Robert Frank inspired a new way of looking

In a previous post I mentioned The Americans (1958 in France; 1959 in U.S.; 2008) by Robert Frank. A Google search for Robert Frank will tell you more about his career as a photographer.

The Americans is the topic of Chapter 20 (in the form of an essay) in 1959: The Year that Changed Everything (2009) by Robert Kaplan.

Kaplan notes that The Americans features 83 black-and-white photographs, chosen from 27,000 exposures from a project in 1955 and 1956 in which Robert Frank criss-crossed 10,000 miles of road, funded by a Guggenheim grant.

The chapter speaks in pejorative terms of another photography project, The Family of Man exhibit, first shown in 1955, which involved an approach to photography that Robert Frank found, in Kaplan’s words,  “repugnantly sentimental.” A blurb for the latter project (see link in previous sentence) asserts that it “has been hailed as the most successful and inspiring exhibition of photography ever assembled.”

The chapter notes that the photographer Walker Evans had a positive influence on Robert Frank. During the Depression, Evans had taken photos of impoverished farm families, published as part of the Let Us Now Praise Famous Men project. Evans also published American Photographs, which deeply influenced Frank, who took a copy of the book along with him on his photo project.

According to Kaplan, a key difference between Evans and Frank was the fact that Evans took great care with the composition of his shots of impoverished farm families. The result is that the beauty and impressiveness of the composition at times overwhelms the emotional impact of the content. In his project, in contrast, Robert Frank snapped his photos quickly, without a lot of focus on composition.

After the road trip, Frank spent plenty of time selecting from his 27,000 images, and also spent plenty of time cropping the images that he chose to focus upon for his book.

The book didn’t catch on at first but in 1968, a new edition was published and it was, in Kaplan’s words, “finally acclaimed as a revelation.” In the 1970s, Robert Frank’s “critical attitude and visual vocabulary” influenced “every significant photographer” who emerged during that decade.

Robert Frank, as Robert Kaplan notes, “inspired a new way of looking.”


A July 2, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: “The Man Who Saw America.”

A Dec. 15, 2015 Guardian  article is entitled: “The Americans: Robert Frank’s realist photographs head to auction: A rare set of 77 photographs from the book that transformed the way Americans viewed the nation are being sold in New York on Thursday.”


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