BY Brian Dillon in Opinion | 07 MAY 24
Featured in
Issue 243

America Through the Lens of Robert Frank

On the 100th anniversary of the birth of influential photographer, we revisit his landmark photo book, ‘The Americans’

BY Brian Dillon in Opinion | 07 MAY 24

Robert Frank at 100: in the last years of his life, it seemed a plausible enough prospect. So many great, mid-20th-century photographers appear to have been blessed with a more or less productive longevity, not quite explained by active lives spent hefting around camera equipment. For a long time, it was possible to be surprised that some legend of the medium was still going, perhaps still making work, or had died only recently, within what felt like the compass of the contemporary. Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Klein, Helen Levitt and Irving Penn all lived into their 90s, dying in a new century whose vantage made their best-known images seem like monuments we walk past every day. We might say the same about Frank, who died in 2019, aged 94, six decades after the publication of his most famous work. Except that Frank had long ago killed off the young photographer who made The Americans (1958), and become several different artists instead.

Robert Frank, Canal Street – New Orleans, 1955, from The Americans, 1958. Courtesy: © The June Leaf and Robert Frank Foundation

His ultimate subject, forced upon him too early by certain intimate losses – the accidental death of his daughter, the mental illness and suicide of his son – was the shape of a life: its creative lineaments, quotidian horizons, points of retrospect and regret. Yet, there was never anything truly melancholic about Frank’s art, which throughout maintained the lightness of a photograph he took in Paris, aged just 25: a folding chair in the Tuileries Garden (you can tell the location from adjacent shots) that is poised like a dancer en pointe, an homage to Edgar Degas in dilapidated metal and wood (Tree and Chair, Paris, 1949). Delicacy may not be the first thing one associates with the photographer of The Americans and the director of the suppressed Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues (1972). But the wry poise of the Paris photograph was still present many decades later in Frank’s images (static and moving) of crows in the snow at his house in Nova Scotia, or the light as it slanted across dusty snapshots and other artefacts in his studio on Bleecker Street, New York. In between, there had been the adventure of becoming Robert Frank, then leaving that phenomenon behind.

Frank had long ago killed off the young photographer who made The Americans, and become several different artists instead.

Frank may be unique among the celebrated photographers of his era for having so thoroughly trashed everything that made his name. It was partly a matter of moving from photography to film. Of course others, such as Levitt, had given up photography to make films for a time or, like Klein, combined the two. A desire for new media or milieus, a turn towards ephemeral or ‘unartistic’ forms: none of this is unusual in a long photographic career. The informality of a late style is often bracing or simply beautiful, as in the Polaroids of André Kertész and Walker Evans. But Frank’s disavowals – of the fashion photography that eased his entry onto the American scene, of the style and success of The Americans and all it made possible – are of a different order. By the time he came back to photography, he was no longer Robert Frank, and photography itself had become something else, an imperfect support for diaristic fragments and (in time) abject memorials. Robert Frank at 100: a chance to ask if the photographer it seemed he had been at first was ever really there at all.


The shape of this life is, from the start, a series of escapes and renunciations. Frank was born in Zurich, in 1924, to a Swiss mother and a German father who, as a Jew, had been rendered stateless by the Nazis. Although he was finally granted Swiss citizenship in 1945, Frank longed to get away: the US was always his goal. He was introduced to photography by a retoucher who lived upstairs from his family. Frank worked in photography and graphic design in Zurich, Geneva and Basel. In 1946, before leaving Switzerland, he devised a handmade book, 40 Fotos, in which starkly objective images of industrial objects contended with snowbound landscapes and caged zoo animals. (A facsimile of this book was published by Steidl in 2009 as Portfolio: 40 Fotos and the original handmade book is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.) He arrived in New York in 1947, and began taking product photos for Harper’s Bazaar, before freelancing for Life, Look and The New York Times. An alternative trajectory might have seen Frank become one of those 20th-century artists whose commercial and personal work sat easily alongside each other and, at times, became impossible to tell apart.

Robert Frank, New Year’s Day, Be Happy, Mabou, 1981. Courtesy: © The June Leaf and Robert Frank Foundation

But he was quickly becoming a different kind of photographer. The wit of rhyme and juxtaposition in his Swiss portfolio may also be seen in the Paris pictures of the late 1940s: the streets are either vertiginously empty or teeming with dark figures clutching flowers. In London in the early 1950s, he took some of his most familiar and reproduced photographs – that top-hatted banker, those children reeling round a terrace-end tree – and perhaps discovered visually just the city he had set out to find: looming architecture, class division, dismal atmospheres. In these images, and in the photographs that followed of Welsh coal miners and their families, Frank perfected a particular mode of documentary, with an askew heroism of composition, moments of dark levity (a News of the World billboard above a cemetery) and a pointed distinction between portraits in the two series: the miners look at the camera, the City types mostly do not. Here is a version of Frank that sits neatly near the centre of documentary history.

It was a place, on his return to the US, from which he swiftly departed artistically. The details are well known: thanks to a Guggenheim grant, mostly alone but sometimes with his wife, the artist Mary Frank, and their two children, he drove across the country and took tens of thousands of photographs, from which the sequence of 83 in The Americans is subtracted. The images are indelible: store and diner interiors with Edward Hopper-ish figures; jukeboxes that, in his preface to the book, Jack Kerouac compared to coffins; a Detroit assembly line; Democratic grandees at their convention; a blurred starlet in the foreground at a movie premiere; the repetition of cars and roads and gazes that look like they might be fixed on escape routes. Though he had been in the US for a decade, Frank was still taken aback by the reality of racial segregation in the South. His own favourite picture from The Americans, San Francisco (1956), shows the washed-out city, off-balance, in sunlight and, at the very bottom of the frame, the Black couple on whose privacy and gaze Frank has intruded.

Robert Frank, San Francisco, 1956, from The Americans, 1958. Courtesy: © The June Leaf and Robert Frank Foundation

It’s customary now to think about The Americans in terms of its subject matter, which has the odd effect of mimicking Frank’s most outraged critics at the time, who saw only the depiction of a down-at-heel and even deranged nation. (Popular Photography magazine declared him ‘a joyless man who hates the country of his adoption’.) But the book’s innovations were also formal; as critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker after Frank’s death in 2019: ‘We were formalists then, and anti-formalists – not alternatively but both at once.’ Consider Frank’s expert composing of subjects in grids or series, of which Trolley – New Orleans (1955) is the best known, with Black passengers (one of whom looks straight at the camera) restricted to the rear seats and windows. The structure of this image recurs: in a regal-looking biker couple in denim (Indianapolis, 1956), in arrangements of posters and presidential portraits, in a picture of two women looking out of adjacent windows, one of them half hidden by the American flag (Parade – Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955). It’s an arrangement that threatens to fall apart in Canal Street, New Orleans (1955): a crowd all at odds with each other, yet somehow also perfectly tessellated.

Among other things, it’s this control and unmastering of form that Frank left behind when he turned from photography to film. First in Pull My Daisy (1959), an antic short in which a railway brakeman’s dinner with his wife and a visiting bishop is interrupted by rowdy bohemians – the cast includes artists Larry Rivers and Alice Neel, and poets Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. And again in Me and My Brother (1969), where Orlovsky’s schizophrenic brother, Julius, plays himself and is later played by another actor. Film allowed Frank to abandon the expectations of reportage and documentary without wholly embracing the cinematic form –although, years later, he did direct a full feature, Candy Mountain (1987). Rather, film was, for Frank, a personal and poetic medium; as Kerouac put it: ‘He sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.’

For the best part of five decades, he was a photographer for whom the word – scratched onto negatives, or glass, or the space beneath consumer-grade Polaroids – was essential.

The over-familiar litany of Beat figures in the early films is both a lure and a distraction, situating Frank misleadingly as chronicler of a downtown canon of ecstatic, dishevelled art saints, when something quite else is happening in the texture of his own work. The same is true of his association with the Rolling Stones, who commissioned him to film their 1972 American tour – a fabulously corrupt imperial court inspecting its outer provinces. Cocksucker Blues is, in some ways, exactly the film one imagines it to be. A series of salacious and combustible performances, a nodding-out Keith Richards nursed by a groupie, sexual assault and alleged statutory rape played for communal laughs aboard the band’s plane, conspicuous drug use (‘The nose knows!’) and the sullen expression of princely egos. No surprise that, at the time of release, the Stones decreed the film could only be shown with Frank himself in attendance, thus ensuring its obscurity (and notoriety).

Robert Frank, Pull My Daisy, 1959. Courtesy: © The June Leaf and Robert Frank Foundation

But watch Cocksucker Blues today, in one of its glitchy YouTube iterations, and its grisly aspects will often give way to a mood of improvised drift and fray. The clichés of the rock documentary were already in place by 1972, but it is extraordinary what Frank can do with established motifs: lens flare on airport asphalt, huddled interludes in humid hotel rooms, low ceilings in overlit backstage areas where air-kissing celebrities thwart the pre-gig vibe. Frank moves between 35mm and Super 8; he left cameras lying around so they might be picked up by anybody: Bianca Jagger, Lee Radziwill, a variety of suspect hangers-on. The result is a film that is all atmosphere. Its closest artistic analogue of the time is not to be found in the grainy theatricalism of Andy Warhol’s films and video works (though Warhol, too, is backstage with the Stones), but in the black and white video flow of William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton, shot the following year in and around Memphis – a work that is all ghostly texture and infrared pallor.

Twin aspects of long-haul diarism and seeming technical casualness link, unexpectedly, the very public commotion of Cocksucker Blues with Frank’s artistic and personal retreat around the same time. In 1971, he had asked his second wife, the artist June Leaf, to scout for a second home in Nova Scotia; they eventually settled on an isolated house at Mabou on Cape Breton Island. The work that Frank made there turns both outward, towards a harsh and labour-intensive landscape, and inwards to inspect and express a mounting sense of loss. In 1974, his 21-year-old daughter, Andrea, was killed in a plane crash in Guatemala; certain works of the years following are storms of grief: in Sick of Goodby’s (1978), the title is smeared on glass panes or mirrors, a hand grips a Day-of-the-Dead skeleton, and much of the emotional force of the picture is in an agitated haze surrounding the upper of two portions. The manipulated black and white Polaroid became, for Frank, a labour of mourning and recall. As with Evans and Kertész (also, Andrei Tarkovsky), the late Polaroids seem best to condense a life’s work to a modest but exquisite core – an ‘amateur’ medium deployed to extremely intimate subject matter: his dead father’s coat, the blurred face of his wife, a rocky monument to his daughter.

Robert Frank, Sick of Goodby’s, Mabou, 1978. Courtesy: © The June Leaf and Robert Frank Foundation

The Frank of The Americans may seem like a stone that has settled into its memorial place, a classic that can only partly be unseated by later publication or exhibition of photographs he took for the project but did not include in the book. But the Frank of the films and of the expanded, amended or botched photographic object still refuses to find a place in the narrative of photographic trends or movements. For the best part of five decades, he was a photographer for whom the word – scratched onto negatives, or glass, or the space beneath consumer-grade Polaroids – was essential. Yet, he has nothing in common with critical or conceptual practices. A collagist or montagist without a programmatic sense of what those methods entail. An autobiographer without attendant ego. (Though not, as interviews and documentaries confirm, without his impatient moods.) In the end, a poet – and inexhaustible.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 243 with the headline ‘A Man Entering America With a Camera’

Robert Frank’s photographs will be on view at Art Basel Unlimited, Basel, from 10 June – 16 June; at Pace, New York, from 15 November – 21 November and at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, from 15 September – 11 January 2025

Main image: Robert Frank, Pull My Daisy, 1959. Courtesy: © The June Leaf and Robert Frank Foundation

Brian Dillon is a writer. His latest book Affinities: On Art and Fascination will be published in spring 2023 by the New York Review of Books and Fitzcarraldo Editions, London. He is working on a book about Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love.