Who is Robert Frank?

     Robert Frank was born on November 9, 1924 to an upper-middle class family in Switzerland. While he and his family were never directly affected by the combat of World War II, the social injustices and obvious repercussions of the times surrounded him. Despite a relatively happy and normal childhood, Frank was still born into a time of deep social, economic, and political turmoil. He moved to America in 1947, knowing that what he wanted out of life wasn’t going to be possible in Switzerland. Before leaving, though, he began to master photography through various apprenticeships. Switzerland impressed upon him a healthy sense of design and layout and a technical mastery for the camera and the darkroom.

     Upon arriving in The States, he took on editorial and fashion jobs to generate income. After deciding that the bureaucracy and commercialization of the fashion and magazine industries didn’t interest him, he left America and traveled the globe extensively. Despite bringing home numerous stories of interest, especially one about Welsh miners, Frank was unable to sell much of his work and things came to a lull for him professionally. Stagnant magazine work, new personal work from his travels abroad, and influences from the fine art world are all likely a few of the main factors which led to the conception of The Americans, which remains his most notable photographic work today.

What were Frank’s ideas when he
started The Americans?

    It’s very difficult to say that Frank set out to create The Americans with any grand intentions. He wasn’t trying to become the next great American photographer, or, for that matter, any of the other accolades with which he was later lauded. His proposal brief to the Guggenheim foundation was rather vague:

“To photograph freely throughout the United States, using the miniature camera exclusively. The making of a broad, voluminous picture record of things American, past and present. This project is essentially the visual study of a civilization and will include caption notes; but it is only partly documentary in nature: one of its aims is more artistic than the word documentary implies.”

     Keeping that in mind, it’s easily apparent that just as much of Frank’s work was done in the darkroom as it was on the streets. After taking the photos, his intentions had changed. He was no longer interested in showing the poetic or beautiful, he wanted to express his ideas about many of the country’s overarching social, economic, and political happenings. He became passionately detached to his photographs in an effort to sculpt his greater vision for the project. Frank selected many photographs that others might not have chosen, and scrapped even more that others would have chosen.

So, what’s the big deal about
The Americans?

     Simply put: The Americans changed the way that we see photography. It left behind the idea that documentary photography’s purpose was strictly documentary. It had a massive impact on the the line we might today conceive between photojournalism and street photography. Frank’s photographs were influenced more by his thoughts, emotions, and ideas as a person than his visual taste as a photographer. His work was not just an ode to America, it was also a blatant expression and critique of racism, consumerism, the distribution of wealth, and American life as a whole.

     Frank’s work also challenged the visual qualities of photography. In a 1950s world where clean lines, sharp, well-exposed images, and a technical mastery of the craft were of paramount importance, Frank saw things differently. He wasn’t all that worried about having an image that was correctly exposed or focused; he wanted to capture the feeling of his situation and put it into a photograph.

What did the critics think of
The Americans?

     Many were initially appalled. Not just because of his controversial subject matters, but also because of his use of blurry and out of focus subjects. Most saw this as a sloppy application of the medium, but in reality, it was a rather artistic contribution. Many also forget that a number of Frank’s inspirational contemporaries were Abstract Expressionist painters, a genre which is similarly criticized.

    It was especially the “purists” of the medium whom he upset, though. In almost every way possible, he went against the standards for what made a great photograph at the time.

Frank also had difficulty because it was contemporary practice to make “straight” photographs, or photos which depicted a singular powerful moment in time. Frank’s editing style, though, greatly favored a more wholistic view of the project and a detachment to individual photographs. Despite the initial hostility with which the project was associated, time has allowed it to become a well-loved addition to the history of photography. Frank is now celebrated as one of street photography’s greats, whether or not he enjoys it.

Doesn’t the fact that it’s all been done before make your
work a bit unoriginal?

    Well, yes and no. Most see Frank’s work as a very innovative expression of photography, but the reality of the situation is that America had already been photographed rather comprehensively before Frank received his grant. Photographers like Elliot Erwitt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Walker Evans had already accepted the challenge of extensively photographing America. In basic concept, what Frank set out to do was hardly original in its own right.

 

In the sense of the route and visual subject matter, the work of Retracing America can be seen as derivative. But overall, its core point is not to be derivative. I am my own photographer, and the intent is for the photographs to stand on their own. Creativity does not happen in a vacuum. Almost any working artist, in some form or another, is inspired by other people who have created something before them. The route and work of Frank, among others, is but another considerable inspiration to the photographs being created in Retracing America.