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  • Robert Frank RIP

    Robert Frank, groundbreaking photographer who inspired succeeding generations with his seminal book ‘The Americans’ – obituary

    Telegraph Obituaries

    11 SEPTEMBER 2019 • 5:06PM

    Robert Frank, who has died aged 94, was one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century, his depictions of street life eschewing the niceties of formal composition and raising the snapshot to the status of high art; he also worked with the Rolling Stones on a controversial documentary that lifted the lid on the less seemly aspects of life on the road, and made Pull My Daisy, a seminal film about the Beat generation.

    His masterwork was The Americans, an 83-shot collection culled from more than 27,000 exposures taken on a road trip across America between 1955 and 1957. It was funded by a Guggenheim grant, and in his application he had stated his purpose: “to portray Americans as they live at present. Their every day and their Sunday, their realism and dream. The look of their cities, towns and highways.”

    It stood in stark contrast to the American Dream of the Fifties, revealing a country riven with poverty and division; its portrayals of funerals, drive-ins, segregated trolley cars, jukeboxes, churches, bikers and diners not so much glorified the United States as dissected it.

    In the foreword, his friend Jack Kerouac wrote of “The humor, the sadness, the EVERYTHING-ness and American-ness of these pictures!” But it was widely perceived as being anti-American, and was condemned by such magazines as Popular Photography for its “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures”. It sold only 600 copies of its first edition but its reputation grew steadily, and it is now widely regarded as one of the 20th century’s most important and influential
    photographic books.



    A photograph taken during a parade at Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1955, one of the 83 images that made up Frank's seminal work 'The Americans'
    CREDIT: ROBERT FRANK/NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, WASHINGTON

    The hostile reception afforded to The Americans stung the shy and reclusive Frank, who withdrew to concentrate on film-making for a few years. His first effort was Pull My Daisy (1959), made with the abstract expressionist Alfred Leslie.

    With a script loosely based by Kerouac on his play The Beat Generation, and with much improvising between the lines, it featured the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and told the tale of a railwayman whose wife invites a bishop to dinner, which is then taken over by the railwayman’s bohemian friends. It has been praised as an improvisational masterpiece and remains a defining document of the Beat generation.

    Robert Louis Frank was born into a well-to-do Jewish family in Zurich on November 9 1924; his mother, Regina (née Zucker), was Swiss, while his father, Hermann Frank, was German. Although the family was safely ensconced in Switzerland during the Second World War, with the Nazis not far away, young Robert developed a keen understanding of oppression.

    After attending private schools in his home town he was apprenticed to various photographers, beginning in 1941, and five years later he produced his first collection, 40 Fotos. Railing against his family’s materialism, the following year he sailed to New York and began to make his way in the fashion world, shooting for the likes of Harper’s Bazaar and befriending Ginsberg and the artist Willem de Kooning.


    London, 1952-53
    CREDIT: ROBERT FRANK/NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, WASHINGTON

    But commercial photography was not his métier, and after he met Edward Steichen, director of the Museum of Modern Art, his work was included in the 1951 group show, 51 American Photographers.

    Having been alienated by the materialism of his upbringing, he gradually became disillusioned by what he saw as the same forces in the US. He began travelling extensively – including trips to Britain, in which he took pictures which ranged from grimy miners and colliery towns to top-hatted City gents and the children of
    the Rachman generation.

    Democratic National Convention, Chicago, 1956, from 'The Americans'
    CREDIT: ROBERT FRANK/NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, WASHINGTON

    In 1955 seven of his photographs were featured by Steichen in the travelling MoMA exhibition The Family of Man. And despite the critical panning handed out to The Americans, in 1961 he had his first solo show, at the Art Institute of Chicago, and an exhibition at MoMA the following year.

    Films, though, began to take up more of his time: there were two shorts, The Sin of Jesus (1961) and O.K. End Here (1963), then between 1965 and 1968 he shot Me and My Brother, a depiction of mental illness that centred on the brother of Allen Ginsberg’s partner, Peter Orlovsky.

    More films followed towards the end of the decade, then in 1972 the Rolling Stones were returning to the US for the first time since their disastrous appearance at Altamont in 1969. They enlisted Frank to document their tour to promote their Exile on Main St album.

    “Warts and all” does not quite cover the resulting Cocksucker Blues, with its scenes of drug-taking (including a groupie mainlining heroin in a hotel room, Keith Richards being injected and Mick Jagger snorting cocaine backstage), as well as a couple joining the mile-high club (in a scene that was rumoured to have been staged). The over-relaxed Stones’ defences were down and the film laid bare the often sordid world of rock’n’roll’s travelling circus.


    A restaurant in South Carolina, 1955, from 'The Americans'
    CREDIT: ROBERT FRANK/NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, WASHINGTON

    Jagger told Frank: “It’s a f------ good film, Robert, but if it shows in America we’ll never be allowed in the country again.” The band refused to release it, and in 1977, when Richards was arrested on drugs charges in Toronto, fearing that the film could prejudice his case, Jagger filed an affidavit stating that it subjected the Stones to “scorn and ridicule”.

    A court case followed, the judge decreeing that the film could be shown no more than four times a year, in an “archival” setting with Frank present.

    From 1970 onwards, Frank divided his time between a loft in New York and a former fisherman’s hut in Nova Scotia. In 1972 he published his second photographic collection, the autobiographical The Lines of My Hand, but became increasingly reclusive – a 2008 Vanity Fair profile noted: “He has by turns been described by people who do not know him as ornery, reclusive, hard, manipulative to the point of destructive, and cold as a bowling ball.”

    He took on only occasional assignments, such as shooting the 1984 Democratic National Convention and filming pop videos for Patti Smith and New Order. In 1994 a comprehensive retrospective was mounted at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. In 2015 a documentary, Don’t Blink – Robert Frank, was released to all-round approval.

    Robert Frank married, in 1950, the artist Mary Lockspeiser. They had a son and a daughter, both of whom predeceased him. He and Mary divorced, and in 1975 he married the sculptor June Leaf, who survives him.

    Robert Frank, born November 9 1924, died September 9 2019
    Last edited by Maurice; 11th September 2019, 04:39 PM.
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