Death of Robert Frank, monument of American photography

Swiss-born American photographer Robert Frank, who has influenced generations of photographers with his book The Americans (1958), died in Canada on Monday, aged 94, his New York gallery confirmed on Tuesday.
“Robert Frank has simply changed the way the world looks at America. With his pure and extraordinarily skilled immigrant eye, he saw us as we are, “said his gallery owner Peter MacGill, a friend of the photographer for more than 40 years.

The announcement of his death was accompanied by many tributes, including photographers highlighting how, with his clich├ęs far from the American dream, he had often transformed their eyes forever.

And many recalled what Jack Kerouac, who had prefaced the Americans, said about him .

“With his little camera, which he raises and manipulates with one hand, he [Robert Frank] has drawn from America a sad poem, taking his place among the tragic poets of this world,” he wrote. author of On the Road before adding: “To Robert Frank I send this message: you have eyes.”

On Route 66

The Americans were in line with the Beat Generation, literary and artistic movement, where following the instinct prevails over the foundations of photojournalism techniques, where the photos are as if snapped up and no longer framed.

Refused by American publishers, the book first appeared in France in 1958 by Robert Delpire. It includes 83 photographs of more than 28,000 (700 films) taken by the author on a trip through 48 states.

Like Kerouac, and other writers of the Beat Generation, Robert Frank had embarked on an adventure westward along the famous Route 66, his Leica slung over his shoulder.

Between April 1955 and June 1956, he had photographed New York socialites, snack bars , roads, blacks in the fields, drive-ins , and so on. The subjective report was born.

“I tried to forget the easy photos to try to bring out something from the inside,” said the author for whom primacy of the sense of immediacy and emphasis on the point of view of the photographer.

If The Americans were to make Robert Frank a king of the counter-culture, the book was freshly received on its way out, often considered depressing and subversive, highlighting poverty, inequality or loneliness, far from the images of triumphant America. “Frank produced a feeling of images,” said Walker Evans, another monster of the photo, known for his work on the Great Depression (around the 1930s) and who would greatly influence Robert Frank.

Robert Frank in 2016

Born on November 9, 1924 in Zurich, into a family of German Jewish industrialists, Robert Frank is very young and passionate about photography, working in laboratories in Zurich and Basel since 1940.

In 1947, he moved to the United States, working as a fashion photographer and reporter for magazines such as Fortune , Life or Harper’s Bazaar . But he quickly deceives: this world of frills and money is not for him.

He travels first to Latin America, then to Europe, especially Paris, which he loves. In 1953, he returned to New York. Refusing magazine orders, he was awarded a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, which gave him the freedom to do his job as he pleased. It will be the adventure of the Americans.

In 1961, he presented his first major exhibition in Chicago to be followed by many others.

Nevertheless, he decides to abandon the photo for avant-garde cinema: with success, he says, he is afraid of “repeating himself”.

His first film, Pull My Daisy , was released in 1959, with Delphine Seyrig. It will mark, among others, the director John Cassavetes.

In 1972, he made a documentary about Rolling Stones Cocksucker Blues . The legendary British group reacted to his death Tuesday by calling him a “visionary”.

The 70’s are the trials: separated from his wife, with whom he had two children, he settles with the one who will become his second wife in a remote corner of Nova Scotia. His daughter died in 1974 in a plane crash in Guatemala while her son went into mental illness (he committed suicide in the early 1990s).

This does not prevent him from developing his formal experiments around the image, again “pushing the boundaries of cinematographic art,” according to Peter MacGill.

He will direct a total of twenty films (including short films or clips) inspired by art, rock, writing, his son or travel, such as This song for Jack (1983), Candy Mountain (1987) ) or Paper route (2002).

He returns more or less to the photo through editing snapshots, working on negatives or polaroids. “I destroy what is descriptive in the photos to show how I go, me,” he summed up.


November 9, 1924: birth in Zurich (Switzerland)

1940: assistant at a photographer in Zurich

1947: Starts in fashion photography in New York (United States)

1948-1953: travels in South America and especially in Europe

1955: Winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship that will allow him to travel freely for over a year across the United States, shoulder camera

1958: Release of the album The Americans , his masterpiece, and meeting with Jack Kerouac, the cult novelist of the Beat Generation

1959: his first film (avant-garde) Pull my daisy

1961: his first major exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago (USA)

From 1971: settles in a wild place of Canada, while continuing a very personal, introspective work on cinema and photography

2009: exhibition in Paris, at the Jeu de Paume

Local information matters to me and I want to participate in the future of my life.

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