sailed from Antwerp to New York and immersed himself in the photography scene. He worked as an assistant photographer at Harper’s Bazaar and began publishing in magazines and journals. In the process he picked up a 35-millimeter Leica camera — faster and lighter on the run than his Rolleiflex. Chronicling the activities of neighbors on his block in New York, Mr. Frank captured this couple in a convertible as they reacted to his taking their picture. It bears an uncanny resemblance to Garry Winogrand’s “Park Avenue, New York, 1959.” Of all the great street photographers who came of age in the ’60s, Winogrand was most directly influenced by Mr. Frank.

1952

The nighttime shot epitomizes the ability of an artist with a 35-millimeter camera to capture the fleeting nature of emotion — in this case, pure exhilaration. 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 effect.

This is one of the pictures that led Mr. Frank’s critics to condemn his groundbreaking book, “The Americans, as anti-American. The threadbare flag and littered lawn didn’t measure up to the story Americans told about themselves and their heritage.

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.

1956 and 1955

Like Winogrand, Lee Friedlander first came to prominence in the “New Documents” show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967, which celebrated the way that contemporary street photographers used the camera as a tool of self-expression. He made a series of pictures in the early 60s that showed television sets projecting an image in a room. Here, too, Mr. Frank had arrived first.




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