Author Archives: Leicaphila

Images on the Run

[Editor’s Note: In 1952, Henri Cartier-Bresson published Images à la Sauvette, (what is known in English as The Decisive Moment, although the French title translates as “Images on the run”). Images à la Sauvette included a portfolio of 126 of Cartier Bresson’s photos This is the book’s 4,500-word philosophical preface, written by Cartier Bresson himself]

*************

by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1952)

There is nothing in this world without a decisive moment. Cardinal Retz

I, like many another boy, burst into the world of photography with a Box Brownie, which I used for taking holiday snapshots. Even as a child, I had a passion for painting, which I “did” on Thursdays and Sundays, the days when French school children don’t have to go to school. Gradually, I set myself to try to discover the various ways in which I could play with a camera. From the moment that I began to use the camera and to think about it, however, there was an end to holiday snaps and silly pictures of my friends. I became serious. I was on the scent of something, and I was busy smelling it out.

Then there were the movies. From some of the great films, I learned to look, and to see. Mysteries of New York, with Pearl White; the great films of D.W. Griffith – Broken Blossoms; the first films of Stroheim; Greed; Eisenstein’s Potemkin; and Dreyer’s Jeanne d’ Arc – these were some of the things that impressed me deeply.

Later I met photographers who had some of Atget’s prints. These I considered remarkable and, accordingly, I bought myself a tripod, a black cloth, and a polished walnut camera three by four inches. The camera was fitted with – instead of a shutter – a lenscap, which one took off and then put on to make the exposure. This last detail, of course, confined my challenge to the static world. Other photographic subjects seemed to me to be too complicated, or else to be “amateur stuff.” And by this time I fancied that by disregarding them, I was dedicating myself to Art with a capital “A.”

Next I took to developing this Art of mine in my washbasin. I found the business of being a photographic Jack-of-All-Trades quite entertaining. I knew nothing about printing, and had no inkling that certain kinds of paper produced soft prints and certain others highly contrasted ones. I didn’t bother much about such things, though I invariably got mad when the images didn’t come out right on the paper.
In 1931, when I was twenty-two, I went to Africa. On the Ivory Coast I bought a miniature camera of a kind I have never seen before or since, made by the French firm Krauss. It used film of a size that 35mm would be without the sprocket holes. For a year I took pictures with it. On my return to France I had my pictures developed – it was not possible before, for I lived in the bush, isolated, during most of that year – and I discovered that the damp had got into the camera and that all my photographs were embellished with the superimposed patterns of giant ferns.

I had had blackwater fever in Africa, and was now obliged to convalesce. I went to Marseille. A small allowance enabled me to get along, and I worked with enjoyment. I had just discovered the Leica. It became the extension of my eye, and I have never been separated from it since I found it. I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to “trap” life – to preserve life in the act of living. Above all, I craved to seize, in the confines of one single photograph, the whole essence of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.

The idea of making a photographic reportage, that is to say, of telling a story in a sequence of pictures, never entered my head at that time. I began to understand more about it later, as a result of looking at the work of my colleagues and at the illustrated magazines. In fact, it was only in the process of working for them that I eventually learned, bit by bit, how to make a reportage with a camera, how to make a picture-story.

I have traveled a good deal, though I don’t really know how to travel. I like to take my time about it, leaving between one country and the next an interval in which to digest what I’ve seen. Once I had arrived in a new country, I feel almost like settling down there, so as to live on proper terms with the country. I could never be a globetrotter.

In 1947, five freelance photographers, of whom I was one, founded our cooperative enterprise called “Magnum Photos.” This cooperative enterprise distributes our picture- stories to magazines in various countries.

Twenty-five years have passed since I started to look through my view-finder. But I regard myself still as an amateur, though I am still no longer a dilettante.

*************

The Picture Story

What actually is a photographic reportage, a picture story? Sometimes there is one unique picture whose composition possesses such vigor and richness, and whose content so radiates outward from it, that this single picture is a whole story in itself. But this rarely happens. The elements which, together, can strike sparks from a subject, are often scattered – either in terms of space or time – and bringing them together by force is “stage management,” and, I feel, contrived. But if it is possible to make pictures of the “core” as well as the struck-off sparks of the subject, this is a picture-story. The page serves to reunite the complementary elements which are dispersed throughout several photographs.

The picture-story involves a joint operation of the brain, the eye and the heart. The objective of this joint operation is to depict the content of some event which is in the process of unfolding, and to communicate impressions. Sometimes a single event can be so rich in itself and its facets that it is necessary to move all around it in your search for the solution to the problems it poses – for the world is movement, and you cannot be stationary in your attitude toward something that is moving. Sometimes you light upon the picture in seconds; it might also require hours or days. But there is no standard plan, no pattern from which to work. You must be on the alert with the brain, the eye, the heart, and have a suppleness of body.

Things-As-They-Are offer such an abundance of material that a photographer must guard against the temptation of trying to do everything. It is essential to cut from the raw material of life – to cut and cut, but to cut with discrimination. While working, a photographer must reach a precise awareness of what he is trying to do. Sometimes you have the feeling that you have already taken the strongest possible picture of a particular situation or scene; nevertheless, you find yourself compulsively shooting, because you cannot be sure in advance exactly how the situation, the scene, is going to unfold. You must stay with the scene, just in case the elements of the situation shoot off from the core again. At the same time, it’s essential to avoid shooting like a machinegunner and burdening yourself with useless recordings which clutter your memory and spoil the exactness of the reportage as a whole.

Henri Cartier-Bresson in Italy in 1971.

Memory is very important, particularly in respect to the recollection of every picture you’ve taken while you’ve been galloping at the speed of the scene itself. The photographer must make sure, while he is still in the presence of the unfolding scene, that he hasn’t left any gaps, that he has really given expression to the meaning of the scene in its entirety, for afterward it is too late. He is never able to wind the scene backward in order to photograph it all over again.

For photographers:, there are two kinds of selection to be made, and either of them can lead to eventual regrets. There is the selection we make when we look through the view-finder at the subject; and there is the one we make after the tiles have been developed and printed. After developing and printing, you must go about separating the pictures which, though they are all right, aren’t the strongest. When it’s too late, then you know with a terrible clarity exactly where you failed; and at this point you often recall the telltale feeling you had while you were actually making the pictures. Was it a feeling of hesitation due to uncertainty? Was it because of some physical gulf between yourself and the unfolding event? Was it simply that you did not take into account a certain detail in relation to the whole setup? Or was it (and this is more frequent) that your glance became vague, your eye wandered off?

For each of us space begins and slants off from our own eye, and from there enlarges itself progressively toward infinity. Space, in the present, strikes us with greater or lesser intensity and then leaves us, visually, to be closed in our memory and to modify itself there. Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes forever the precise and transitory instant. We photographers deal in things that are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished, there is no contrivance on earth that can make them come back again. We cannot develop and print a memory. The writer has time to reflect. He can accept and reject, accept again; and before committing his thoughts to paper he is able to tie the several relevant elements together. There is also a period when his brain “forgets,” and his subconscious works on classifying his thoughts. But for photographers, what has gone is gone forever. From that fact stem the anxieties and strength of our profession. We cannot do our story over again once we’ve got back to the hotel. Our task is to perceive reality, almost simultaneously recording it in the sketchbook which is our camera. We must neither try to manipulate reality while we are shooting, nor manipulate the results in a darkroom. These tricks are patently discernible to those who have eyes to see.

In shooting a picture-story we must count the points and the rounds, rather like a boxing referee. In whatever picture-story we try to do, we are bound to arrive as intruders. It is essential,
therefore, to approach the subject on tiptoe – even if the subject is still-life. A velvet hand, a hawk’s eye – these we should all have. It’s no good jostling or elbowing. And no photographs taken with the aid of flashlight either, if only out of respect of the actual light – even when there isn’t any of it. Unless a photographer observes such conditions as these, he may become an intolerably aggressive character.

The profession depends so much upon the relations the photographer establishes with the people he’s photographing, that a false relationship, a wrong word or attitude, can ruin everything. When the subject is in any way uneasy, the personality goes away where the camera can’t reach it. There are no systems, for each case is individual and demands that we be unobtrusive, though we must be at close range. Reactions of people differ much from country to country, and from one social group to another. Throughout the whole of the Orient, for example, an impatient photographer – or one who is simply pressed for time – is subject to ridicule. If you have made yourself obvious, even just by getting your light-meter out, the only thing to do is to forget about photography for the moment, and accommodatingly allow the children who come rushing at you to cling to your knees like burrs.

*************

The Subject

There is subject in all that takes place in the world, as well as in our personal universe. We cannot negate subject. It is everywhere. So we must be lucid toward what is going on in the world, and honest about what we feel.

Subject does not consist of a collection of facts, for facts in themselves offer little interest. Through facts, however, we can reach an understanding of the laws that govern them, and be better able to select the essential ones which communicate reality.

In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little, human detail can become a leitmotiv. We see and show the world around us, but it is an event itself which provokes the organic rhythm of forms.

There are thousands of ways to distill the essence of something that captivates us; let’s not catalogue them. We will, instead, leave it in all its freshness…

There is a whole territory which is no longer exploited by painting. Some say it is because of the discovery of photography. However it came about, photography has taken over a part of this territory in the form of illustration.

One kind of subject matter greatly derided by present- day painters is the portrait. The frock coat, the soldier’s cap, the horse now repel even the most academic of painters. They feel suffocated by all the gaiter buttons of the Victorian portrait makers. For photographers – perhaps because we are reaching for something much less lasting in value than the painters – this is not so much irritating as amusing, because we accept life in all its reality.

People have an urge to perpetuate themselves by means of a portrait, and they put their best profiles forward for posterity. Mingled with this urge, though, is a certain fear of black magic; a feeling that by sitting for a camera portrait they are exposing themselves to the workings of witchcraft of a sort.

One of the fascinating things about portraits is the way they enable us to trace the sameness of man. Man’s continuity somehow comes through all the external things that constitute him – even if it is only to the extent of someone’s mistaking Uncle for Little Nephew in the family album. If the photographer is to have a chance of achieving a true reflection of a person’s world – which is as much outside him as inside him – it is necessary that the subject of the portrait should be in a situation normal to him. We must respect the atmosphere which surrounds the human being, and integrate into the portrait the individual’s habitat – for man, no less than animals, has his habitat. Above all, the sitter must be made to forget about the camera and the photographer who is handling it. Complicated equipment and light reflectors and various other items of hardware are enough, to my mind, to prevent the birdie from coming out.

What is there more fugitive and transitory than the expression on a human face? The first impression given by a particular face is often the right one; but the photographer should try always to substantiate the first impression by “living” with the person concerned. The decisive moment and psychology, no less than camera position are the principal factors in the making of a good portrait. It seems to me it would be pretty difficult to be a portrait photographer for customers who order and pay since, apart from a Maecenas or two, they want to be flattered, and
the result is no longer real. The sitter is suspicious of the objectivity of the camera, while the photographer is after an acute psychological study of the sitter.

It is true, too, that a certain identity is manifest in all the portraits taken by one photographer. The photographer is searching for identity of his sitter, and also trying to fulfill an expression of himself. The true portrait emphasizes neither the suave nor the grotesque, but reflects the personality.

I infinitely prefer, to contrived portraits, those little identity-card photos which are pasted side by side, row after row, in the windows of passport photographers. At least there is on these faces something that raises a question, a simple factual testimony – this in place of the poetic identification we look for.

Composition

*************

If a photograph is to communicate its subject in all its intensity, the relationship of form must be rigorously established. Photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things. What the eye does is to find and focus on the particular subject within the mass of reality; what the camera does is simply to register upon film the decision made by the eye. We look at and perceive a photograph, as we do a painting, in its entirety and all in one glance. In a photograph, composition is the result of a simultaneous coalition, the organic coordination of elements seen by the eye. One does not add composition as though it were an afterthought superimposed on the basic subject material, since it is impossible to separate content from form. Composition must have its own inevitability about it.

In photography there is a new kind of plasticity, the product of instantaneous lines made by movements of the subject. We work in unison with movement as though it were a presentiment of the way in which life itself unfolds. But inside movement there is one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance. Photography must seize upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it.

The photographer’s eye is perpetually evaluating. A photographer can bring coincidence of line simply by moving his head a fraction of a millimeter. He can modify perspectives by a slight bending of the knees. By placing the camera closer to or farther from the subject, he draws a
detail – and it can be subordinated, or he can be tyrannized by it. But he composes a picture in very nearly the same amount of time it takes to click the shutter, at the speed of a reflex action.

Sometimes it happens that you stall, delay, wait for something to happen. Sometimes you have the feeling that here are all the makings of a picture – except for just one thing that seems to be missing. But what one thing? Perhaps someone suddenly walks into your range of view. You follow his progress through the viewfinder. You wait and wait, and then finally you press the button – and you depart with the feeling (though you don’t know why) that you’ve really got something. Later, to substantiate this, you can take a print of this picture, trace on it the geometric figures which come up under analysis, and you’ll observe that, if the shutter was released at the decisive moment, you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without which the photograph would have been both formless and lifeless.

Composition must be one of our constant preoccupations, but at the moment of shooting it can stem only from our intuition, for we are out to capture the fugitive moment, and all the interrelationships involved are on the move. In applying the Golden Rule, the only pair of compasses at the photographer’s disposal is his own pair of eyes. Any geometrical analysis, any reducing of the picture to a schema, can be done only (because of its very nature) after the photograph has been taken, developed, and printed – and then it can be used only for a postmortem examination of the picture. I hope we will never see the day when photo shops sell little schema grills to clamp onto our viewfinders; and the Golden Rule will never be found etched on our ground glass.

If you start cutting or cropping a good photograph, it means death to the geometrically correct interplay of proportions. Besides, it very rarely happens that a photograph which was feebly composed can be saved by reconstruction of its composition under the darkroom’s enlarger; the integrity of vision is no longer there. There is a lot of talk about camera angles; but the only valid angles in existence are the angles of the geometry of composition and not the ones fabricated by the photographer who falls flat on his stomach or performs other antics to procure his effects.

Color In talking about composition we have been so far thinking only in terms of that symbolic color called black. Black-and-white photography is a deformation, that is to say, an abstraction. In it, all the values are transposed; and this leaves the possibility of choice.
Color photography brings with it a number of problems that are hard to resolve today, and some of which are difficult even to foresee, owing to its complexity and its relative immaturity. At present [1952], color film emulsions are still very slow. Consequently, photographers using color have a tendency to confine themselves to static subjects; or else to use ferociously strong artificial lights. The slow speed of color film reduces the depth of focus in the field of vision in relatively close shots; and this cramping often makes for dull composition. On top of that, blurred backgrounds in color photographs are distinctly displeasing.

Color photographs in the form of transparencies seem quite pleasing sometimes. But then the engraver takes over; and a complete understanding with the engraver would appear to be as desirable in this business as it is in lithography. Finally, there are the inks and the paper, both of which are capable of acting capriciously. A color photograph reproduced in a magazine or semiluxury edition sometimes gives the impression of an anatomical dissection which has been badly bungled.

It is true that color reproductions of pictures and documents have already achieved a certain fidelity to the original; but when the color proceeds to take on real life, it’s another matter. We are only in the infancy of color photography. But all this is not to say we should take no further interest in the question, or sit by waiting for the perfect color film – packaged with the talent necessary to use it – to drop into our laps. We must continue to try to feel our way.

Though it is difficult to foresee exactly how color photography is going to grow m photoreporting, it seems certain that it requires a new attitude of mind, an approach different than that which is appropriate for black-and-white. Personally, I am half afraid that this complex new element may tend to prejudice the achievement of the life and movement which is often caught by black-and-white. To really be able to create in the field of color photography, we should transform and modulate colors, and thus achieve liberty of expression within the framework of the laws which were codified by the Impressionists and from which even a photographer cannot shy away. (The law, for instance, of simultaneous contrast: the law that every color tends to tinge the space next to it with its complementary color; that it two tones contain a color which is common to them both, that common color is attenuated by placing the two tones side by side; that two complementary colors placed side by side emphasize both, but mixed together they annihilate each other; and so on.)

The operation of bringing the color of nature in space to a printed surface poses a series of extremely complex problems. To the eye, certain colors advance, others recede. So we would have to be able to adjust the relations of the color one to the other, for colors, which in nature place themselves in the depth of space, claim a different placing on a plane surface – whether it is the flat surface of a painting or a photograph.

The difficulties involved in snapshooting are precisely that we cannot control the movement of the subject; and in color-photography reporting, the real difficulty is that we are unable to control the interrelation of colors within the subject. It wouldn’t be hard to add to the list of difficulties involved, but it is quite certain that the development of photography is tied up with the development of its technique.

*************

Technique

Constant new discoveries in chemistry and optics are widening our field of action considerably. It is up to us to apply them to our technique, to improve ourselves, but there is a whole group of fetishes which have developed on the subject of technique.

Technique is important only insofar as you must master it in order to communicate what you see. Your own personal technique has to be created and adapted solely in order to make your vision effective on film. But only the results count, and the conclusive evidence is the finished photographic print; otherwise there would be no end to the number of tales photographers would tell about pictures which they ever-so-nearly got – but which are merely a memory in the eye of the nostalgia.

Our trade of photo-reporting has been in existence only about thirty years. It came to maturity due to the development of easily handled cameras, faster lenses, and fast fine-grain films produced for the movie industry. The camera is for us a tool, not a pretty mechanical toy. In the precise functioning of the mechanical object perhaps there is an unconscious compensation for the anxieties and uncertainties of daily endeavor. In any case, people think far too much about techniques and not enough about seeing.

It is enough if a photographer feels at ease with his camera, and if it is appropriate to the job he wants it to do. The actual handling of the camera, its stops, its exposure-speeds and all the rest of it are things which should be as automatic as the changing of” gears in an automobile. It is no part of my business to go into the details or refinements of any of these operations, even the most complicated ones, for they are all set forth with military precision in the manuals which the manufacturers provide along with the camera and the nice orange calf-skin case. If the camera is a beautiful gadget, we should progress beyond that stage at least in conversation. The same applies to the hows and whys of making pretty prints in the darkroom.

During the process of enlarging, it is essential to re-create the values and mood of the time the picture was taken; or even to modify the print so as to bring it into line with the intentions of the photographer at the moment he shot it. It is necessary also to re-establish the balance which the eye is continually establishing between light and shadow. And it is for these reasons that the final act of creating in photography takes place in the darkroom.

I am constantly amused by the notion that some people have about photographic technique – a notion which reveals itself in an insatiable craving for sharpness of images. Is this the passion of an obsession? Or do these people hope, by this trompe l’ oeil technique, to get to closer grips with reality? In either case, they are just as far away from the real problem as those of that other generation which used to endow all its photographic anecdotes with an intentional unsharpness such as was deemed to be “artistic”.

*************

The Customers

The camera enables us to keep a sort of visual chronicle. For me, it is my diary. We photoreporters are people who supply information to a world in a hurry, a world weighted down with preoccupations, prone to cacophony, and full of beings with a hunger for information and needing the companionship of images. We photographers, in the course of taking pictures, inevitably make a judgment on what we see, and that implies a great responsibility. We are, however, dependent on printing, since it is to the illustrated magazines that we, as artisans, deliver raw material.

It was indeed an emotional experience for me when I sold my first photograph (to the French magazine Vu).That was the start of a long alliance with magazines. The magazines produce for us a public, and introduce us to that public; and they know how to get picture-stories across in the way the photographer intended. But sometimes, unhappily, they distort them. The magazine can publish exactly what the photographer wanted to show; but the photographer runs the risk of letting himself be molded by the taste or the requirements of the magazine.

In a picture-story, the captions should invest the pictures with a verbal context, and should illuminate whatever relevant thing it may have been beyond the power of camera to reach. Unfortunately, in the sub-editor’s room, mistakes sometimes slip in that are not just simple misspellings or malapropisms. For these mistakes the reader often holds the photographer responsible. Such things do happen.

The pictures pass through the hands of the editor and the layout man. The editor has to make his choice from the thirty or so pictures of which the average picture-story consists. (It is rather as though he had to cut a text article to pieces in order to end up with a series of quotations!) For a picture-story, as for a novel, there are certain set forms. The pictures of the editor’s choice have to be laid out within the space of two, three, or four pages, according to the amount of interest he thinks they are likely to arouse, or according to the current state of paper shortage.

The great art of the layout man lies in his knowing how to pick from this pile of pictures the particular one which deserves a full-page or a double-page spread; in his knowing where to insert the small picture which must serve as an indispensable link in the story. (The photographer, when he is actually taking the pictures for his story, should never give a thought to the ways in which it will be possible to lay out those pictures to the most advantage.) The layout man will often have to crop one picture so as to leave only the most important section of it – since, for him, it is the unity of the whole page or of the whole spread that counts above all else. A photographer can scarcely be too appreciative of the layout man who gives his work a beautiful presentation of a kind which keeps the full import of the story; a display in which the pictures have spatially correct margins and stand out as they should; and in which each page possesses its own architecture and rhythm.

There is a third anguish for a photographer – when he looks for his story in a magazine. There are ways of communicating our photographs other than through publication in magazines.
Exhibitions, for instance; and the book form, which is almost a form of permanent exhibition.

I have talked at some length, but of only one kind of photography. There are many kinds. Certainly the fading snapshot carried in the back of a wallet, the glossy advertising catalog, and the great range of things in between are photography. I don’t attempt to define it for everyone. I only attempt to define it to myself;

To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.

I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us, which can mold us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between these two worlds – the one inside us and the one outside us. As the result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate.

But this takes care only of the content of the picture. For me, content cannot be separated from form. By form, I mean a rigorous organization of the interplay of surfaces, lines, and values. It is in this organization alone that our conceptions and emotions become concrete and communicable. In photography, visual organization can stem only from a developed instinct.

Crazy Violent Americans

Above is the Forensics Unit of Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina. Dix Hospital is (was) our state’s primary mental hospital. The Forensics Unit is where we housed people who were considered ‘criminally insane,’ and also where defendants were sent to assess their sanity and competence to stand trial. It’s closed now, but a light or two still burns in an odd window.

The hospital grounds are within walking distance of my home. Buddy, my dog, loves being walked on the grounds. He likes to chase the groundhogs that populate the hospital campus. He nabbed one a few weeks ago and proceeded to kill it. I tried to reason with him about why that might be wrong, but he wasn’t having any of it. He’s an animal. What are you going to do? At least he can do it with a clear conscience. He’s a carnivore, and he’s not killing them for a thrill, or because he’s pissed off at me, or whatever. He’s killing them because it’s instinctual, unlike a human’s desire to kill, which is a chosen action with ethical and moral implications.

Why kill groundhogs? Groundhogs are totally harmless. I grew up with a family of groundhogs that had made a burrow in our New Jersey backyard. My mom was always harassing my father to get rid of them, put poison out etc. What, I asked, are they doing to bother us? They’re just being groundhogs. Give em a break. Eventually, they relented, and we kept ‘our’ groundhogs. They were lucky. Most people just kill em when they find them in proximity.

But back to the point. I was walking Buddy the other day and decided, what the hell, I should see if I can’t get into that building. Probably some really interesting things in there. So I tried all the doors, and the last one I tried – 3 flights up an exterior fire escape – opened right up. Holy Shit. After propping the door open to assure myself re-entry, I took Buddy home, grabbed a camera, and went back to explore.

*************

There were numerous lights on and the plumbing still worked. There were personal effects of patients in various cells. One floor still contained patient records (major HIPA violation). It looked at if the only thing they’d done when they closed the facility down was to remove the patients, where to, I’ve got no clue. I assume they’re now housed at the State Penitentiary, which is within spitting distance of the other side of my house. Yes; I live between the State Mental Hospital and the State Prison, equidistant between the criminally insane and the state’s death chamber. In its defense, it’s a great neighborhood; I’m within easy walking distance of downtown, and everybody wants to live close to downtown these days, so my property values are pretty crazy, which I like. I can put up with being next to the Penitentiary.

*************

A “Self-Esteem Group” for the Criminally Insane. Only in America.

*************

From Charley Bill Raper’s Cell

Wilson Man Charged In Double Murder Had Prior Run-Ins With Law

Posted October 11, 2004

WILSON COUNTY, N.C. — A home, where police found a woman and her son stabbed to death, is now the focus of an arson investigation as well.Investigators are looking to see if a vindictive family member or friend started the fire at a house where Charles Raper drove a truck through on Friday night.

Court records show Bill Raper threatened to kill his wife and burn down their house. Investigators said he succeeded in murdering his estranged wife, Sandra, and his 27-year-old stepson, Ray Batchelor.”We all knew he was capable of something like that because she talked about how mean he was to her, but we never thought he’d actually do it,” Amy Temple, Sandra’s niece.

The couple had a violent past in recent years. On Thursday, Sandra Raper got a protective order against her husband. The next day, detectives say Bill Raper drove his truck, filled with containers of fuel, right into the house.Investigators said Raper hoped the truck would ignite from the fireplace pilot light. They said when it did not, Raper got out and stabbed his wife and stepson with a butcher knife.

Some friends of Bill Raper claim he was the one often beaten by his wife and stepson and have pictures to back their story.”Everybody sees him as the mean person, but he’s more the victim of domestic violence,” said Fay Joyner, Bill Raper’s friend.

“This was not an act of instantaneous violence. This was methodically thought out and carried out,” said Maj. John Farmer, of the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office.

*************

Phenomenology and a Day at the Omaha Zoo

I hate zoos. Animals shouldn’t be confined and put on display for our amusement. That being said, this past summer I spent a day at the Omaha Zoo, it being, I’m told, “world famous.” I’d have been perfectly happy to sit for the day in our hipster hotel room in downtown Omaha drinking bourbon while the wife went to visit family. Instead, I was dragooned into visiting the zoo. You’ll have fun, she said. Remember that guy who took photos at the zoo, the guy who you like who took all the crazy street photos, she asked. Why not do the same. Take your camera and see what you come up with, she said. It’ll be fun. I had been giving animals a lot of thought recently, so I figured, what the hell, let’s go to the Zoo.

During that time I’d been reading in a philosophical movement known as “Phenomenology,” and specifically the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and the Swede Jakob Uexkull. In 1934 Uexkull published A Foray into the World of Animals and Humans, much of it based on ideas first elaborated by Husserl, which established what is now known as ‘biosemiotics,’ a fancy word for the premise, based on Phenomenologist thinking, that you must first understand the animal’s environment, its “umwelt” (literally its “around-world”), before you could have any sense of what it might be like to be that animal. The animal is its umwelt. This has obvious implications for housing non-human animals in zoos. If your intent is to understand the animal as it exists in nature, the one on display in a zoo enclosure won’t help, because it’s not that animal. Their respective umwelts are completely different.

The art critic John Berger, the guy who wrote the iconic “Ways of Seeing” in 1971, recently wrote an essay “Why look at Animals?” (2009). In it, he argued that zoos are emblematic of western society’s disenchanted worldview, where science has stripped away the basic ‘Being’ of animals, considering them devoid of any interiority. As such, house them where you will; they’re all the same wherever they live. They’re machines made of meat, inert things to observe and exploit rather than creatures who have a life and with whom we might share a life. Instead of acknowledging their being and sharing a world with them, we capture them and exhibit them in museums we call ‘zoos,’ where they become an object whose sole use is to be gazed at. In attempting to understand them, we negate them. It’s all very sad. This sadness, essentially, was Gary Winogrand’s point in his first published book of photography, The Animals (1969).

*************

Winogrand, from The Animals. This Photo Makes Me Sooo Sad.

So, as I walked through the Omaha zoo, camera in hand, I was thinking about non-human animals and umwelts and Husserl and Uexkull and Winogrand. I wanted to be more cognizant of the being of the animals I observed… and more deliberate in my photographic response to them than Winogrand probably had been. I wanted to ‘think’ my photographs, to ‘see’ photographs that reflected the big ideas I carried around in my head. I had my Sigma Merrill, which is slow and encourages slow contemplative technique. No point and shoot. Rather, consider, evaluate, compose, reevaluate, recompose, shoot…and then wait as the camera processes the massive file. Then start again. If I took 30 photos while at the zoo, that’d be a good day’s work. Not much different from the film photography I’d grown up with.

While in the zoo’s aquarium, I noticed a guy with 2 DSLR’s hanging from his neck, enormous lenses mounted on both. Typical meatball, probably with a social media feed full of photos of sunsets. I watched him hold his camera up and heard the rapid clacking of a modern DSLR in burst mode. He must have fired off 15 shots in a second or two, put the camera down, and walked to the next exhibit, where he did the same thing. I saw him again later, outside, standing in front of the zebra pen, burst shooting at a zebra standing forlornly in the enclosure’s far corner. What’s it like to be that kind of photographer, I wondered?

*************

Edmund Husserl says we create our umwelt by the attention we pay. Our realities are unique to us, created in the space we live in as opposed to some objective geometric space, in lived time as opposed to clock time. For Husserl, all experience necessarily involves a subjectivity the quality of which creates the experience itself. In effect, we get to choose our reality by choosing how we attend to it. In watching this guy with his cameras, I couldn’t help but think of the lessons I’d been taught reading the phenomenology of Husserl and Uexkull, of how you choose to structure your embodied experience in the world, and how that choice creates meaning, what Husserl calls your ‘lifeworld;’ how the experience of embodiment – bodily spatiality, but also attention and agency – affects the quality of your reality, your umwelt.

Me. At My Fancy Downtown Art-Deco Hotel. Creating My Umwelt. This is what my Wife Dragged Me From to Go to the Zoo.

What would have been DSLR guy’s experience? It certainly couldn’t have provided him the same experience of a more thoughtful photographer – someone slower and more nuanced, someone paying attention and attuned to his tools and his subject matter. I thought of how an hour really looking, attuned to the subtle changes of light and shade, the play of forms as people move about, the aesthetics of their groupings, the search for that one instant that makes a photo – the ‘decisive moment’ to use the overburdened cliche – contrasted with an hour hustling through that same landscape reflexively pointing one’s camera at things in 11 fps burst mode. I pondered the umwelt of the person who off-loads aesthetic decisions to burst-mode, how his disembodied interaction with his tools shapes his experience of his photographic act and environment. My experience versus DSLR guy’s experience. Both of our hours at the zoo, camera in hand, consisted of the same number of minutes ostensibly engaged in the same activity; however, I suspect that our respective lived experience differed as night does day.

Photography in the Age of the Quick and Easy

I recently spent a week at the beach in North Carolina. North Carolina has incredible beaches, as nice as any anywhere. They’re an easy 2 hour drive from my home in Raleigh, although it was the first time I’d been to the beach in a while. I suspect that’s fairly typical. Like most wonderful things easily accessible from one’s home, we rarely take advantage of the proximity, knowing it’s always there if we do decide to visit. For example: Born and raised 15 miles from the Statue of Liberty, I’d never been until a few years ago, when I took our Italian exchange student for a visit. It’s also why I silently discount friends who live in NYC and justify the insane costs of living there by citing the proximity to various cultural opportunities or gourmet bagel places not available to us out in the sticks. [Right…when was the last time you went to MOMA or the Opera or the Whitney? And how much did it cost you in time, money, effort, and all the other petty harassments that come along with it? And who gives a shit about your bagels anyway? I meanwhile, can ride my bicycle out my back door onto beautiful dedicated bike trails to our Museum of Art (free admission), or to the museum on the campus of NC State (free admission), or can walk downtown to the Museum of Natural History (free) or to catch a bite to eat at one of the restaurants run by the chef recently awarded the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Nation, or I can jump in the car and easily access the myriad cultural offerings of Durham and Duke University or Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina, all without constantly feeding 10 dollar toll charges to disembodied arms extended from gas-fumed toll booths, and I can do it all from my beautiful 100-year-old home set amidst 4 glorious ancient Oaks which probably costs me less per month than a shared 8×6 closet with chamber pot in some roach-infested walk-up in a Lower East Side neighborhood where preternaturally thin women with artificially stretched faces carry yoga mats and $12 spiced lattes. But I digress…]

My real point is not to denigrate New Yorkers (although I find them laughingly easy targets) but to tell you about my holiday. I figured I’d use the week as an opportunity to ‘document’ my trip, if for no other reason because I’m running out of things to write for Leicaphilia and none of my readers bother to send me content, preferring to free-load. The plan was this: I’d bring 10 rolls of Fomapan 400 with my M5 with 35mm and F5 with 50mm, and my Sigma DP1 Merrill. I’d take a bunch of pictures, post the best, and see if it made any real difference whether I shot film or digital and if it did if I could articulate the difference and/or could show the difference in my output.

*************

Unfortunately, I’ve not gotten around to developing the 8 rolls of Fomapan I exposed. Even with an 8 reel tank, it takes time to develop 8 reels, hang them to dry and then bulk scan them and edit them down for a few keepers. You’ve got to be pretty dedicated. Hopefully, I’ll find the time to get to them in the next few days and they won’t get thrown in a bag with 80 or so other rolls still waiting to be developed. It didn’t help that my M5 shutter stuck at 1/500th an 1/100th of a second, which means I didn’t shoot much of anything with it but instead shot 7 rolls with the F5, most of which were close-ups of my dog and wife in various states of repose. I never took either film camera out of doors.

Which left me with my Sigma DP1 Merrill, which proved remarkably useful even at base 100 ISO given the amount of light available. It accompanied me both on the beach, off of it, and indoors. The output is really beautiful, but it’s not really appreciable when viewed on the web, where you’re viewing downsized jpgs. Trust me; the RAW files developed with Sigma’s software are stunning. The problem is the slowness of the RAW software: it took all afternoon to download 121 files, given that the software crashed 4 separate times before I got them all downloaded. And then I had to convert them all to TIFF files so they could be read by Lightroom. That took an hour or so. And then, of course, I had to find the keepers and edit them in Lightroom.

*************

I also took my iPhone 8, which I take everywhere given it’s my lifeline to the rest of humanity. I hadn’t even thought of using it to take photos, stuck as I am in the out-moded mindset that requires dedicated photographic equipment in order to properly photograph things. But given it was always on me, I ended up taking photographs with it – not the planned kind, just records of spontaneous experiences I wanted to preserve on a whim. Point, shoot and forget, which is pretty much what I did. No convoluted thinking about aperture, or light, or even composition; certainly not film speed or type.

Out of curiosity, the morning we left I took a look at the photos I’d taken with my phone. I plugged a few of the ones that caught my eye into an app I had on the phone that applies “filters” to photos, chose a few random filters and saved the ones I liked. The whole thing, beginning to end, took about 5 minutes. The photo of my brother-in-law that leads off the piece is one, as is the one above and the ones below. All the others – the 2×3 format photos, are from the Sigma.

So, tell me again, what exactly was the point of the film cameras…or the Sigma for that matter?

My War Story

[Editor’s Note: I’m currently enrolled in a graduate seminar on “Conflict Photography” at Harvard University. Our first assignment was to “tell your war story.” Here’s mine]

Driving through the Mississippi Delta in 2008, I passed through the little hamlet of Midnight, Mississippi, not so much a town as a few shacks clustered around a church hard against an abandoned rail line. Until mechanized farming destroyed the need for field labor, Midnight had been a thriving cotton town centered around a bustling cotton gin, connected to the larger world by a railroad bisecting cotton fields stretching as far as one could see.  Now it was a forsaken spot where a dozen abysmally poor black families clung to each other in desperation, whatever work there had once been for them long gone. It was a sad place, slightly surreal in its seemingly static acceptance of the cruelties visited upon them amidst natural plenty. Even the name of the town – “Midnight” – bespoke a wry cynicism, having been bestowed on it by a local planter who won the entire town in a midnight poker game back in the day.

Up through the 1960′s, Midnight’s economic and social relations functioned in a manner not much different than they did during slavery. Whites owned the land while entire black families, from school age children to grandparents, worked it.  The profits went into the pockets of the land-owner, the gin owner or off somewhere else. Today, large agricultural concerns farm the fields with machines.  The remaining residents, descendants of those who worked the land since slavery, have no work and subsist on government aid. The poverty in which they live and attempt to maintain some semblance of dignity is appalling.

I passed through Midnight twice that day. Both times I saw an elderly black man sitting under a tree across the street from the only commercial establishment in the area, a dilapidated market selling beer and cheap wine. First time I waved; second time, I stopped, got out of the car and said hello. The old man introduced himself as ‘Artee James’ and invited me to sit. We got to talking, as people who’ve just met and are trying to be friendly do – about the weather and Mississippi and the pick-up trucks that kicked up dust when they rumbled past. At some point I retrieved my camera from the car, which, being honest, was the reason I stopped in the first place. To my eye, educated in American social history and documentary aesthetics, Mr. James, sitting serenely under a tree on a littered patch of dirt in a forgotten town in the Mississippi Delta, had the makings of a fascinating series of photos, sufficiently ‘exotic’ yet capable of serving the larger narrative of my choosing.

I hadn’t really considered the ethics of the interaction I’d initiated when I stopped and said hello. Specifically, I didn’t think what Artee James might think. Had you asked me, I’d tell you my motives were pure and reasonable. Educated both as a historian and a documentarian, I saw myself as ethically neutral, documenting something that deserved documentation. Mr. James, to the extent I considered him at all, was my entrée into a larger aesthetic and social subject. As for my prerogative in doing so, whatever reservations I felt I put aside as unproductive.

We talked while I photographed him, more a friendly interrogation than a dialogue of equals.  Mr. James was gracious enough to tell me about himself and his life. Now in his late 70’s, he had worked the cotton fields since he was a child. Polite yet reticent, he had obviously seen more than he cared to tell. He told of a neighbor lynched in the early 60′s (I subsequently followed up on his story and found out, yes, it had happened, just like he said). Especially memorable for him had been Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘Freedom March’ through Midnight in 1964. He only glimpsed Dr. King from the fields as King marched through town with a large group of activists; Mr. James and his fellow workers had been warned by their work supervisor they’d be set off their land if they joined the march. Midnight’s white land-owner cut off water to the town to encourage the marchers to pass through quickly; Mr. James mentioned this matter-of-factly, like it wasn’t something that needed further explanation. Even though he’d been prevented from greeting or marching with Dr. King, the presence of people marching through Midnight gave him hope. It was a feeling he remembered, a sense of pride that a famous man like Dr. King would care for him and his troubles. He shook his head, as if reliving a bittersweet memory, and then fell silent. Meanwhile, I walked around him taking photos.

Eventually, his friends and neighbors came out to see what was going on as we talked and I photographed. They stood around quietly, respectfully, but with the body language of people turned in on themselves. When I tried to engage them in conversation, they deferred to Mr. James to answer. I presumed at the time their reticence was shyness and not born of distrust or dislike. They certainly weren’t rude. I ended up staying awhile; someone eventually brought me a beer and then another, a neighbor woman brought me a poem she had written, and, in the course of the afternoon, I met Midnight’s residents, including a middle-aged woman, son attending Mississippi State University, who seemed to know everything about the town and its history and was grateful someone showed some interest, and who ultimately invited me to come back and spend some time with them.

I subsequently spent a week photographing their children, homes and church. They treated me with respect and kindness, even though what I was doing was trading on their pain and historical misery for my benefit, something I only realized in hindsight.  One particular encounter – me with my camera, a resident doing yard work in the church cemetery – left me profoundly troubled by what I was doing in the name of ‘documenting’, by the assumptions I brought to the process by which I objectified their difficulties and pain.

*************

My encounter with Midnight, Mississippi came to mind when I began to think about my ‘War Story.’ I don’t come from a ‘military family.’ Neither my siblings, father nor either grandfather fought in war; I never served in the military nor do I identify with military culture or the nationalism that glorifies it. I don’t have a ‘war story’ per se; I’ve never experienced war except as a passive consumer of its language and imagery, gleaned from various written historical sources and contemporary visual depictions. While I’ve read Herodotus and Thucydides and Homer’s Iliad, classical notions of warrior excellence and war as a maker of meaning strike me as irrational vestiges of dysfunctional cultural constructions. To my mind, there’s nothing good about war.

I’m not sure there’s anything good about photographing war either. I see the same ethical dilemmas in conflict photography as I eventually saw in my interactions with Mr. James and the residents of Midnight, the exploitation of another’s misery in service to individual ends. How do you ‘document’ the pain of others without exploiting the sufferer and leveling their experience to an aesthetic event?

A few years ago I was in Powell’s Books in Portland, a white upper-middle-class hipster place if I’ve ever seen one; looking through the photography section I picked up a book that had recently gotten a lot of interesting reviews in the art press. The author/artist had compiled odd and interesting photos gathered from Google Street views and made a book of it. It had won a few awards, and the author had made a name for himself in the proper circles, something he could leverage in the future. Paging through it, there was a Google Street view from Midnight Mississippi, a blurry capture of an old black man sitting in a lawn chair under a tree. It was Artee James.

A Plague of Images

In my quieter moments, I’m finding myself more and more averse to photography. I’m pretty much sick of it. That’s what too much of a good thing will do. I’m overwhelmed by the constant bombardment of images via the internet, on my phone and computer, all made effortless by cel phones. Images have no value anymore. They’ve become the visual equivalent of junk mail, usually now in the service of someone’s idealized version of themselves or their lifestyle.

I’ve found myself painting again, probably because I’m increasingly frustrated by the lack of satisfaction photography offers me as a creative outlet. The photo above is a case lesson in why. I took it with a large film camera in 2005. I thought it was pretty cool, so it hung in my house. 15 years ago I could think it might say something about how I see things, something unique about me, both my creative vision and competence in the medium as a means to accomplish that vision. Now, it’s just another phone pic with a filter, something a 12 year old can do with an iPhone. Tell me why anyone should be impressed or even care.

And then there’s the sheer volume of images constantly inundating me everywhere. I’m bombarded with vulgar, banal and stupid images. It’s worn me out. I want to go back to a time when a single picture could move me with its unique beauty. Usually, the photos that did were relatively small and framed and hung on a wall someplace special. They were simple technologically – usually black and white – but they felt like precious jewels. See, for example, the exhibited work of Jacques Henri Lartigue, Walker Evans or Josef Koudelka. These works enriched my life, maybe because they were rare and beautiful and thus possessed a value that transcended their aesthetic worth.

Now, nothing can have that value anymore.

*************

James Lovelock talks of the serious malady affecting ecology, what he calls ‘Disseminated Primeatemaia’, the “plague of people” that threatens to overwhelm ecological balance. I immediately thought of the photographic analogy, ‘Disseminated Photomaia’, the plague of images overwhelming us. I’ve elucidated its subjective effects above.

This plague of images contains the kernel of a more existential transformation as well. It threatens to overwhelm and transform our conceptual reality. If you think about it, this is a plague unique to industrialized modernity. Prior to the 19th century and the advent of technologies of inexpensive reproduction and dissemination, images were rare things, encountered in churches and, more rarely, as artistic creations in the service of social and/or political power. Your average peasant very rarely encountered images in his daily life, maybe 10-20 in his lifetime. We encounter that amount every minute or so.

Unfortunately, we haven’t yet really internalized what this has done to our understanding of what’s ‘real.’ We naively consider ‘reality’ as being separate and distinct from images that reflect it; we think ‘reality’ creates its images. In fact, it’s the opposite. Even prior to the internet age, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) noted that we post-industrial moderns inhabit a world created of constant and pervasive imagery, what he termed ‘hyperreality’. Baudrillard claimed that this hyperreality has reversed the relationship of image and reality: images now precede and shape reality as opposed to reflecting a prior reality. The image creates the reality; hence, the rise of the absurd phenomenon of internet “influencers” and other moronic Gen-X agit-prop airbrushing the real. No wonder kids are mainlining heroin, jumping off buildings and shooting up schools. Their ‘reality’ is an incoherent, fucked-up mess of false perfection, self-aggrandizement and consumerism.

Our experience of the world is filtered through preconceptions and expectations that are products of media culture. As John Divola notes in Continuity (1997), the images we see offer a representational ground on which we base our sense of reality, “the millions of such images seen in a lifetime form the internal visual index of what we accept to be real.” In a world saturated with reproductions, representations, and imitations, it becomes very difficult to conceptualize a ‘pure reality’ to which we can contrast the myriad of simulated realities we create out of image environment we’re imprisoned in. Simulations have transformed modernity’s conception of what is real, in our behavior, our bodies, our buildings, our procedures, and our environment. The arrow between the real and the image has been reversed: now ‘reality’ is an effect of images, rather than images springing from something prior to and deeper. Instead of art imitating life, life now imitates art.

Eugene Richards on Robert Frank

Still House Hollow, Tennessee 1986, Eugene Richards

Eugene Richards is an American documentary photographer. Richards, a member of both Magnum and VII Photo Agencies, is known most notably for his 1978 monograph “Dorchester Days”, his self-published book of life in his hometown of Dorchester, Massachusetts. Richards’s work is an amalgam of the subjectivity of Robert Frank and the social commitment of W. Eugene Smith. He is, “very conscious of what it means to go into someone’s house and take very private moments away in pictures. The responsibility of the photographer is to respect people while—and this is most important—utilizing all your skills to reveal something true about their lives and their humanity.” 

*************

“Best as I can remember, I first saw “The Americans” in the early 1970s, right after I got back from working as a social worker and reporter in the Arkansas delta. I was unemployed, carrying around pictures of impoverished sharecroppers no one wanted to look at, not to mention flat out depressed by the ongoing Vietnam War and the growing social divisions in the United States at that time.

Hard to explain. “The Americans” — not one or two or three pictures, the whole of it — pushed me back out on the streets. Once derided as crude and un-American, now lauded as a masterpiece, the old book had me wanting to take pictures again, had me speaking out again, even when I figured almost nobody would be listening.”


The Man Who Saw America

[Editor’s Note: Robert Frank died yesterday, September 10, 2019, at the age of 94. IMHO, he was the most influential photographer who ever lived. This is a reprint of an article about Frank published by the New York Times in 2015]

Last May [2015], Robert Frank, the world’s pre-eminent living photographer, returned to Zurich, the orderly Swiss banking city, cosseted by lake and mountain, where he grew up. When an artist who made his reputation by leaving returns home, mixed feelings are inevitable, and that was especially true for Frank, whose iconic American pictures are notable for their deep understanding of human complication. ‘‘I know this town, but I certainly feel like a stranger here,’’ he said.

As he walked through the immaculate Zurich city center, with its many statues, gilded shop signs and fountains, Frank was ‘‘just amazed how well organized everything is, how perfect everything is.’’ The Swiss, he explained, do not throw coins into fountains, because ‘‘they have everything they need. They don’t believe in wishing wells. Only the poor have to hope.’’ Deciding he wanted to ride a streetcar, Frank surveyed the different lines. ‘‘I usually don’t get a ticket on the tram,’’ he explained. ‘‘This town is rich enough.’’ He said he never worried about being caught by inspectors, and he didn’t seem worried. He seemed the way he typically did — fully present and yet filled with personal mystery. ‘‘I don’t know where that one goes, so we’ll take it,’’ he said, and was soon bound for a working-class district of the city.

Frank has always been a picture-maker unconcerned with his own appearance, and sitting quietly beside the streetcar window, he wore the usual faded work shirt, frayed pants and one too many mornings of stubble. A sturdy man who never uses socks, a winter hat or gloves, Frank is now 90, and in the cool Swiss air, he had on a new blue down coat. His melancholy eyes rarely betray anything, but as he gazed out at the city of his youth, there was the sense of a man wary, defended, skeptical, yet willing to be engaged. In his pocket he carried an Olympus camera.

Robert Frank

Robert Frank and June Leaf in Mabou. Credit: Katy Grannan for The New York Times

Frank had come to Switzerland to receive the Roswitha Haftmann Prize for lifetime achievement, Europe’s most lucrative fine-arts award, though he doesn’t need the money. His photographs command steep prices, and nothing about his current way of living is much different from his days as a young man, when, he says, ‘‘I decided if I swore off socks, I had more money for books.’’ Several years ago, Frank sold the paintings given to him in the 1940s by an impoverished friend, Sanyu, who became a renowned modern Chinese painter. Frank received millions of dollars, but wealth so discomfited him he used it to create a foundation and gave it away.

Acclaim was likewise anathema. By the 1960s, just as his work was gaining a following, Frank abruptly moved on from still photography to become an underground filmmaker. Ten years later, with all the glories of the art world calling to him, Frank fled New York, moving to a barren hillside far in the Canadian north. Over the years, when museums asked to exhibit his work, when universities like Yale sought to award him honorary degrees, he would think, Let someone else have it, and decline. ‘‘He never crossed over into celebrity,’’ says the photographer Nan Goldin. ‘‘He’s famous because he made a mark. He collected the world.’’

The tram entered a scruffy immigrant neighborhood not far from where Frank’s father, Hermann, had his business importing radios and record players, for which Hermann himself designed cabinets that Frank describes as ‘‘horrible.’’ Frank carried two rolls of film, but all the way out he only gazed out the window. He could have been anybody. Back in the 1950s, when Frank was making what amounted to private photographic studies in public places, one of his skills was remaining inconspicuous in casinos, restrooms and elevators. Here, near the end of the tram line, suddenly the camera appeared. There was a single click. Nothing beyond the window looked unusual. Then Frank pointed to a construction crane, its boom passing below a church steeple clock. ‘‘This is Zurich,’’ he explained. ‘‘The crane. The clock. The church. Functional.’’ It was the one picture of the day.

Sixty years ago, at the height of his powers, Frank left New York in a secondhand Ford and began the epic yearlong road trip that would become ‘‘The Americans,’’ a photographic survey of the inner life of the country that Peter Schjeldahl, art critic at The New Yorker, considers ‘‘one of the basic American masterpieces of any medium.’’ Frank hoped to express the emotional rhythms of the United States, to portray underlying realities and misgivings — how it felt to be wealthy, to be poor, to be in love, to be alone, to be young or old, to be black or white, to live along a country road or to walk a crowded sidewalk, to be overworked or sleeping in parks, to be a swaggering Southern couple or to be young and gay in New York, to be politicking or at prayer.

Robert Frank and June Leaf in Mabou. Credit: Katy Grannan for The New York Times

The book begins with a white woman at her window hidden behind a flag. That announcement — here are the American unseen — the Harvard photography historian Robin Kelsey likens to the splash of snare drum at the beginning of Bob Dylan’s ‘‘Like a Rolling Stone’’: ‘‘It flaps you right away.’’ The images that follow — a smoking industrial landscape in Butte, Mont.; a black nurse holding a porcelain-white baby or an unwatched black infant rolling off its blanket on the floor of a bar in South Carolina — were all different jolts of the same current. That is the miracle of great socially committed art: It addresses our sources of deepest unease, helps us to confront what we cannot organize or explain by making all of it unforgettable. ‘‘I think people like the book because it shows what people think about but don’t discuss,’’ Frank says. ‘‘It shows what’s on the edge of their mind.’’

On a trip upstate, Frank visited a Fourth of July celebration in rural Jay, N.Y., and photographed two girls in white dresses skipping beneath a huge, diaphanous American flag. ‘‘Something I really like is a big flag,’’ Frank says. ‘‘Here, people are so proud of it. In other countries you don’t feel they’re so proud of their flag.’’ Like most things with Frank, that cuts two ways. Foreign, uncompromisingly independent, Frank loathed the provincial prevarications of nostalgia. At closer inspection, the flag is torn, while along the photograph’s edge is the only visible face: a sneering boy. That the flag is transparent means that in ‘‘The Americans,’’ a reader looks, in effect, through the cloth to the image on the next page — to segregated New Orleans, where Frank made his best-known picture.

Frank passed through the city in 1955 and took a photograph of a row of passengers on a Canal Street trolley — whites in front, blacks in back. In the moment, life stilled into such clarity that Frank’s shutter needed to move only once. What he says attracted him then was something filmic: ‘‘Five people sitting, each occupying a frame.’’ But it’s a black man, his forehead creased, whose complex expression makes the picture. ‘‘He’s looked at that street many times,’’ Frank says. Plenty of photographs were taken during Jim Crow. Frank’s gift was to transcend reportage and tell you something about the condition — how oppression felt.

When Frank began his expedition upriver into the heart of American ambivalence, photography remained, as Walker Evans said, ‘‘a disdained medium.’’ Only a few American art museums collected photographs. Most of the published images portrayed figures of status. One notable exception was the work of Dorothea Lange. Frank respected her compassion but considered her Dust Bowl pictures maudlin — triumphalist takes on adversity. ‘‘I photographed people who were held back, who never could step over a certain line,’’ he says. ‘‘My mother asked me, ‘Why do you always take pictures of poor people?’ It wasn’t true, but my sympathies were with people who struggled. There was also my mistrust of people who made the rules.’’ That impulse seems particularly potent today, during our charged national moment — our time of belated reckoning with how violent, enraged, unbalanced and unjust the United States often still is. To look again at the photographs Frank made before Selma, Vietnam and Stonewall, before income inequality, iPhones and ‘‘I can’t breathe,’’ is to realize he recognized us before we recognized ourselves.

“Fourth of July — Jay, New York,’’ 1954, Credit: Robert Frank via Pace/MacGill Gallery

Frank grew up in ‘‘a sad household.’’ In the 1930s, Zurich radio was full of Hitler. ‘‘That voice cursing the Jews,’’ he says. ‘‘You couldn’t turn off the voice.’’ Hermann Frank had been an excellent Sunday photographer, but securing the material comforts of Persian carpets and fine goose liver was his priority. ‘‘My father married my mother because of money. It became the most important thing in order for them to feel good. If my father had a good day, dinner would end and my father would take out his wallet and give my mother 100 Swiss francs.’’ Frank was repelled: ‘‘I was driven by negative influence. I wanted to get away.’’

In 1947, family friends who lived in Queens met the boat that carried Frank to the United States. The next day, they showed him Times Square: ‘‘The crowd! The crowd! I never was used to such a big crowd, and they were so enthusiastic about being there. It was America! Those big signs!’’ At a coffee shop, Frank encountered a waitress who flung everyone’s silverware onto the table. In that moment of democratic informality, Frank knew New York was where he wanted to be. ‘‘In Paris you’d see African people on the subway, and they were African. Here in America they are Americans. There is no other place like this.

The sheer diversity and scale of the United States thrilled Frank. ‘‘It’s a big country,’’ he says. ‘‘Coming from Switzerland, it’s vast.’’ Because there was such freedom of mobility, he could go many places, and in all of them he saw heightened experience — including, to his surprise, the masses of people who ‘‘looked desperate.’’ Some, like him, were getting by, but for many others the American promise never took. Early on in New York he met a former soldier who ‘‘would wear his uniform from the Marines every day. Even though he was not in the Marines anymore. He asked me to rent a place with him. I did for a few months. He didn’t have a job. Nice man. Lost. They get lost.’’

Frank got commercial photography assignments from magazines like Harper’s Bazaar while also roaming around New York, following ‘‘my own feelings.’’ His way of living resisted convention —‘‘I never worried about insurance’’— as did his work. For American photographers at the time, the professional apotheosis was Life magazine. Henry Luce, the publisher, favored linear, neatly partisan narratives, and Life’s editors repeatedly rejected Frank. Frank’s photographs suggested life was more fraught: ‘‘I leave it up to you,’’ he says. ‘‘They don’t have an end or a beginning. They’re a piece of the middle.’’

Frank was also passed over by Magnum, the elite consortium of photographers led by Robert Capa: ‘‘Capa said my pictures were too horizontal, and magazines were vertical.’’ The photographer Elliott Erwitt knew Frank then and says, ‘‘It was the beginning of that kind of photography that Robert did, seemingly sloppy, but not — and very emotional. The acceptable pictures then were sharp and technically excellent. But the pictures of Robert Frank were very different.’’ To Frank, the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s idea of a ‘‘decisive moment’’ in photography seemed reductive. Frank was in search of ‘‘some moment I couldn’t explain,’’ and periodically went off on his own to make pictures of Peruvian farmers, Welsh miners and French street children. His unwillingness to compromise led to breaks with friends like Erwitt. ‘‘I became a professional doing what people expected from me,’’ Erwitt says. ‘‘We all respected Robert’s talent and ability and knew he was difficult and fought with everyone — could be quite vindictive with some. We just dissolved the friendship. I felt he felt I’d gone the wrong way, the nonartist way.’’

In the late 1940s, Frank met a teenage dance and art student named Mary Lockspeiser, whose pale eyes and luminous complexion were perhaps especially compelling to a man who saw the world in black and white. ‘‘She was young, but I thought, Why not?’’ says Frank, who was nine years older. ‘‘She was alive for everything.’’ They married, and had two children: Pablo, named, he says, after the cellist Pablo Casals, and Andrea — ‘‘She was named for a boat that sank.’’ His sense of humor is just black enough that you wonder when he’s joking.

The family lived, as Mary put it in an interview with the Smithsonian Institution, ‘‘very chaotically in every way.’’ They scavenged the sidewalks for furnishings and inhabited desolate, formerly industrial downtown neighborhoods. The Franks were young artists, and struggled as parents; Pablo and Andrea were often left to themselves. ‘‘I felt we weren’t made for it,” Frank says. Mary was ‘‘a young woman who wanted to work, and I was running after my career,” he says, adding that ‘‘it was very, very hard, almost impossible to live with me.’’

Frank absorbed artistic influences all over New York. Edward Hopper’s moody office-scapes, restaurant interiors and gas pumps were not in fashion when Frank discovered the painter: ‘‘So clear and so decisive. The human form in it. You look twice — what’s this guy waiting for? What’s he looking at? The simplicity of two facing each other. A man in a chair.’’ Frank’s creative day to day was informed by the Abstract Expressionist painters he lived among. Through his window, Frank studied Willem de Kooning pacing his studio in his underwear, pausing at his easel and then walking the floor some more. ‘‘I was a very silent unobserved watcher of this man at work. It meant a lot to me. It encouraged me to pace up and down and struggle.’’ He also saw the downside of an artist’s life: ‘‘I used to watch de Kooning work, and then I’d walk down the street and see him drinking and lying in the gutter. Somebody’s bringing him upstairs. You drink because you have doubts. Things seem to crumble around you.’’

. Robert Frank. Credit: Katy Grannan for The New York Times

Since there ‘‘weren’t so many artists in photography to meet,’’ Frank says, he became interested in the work of only one photographer: Walker Evans. Evans’s images of battered roadside prewar America were, as the photographer Tod Papageorge writes, Frank’s ‘‘sourcebook’’ for his own rendition of the American scene. Frank sought Evans out, and soon the older man was inviting Frank to his Upper East Side apartment to help him photograph objects like tools arranged on a table. ‘‘If I put a piece of cheese on the table and said, ‘Photograph it,’ ’’ Frank says, ‘‘his would be different from my piece of cheese. His pictures were more careful. I was fast. Hurry! Hurry! Life goes fast.’’

Evans wore English shoes and patrician airs. Frank had become close to raffish Beats like the poet Allen Ginsberg, and when Evans was hospitalized, he asked Frank not to bring ‘‘any of those friends of yours up here.’’ Frank believed that despite the humanity in his pictures, Evans ‘‘felt he was better than other people. That was something I couldn’t stand.’’

Evans admired talent, and he became Frank’s champion, encouraging him to complete a Guggenheim application to support the photographic journey that would become ‘‘The Americans.’’ Evans wrote him a recommendation, calling him ‘‘a born artist,’’ and helped plan his itinerary.

Frank left his family behind in 1955 and went off to see Miami, Los Angeles and 10,000 miles in between through the windshield of a black Ford Business Coupe. He packed two cameras, many boxes of film (kept in a bag to protect them from the sun), trunks, French brandy (‘‘Sometimes you need a little drink; it changes your attitude’’), AAA road atlases and one book, which was really a map of another kind, Evans’s ‘‘American Photographs.’’ Evans and others had suggested destinations like the Gullah communities of the south Atlantic coast, but Frank was often spontaneous.

Trolley — New Orleans,’’ 1955. The photo, part of Frank’s groundbreaking volume ‘‘The Americans,’’ was taken four days after an encounter with the police in Arkansas that darkened his artistic viewpoint. Credit: Robert Frank via Pace/MacGill Gallery

The first destination was Michigan. ‘‘I went to Detroit to photograph the Ford factories, and then it was clear to me I wanted to do this. It was summer and so loud. So much noise. So much heat. It was hell. So much screaming.’’

As Frank searched for pictures, he stayed in cheap motels: ‘‘You’d always find them down by the river.’’ The first stop in a new town was usually a Woolworth’s department store. His favored shooting settings were public — sidewalks, political rallies, drive-ins, churches, parks. He wanted to find the men and women others would consider unremarkable, as well as the symbols and objects that defined them. Falling into a place-to-place rhythm, he took pictures of bystanders, vagrants, newlyweds, Christian crosses, jukeboxes, mailboxes, coffins, televisions, many cars, and those many flags.

It was an investigation, and in every frame there is pent-up atmosphere, pressure in the air, a sense of somebody’s impending exposure — maybe Frank’s. ‘‘Photography can reveal so much. It’s the invasion of the privacy of the people.’’ Accordingly, there was an element of tradecraft. ‘‘I felt like a detective or a spy. Yes! Often I had uncomfortable moments. Nobody gave me a hard time, because I had a talent for not being noticed.’’

He was neither tall nor short, did not appear to maintain regular relations with razors, scissors or blankets and dressed in a way that brought to mind the bottom of a suitcase — ‘‘I didn’t change clothes too much.’’ The Ford fit the man. ‘‘I loved that car. It was like any car, inconspicuous,’’ he says. ‘‘I called it Luce — the only connection I ever had with Mr. Henry Luce.’’

Robert Frank in 1958. Credit: John Cohen/L. Parker Stephenson Photographs, via Getty Images

Years later, the photographer and curator Philip Brookman learned just how committed Frank was to making pictures. The two men were visiting Frank’s troubled son Pablo on Thanksgiving at a psychiatric hospital. Many families were there. At one point a patient sang a very clear and beautiful song she called ‘‘Sad Movie.’’ Brookman, moved, crept his hand toward his camera, but he worried that taking a photo would be inappropriate. As the moment passed, he heard a familiar, gruff voice: ‘‘You should have taken it.’’

When Frank raised his camera and shot, the process was blurry quick, meaning he could capture what he saw as he perceived it. People, Frank says, ‘‘don’t like to be caught in private moments. I think private moments make the interesting picture.’’ It says something about Frank that his favorite ‘‘Americans’’ photograph shows the only people who caught him in the act. A black couple resting on the grass in a San Francisco park looks toward the lens in outrage. Beyond them are white city buildings. What is conveyed is how it feels to be violated wherever you go.

Frank says he was most drawn to blacks: the bare-chested boy in the back of a convertible; the woman relaxing beside a field in sunny Carolina cotton country; the dignified men outside the funeral of a South Carolina undertaker, who uncannily bring to mind the day President Obama eulogized Clementa Pinckney. At first, the South was to him ‘‘very exotic — a life I knew nothing about.’’ Then, in November 1955, Frank was traversing the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River, ‘‘just whistling my song and driving on,’’ as he says, when a patrol car pulled him over outside McGehee. The policemen’s report noted that Frank needed a bath and that ‘‘subject talked with a foreign accent.’’ Also suspicious were the contents of the car: cameras, foreign liquor. Frank was on his way to photograph oil refineries in Louisiana. ‘‘Are you a Commie?’’ he was asked.

Ten weeks earlier, Emmett Till was murdered a hundred miles away. ‘‘In Arkansas,’’ Frank recalls, ‘‘the cops pulled me in. They locked me in a cell. I thought, Jesus Christ, nobody knows I’m here. They can do anything. They were primitive.’’ Across the room, Frank could see ‘‘a young black girl sitting there watching. Very wonderful face. You see in her eyes she’s thinking, What are they gonna do?’’ Because his camera had been confiscated, Frank considers the girl his missing ‘‘Americans’’ photograph. Around midnight a policeman told Frank he had 10 minutes to get across the river. ‘‘That trip I got to like black people so much more than white people.’’

Frank, left, with Jack Kerouac on the set of the film ‘‘Pull My Daisy’’ in 1959. The film adapts a scene from Kerouac’s never-finished play, ‘‘The Beat Generation,’’ into a proto-‘‘Seinfeld’’ shaggy-dog story, indie cinema before the idea existed. Credit: John Cohen/L. Parker Stephenson Photographs via Getty Images

Coming to America after growing up listening to tyranny on the radio, Frank had been foremost a grateful émigré, and early pictures suggested it. Now, through a lens, the country darkened, and Frank became, the photographer Eugene Richards says, ‘‘a loaded gun.’’ Four days later, in New Orleans, Frank photographed the line of faces looking through the trolley windows. Once he saw that girl in McGehee, he says, he knew what to look for.

As he drove, Frank was in the grip-flow of his imagination, finding pictures everywhere, so many pictures that he now says of the period: ‘‘You don’t have it that good all the time. I was on the case.’’ Occasional hitchhikers advised Frank where to go next and spelled him behind the wheel while he slept in the back seat or quietly raised up and snapped their pictures, as he did on U.S. 91 outside Blackfoot, Idaho. Sometimes he gave people rides — workers, prostitutes — but Frank did not seek personal connections. ‘‘The people in ‘The Americans,’ I watched,” he said, adding, ‘‘I wanted to take the picture and walk away.’’

One ‘‘Americans’’ photograph came from a dimly lit New Mexico gutbucket: ‘‘It was a tough bar. You had to shoot from your hip.’’ In Elko, Nev., Frank photographed the play at a gaming table: ‘‘It’s very seldom you get a picture of people gambling. The management and the gamblers don’t want you to take pictures because they have wives. Or mothers! Or grandmothers! Or daughters!’’ At political gatherings, where credentials were required for admission, Frank was not above filching some from a stranger’s jacket.

You could operate that way if you were on your own, but Frank was married, and those years were hard on the family. In photographs from the 1950s, the children are inevitably bright-eyed, Mary is distantly aglow and Frank grim. From the road Frank wrote to Mary, ‘‘Your letters are often sad.’’ When they all met up in Texas and drove west for a few weeks, Frank found it ‘‘stressful. You go out, you’re gone. You come back, you’re tired. You’ve hunted for pictures. You want peace.’’ His family became the subject of his book’s wistful last photograph. Taken from in front of the car through the windshield, weary, overwhelmed faces and half the Ford are visible. ‘‘It’s personal, it’s melancholy, it’s sentimentality — all the things you try to stay away from. Also, I’m the person who’s not there. This is what it takes, the picture says.

:Frank in 1956, looking at negatives in California while photographing “The Americans.” Credit: Wayne Miller/Magnum Photos

Frank took more than 27,000 photographs. Returning to New York, he sequenced the best 83 into what he thought of as a film on paper. Walker Evans wrote him an introduction to help place it. But who would publish images of groping teenagers, drifters, cross-dressers, poor blacks, a harassed mother? At first, only Robert Delpire in Paris would. Frank’s inability to find an American publisher frustrated him. He came to feel he needed a more like-minded advocate. So, Frank says, ‘‘I turned to Kerouac.’’

It was early September 1957 when Frank heard about ‘‘On the Road,’’ a novel that had just been praised in The New York Times as ‘‘the most important utterance yet made by the generation.’’ Frank ‘‘liked the speed of it, taking you back and forth across the country, his descriptions of the landscape in the morning, the little towns, which he describes with such exquisite beauty — the love for America.’’

He found Kerouac ‘‘at a New York party where poets and Beatniks were. Some painters. Everything happened downtown.’’ When Frank showed the writer his pictures, Frank says he was empathetic. ‘‘Kerouac personified what I hoped I’d find here in America. He was interested in outsiders. He wasn’t interested in walking the middle of the road.’’ Seizing the moment, Frank asked if Kerouac would introduce ‘‘The Americans.’’ ‘‘Sure,’’ Kerouac said. ‘‘I’ll write something.’’

One reason many other artists believe, as Nan Goldin says, that Frank ‘‘has never taken a false step’’ is that Frank always puts art above sentiment. ‘‘I try to get out of sentiment’s way when it comes near me. A few steps backward and to the left and don’t look back.’’ Frank says there was no hesitation about jilting Evans for Kerouac, but informing his mentor that he was forsaking him for Kerouac ‘‘was a difficult moment.’’ He says Evans’s essay was ‘‘too flowery and made no sense,’’ adding, ‘‘The friendship survived, but that was it. Never mentioned again.’’ Their relationship became ‘‘colder and more distant.’’

Frank admired Kerouac’s propulsive methods: ‘‘He lay on the floor all evening long. He’d write 20 pages about it the next morning.’’ Introducing ‘‘The Americans,’’ Kerouac told a reader nothing about Frank’s biography. Instead, he supplied an ecstasy of overture: ‘‘With one hand he sucked a sad poem of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.’’

Yet ‘‘The Americans’’ was initially unappreciated in the United States. The editors of Popular Photography derided Frank’s ‘‘warped,’’ ‘‘wart-covered’’ ‘‘images of hate.’’ That the photographs were blurry, asymmetrical, shot at oblique angles and deliberately informal attracted more screeds. The problem was, as the critic Janet Malcolm would later explain, ‘‘no one had ever made pictures like that before.’’

At first, it was other American artists who were enthralled. Out in Los Angeles, Ed Ruscha was sitting in an art-student cafe when a classmate brought in a brand-new copy of the book. Suddenly ‘‘there weren’t enough chairs for everyone; we were craning our necks, looking at it page by page. It’s like — You know where you were when John F. Kennedy was shot? I know where I was when I saw ‘The Americans.’ ’’ For Ruscha, in Frank’s hands the camera became a new kind of machine. ‘‘I was aware of Walker Evans’s work. But I felt like those were still lives. Robert’s work was life in motion.’’

Frank was not yet well known, but he and Mary were a glamorous couple at the crossroads of the New York arts scene. He personally was a camera, a tough, sensual receptor with an enticing remove that made others draw near. The people Frank admired were judgmental, unpredictable artists who satisfied his need for heightened experience. The jazz musician Ornette Coleman ‘‘didn’t like many things — a very hard critic,’’ while the filmmaker and musicologist Harry Smith lived to insult people, lit fires, yelled ‘‘Heil Hitler’’ in Jewish restaurants and yet was ‘‘the only genius I ever met. He was open to how people could reveal something for other people,’’ Frank says. ‘‘He lived uptown like a hermit, all alone with all his windows closed.

U.S. 90, En Route to Del Rio, Texas,’’ 1955. The final photo in ‘‘The Americans,’’ showing Frank’s wife Mary and his son, Pablo. Credit: Robert Frank via Pace/MacGill Gallery

Among photographers, Frank considered Diane Arbus ‘‘a special woman! I went to her house. She was eating something. She said, ‘Do you want some?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ I took a bite. Almost impossible to eat. She said, ‘Yeah, I put too much salt in.’ She wanted to see my reaction. Why not? I liked her work. You could say, This is Diane Arbus.’’

Frank was closest to Ginsberg, Kerouac and their circle, and says he was inspired by Ginsberg’s relationship with the poet Peter Orlovsky: ‘‘Of course they were lovers, but he learned a lot about freedom from Orlovsky. They could live on the edge of society, the edge of American behavior. They made me want to be freer.’’ Frank would sit clothed in a room full of naked, stoned men as Ginsberg read from poems like ‘‘Kaddish.’’ ‘‘It’s wonderful to fall in with a group like that. You watch them live, and it’s so different from what you’d seen. Their art, their sexual lives, what truth they believed and preached and wrote. Ginsberg was a real prophet. He saw a different, more accepting America.’’

Frank once chauffeured Kerouac and his mother from Florida to Long Island; the author of ‘‘On The Road’’ didn’t drive. ‘‘It’s a better way to find out about the world if you don’t. He was true talent. He had a sad end. He couldn’t handle his fame. It drove him into a corner, made him drink, want to forget.’’ Frank found closer personal understanding with James Agee than he did with Evans, Agee’s collaborator on ‘‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,’’ and yet, Agee, too, was ‘‘always sweating and drinking, always a bottle close by. He was one of the saddest people I met, one of the suffering men.’’

When he wasn’t interested in someone, Frank could be pitiless. ‘‘I’m friendlier now. I had no patience.’’ He roiled with brutal standards: ‘‘In Provincetown, a guy showed me his pictures and asked me what I thought. I tore them up. Now I hate myself for that. Then I had to.’’

One day the painter Mark Rothko invited Frank to his studio for a talk. It was a dark space with only a row of windows on the ceiling because, Frank says, Rothko ‘‘liked the light to come in different colors. He had a daughter he worried about. He asked for advice on young people. I said I couldn’t help him.’’

Being an artist, husband and father continued to be arduous for Frank. During the ’60s, he seemed tired, angry and beaten-down to friends like the filmmaker Jonas Mekas, who recalls Mary once stopping him on the street to ask if she could borrow a dollar for groceries. The marriage struggled. But at the same time, Frank’s achievement was slowly becoming understood, a momentum that continues. The best photographers today, like Paul Graham, consider it still revelatory that someone could shape the endless onrush of American experience into a full portrait of the country. Frank’s book, Graham says, ‘‘expresses a yearning in us all to find meaning and a pattern, a form to life.’’

Among the many qualities that enabled Frank to achieve something so ambitious was his profound ambivalence. He was always that way personally, and it was how he could locate the full spectrum of any given feeling in the inscrutable faces of strangers. Critics like W.S. Di Piero believe his genius for expressing emotional complication came from an artistic innocence, the ability to look at the world as a child does — without the intrusions of experience. When June Leaf, Frank’s wife of 40 years, discussed with me this way of her husband’s seeing, she described being shown by his aunt a picture of Frank as little boy. ‘‘I looked at it, and I thought to myself, That’s exactly the same expression he has now: ‘What is going on here?’ That’s the secret of his perception of the world. And that’s ‘The Americans.’ That marvelous perception comes into the room. It’s ‘What is going on here?’ None of us know until he takes a photograph. Other than the photograph, he doesn’t know what is going on.’’

Over the years, ‘‘The Americans’’ would follow the trajectory of experimental American classics like ‘‘Moby-Dick’’ and ‘‘Citizen Kane’’ — works that grew slowly in stature until it was as if they had always been there. To Bruce Springsteen, who keeps copies of ‘‘The Americans’’ around his home for songwriting motivation, ‘‘the photographs are still shocking. It created an entire American identity, that single book. To me, it’s Dylan’s ‘Highway 61,’ the visual equivalent of that record. It’s an 83-picture book that has 27,000 pictures in it. That’s why ‘Highway 61’ is powerful. It’s nine songs with 12,000 songs in them. We’re all in the business of catching things. Sometimes we catch something. He just caught all of it.’’

Frank in Spain in 1952. Credit: Elliot Erwitt/Magnum Photos

As ‘‘The Americans’’ thrived, Frank’s success weighed on him. In the early 1970s, his friend the photographer Edward Grazda received a piece of mail from Frank written on a scrap of ledger paper. The postmark was the remote mining village in Nova Scotia where Frank and his new companion, Leaf, had escaped the admirers clamoring outside his New York door. ‘‘Ed, I’m famous,’’ it read. ‘‘Now what?’’

Rare is the great figure — Marcel Duchamp, Jim Brown — who departs at the top of his game. That the man who made ‘‘The Americans’’ would leave photography was such a shocking decision that people in the arts still speculate about it. ‘‘He was painfully compassionate,’’ Peter Schjeldahl says. ‘‘Maybe he didn’t want the pain anymore.’’

Frank put it this way in 1969: ‘‘Once respectability and success become a part of it, then it was time to look for a new mistress.’’ He says now that the issue was creative fulfillment: ‘‘I didn’t want to repeat myself. It’s too easy. It’s a struggle, such a struggle to make something good, to satisfy yourself. That was relatively easy for me in photography. It’s immediate recompense. You’ve achieved what you set out to achieve.’’ The composer David Amram, a friend of Frank’s, says, ‘‘The last thing he wanted to be was what Miles Davis called a human jukebox — always be what made him popular.’’

In 1959, even as Barney Rosset, the American publisher of literary renegades like Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence, released ‘‘The Americans,’’ Frank decided to ‘‘put my Leica in the cupboard’’ and began filming a silent movie with his downtown neighbor, the painter Alfred Leslie. ‘‘Pull My Daisy’’ adapts a scene from Kerouac’s never-finished play, ‘‘The Beat Generation,’’ into a proto-‘‘Seinfeld’’ shaggy-dog story. A railway brakeman and his artist wife host a church bishop for dinner, which is disrupted by a visit from a group of fizzed-up hipster impresarios who settle in to riff the night away.

Leslie’s loft was used as a set; their friends were the actors: Ginsberg, painters like Larry Rivers and Alice Neel and a cameo for the adorable Pablo Frank. Amram, who composed the music, recalls the shoots as ‘‘an insane party; everybody being juvenile and nuts. Leslie was a hostage negotiator — ‘Allen, if you’d please put your pants back on!’ ’’ Frank remembers Kerouac filling up on applejack and carrying on until he fell asleep. Later he ad-libbed the narration in three increasingly inebriated takes.

‘‘Pull My Daisy’’ was indie cinema before indie existed, the pure underground. There was scarcely any budget; the paychecks are still in the mail; only college students and avant-garde cineastes knew the film existed. But it endures as a cultural document — here were the Beats — and because nobody had ever seen anything like it. ‘‘If that came out of ‘The Americans,’ that’s a giant step,’’ Ed Ruscha says. ‘‘It’s almost totally different. I felt like it was guys on a hijinx. Films were usually professional enterprises done in Hollywood. This was choppy and crude and gutsy.’’ When Frank invited friends to a screening, he says, ‘‘they were happy somebody looked at the world in a different way.’’ Viewers still feel similarly, which pleases Frank, ‘‘especially because people didn’t really like my later films.’’

Across the next 40 years, Frank would release 31 mostly short, genre-eluding, quasi-documentary movies that met with even less success than ‘‘Pull My Daisy.’’ He says that working outside the studio system, operating ‘‘completely against the rules of how you made a film,’’ was challenging. And yet he filmed work that was, Jonas Mekas says, ‘‘very important. Same as Andy Warhol, he comes with his own world, his own sensibility, his own style.’’ The projects attracted a range of actors (Christopher Walken, Joseph Chaikin, Joe Strummer) and co-writers (Sam Shepard, Rudy Wurlitzer). Frank’s subjects were recondite: a book signing for a writer who never turns up; a day in the life of a country letter carrier. Another, about indigenous American music, strayed and became a film about Frank. As Laura Israel, Frank’s longtime film editor, says, ‘‘He’s all about the detour.’’

Frank also made a series of jagged, strangely absorbing personal films about friends and family that were so unlike anything preceding them that collectively they constituted a small documentary wave of their own. Three were about Pablo, a fragile, tortured adult whose life was increasingly derailed by schizophrenia. Another film, ‘‘Me and My Brother,’’ began as an adaptation of Ginsberg’s poem ‘‘Kaddish’’ and then, following the familiar digressive pattern, became an account of Peter Orlovsky’s relationship with his schizophrenic brother, Julius. Frank explains that he was always drawn to extremes: ‘‘There can be good extremes, but I had more connection with the other half.’’ And Julius, Frank felt, ‘‘was on the edge of something. I felt he would calm down and tell what it was like to be in this place.’’ Frank considered his filmmaking career ‘‘a failure,’’ because ‘‘often I don’t want to reveal. But because it wasn’t going well it kept me going.’’ Defeat perversely encouraged Frank; he liked what he couldn’t do. Except that he could.

Frank with the actress Beth Porter on the set of “Me and my Brother,” in May 1967. Credit: Tod Papageorge

Frank’s most celebrated turn as a filmmaker came in 1972 when the Rolling Stones, in Los Angeles completing their album ‘‘Exile on Main Street,’’ invited him to photograph them for the cover. The musician who most influenced Frank’s work was Bob Dylan, who so frequently reinvented himself: ‘‘Dylan has the talents to move on.’’ But Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and the rest of the Stones were the world’s most celebrated outsiders, unregenerate avatars for collecting transgressive impulses into hits. At a fleabag Los Angeles inn, Frank recalls, they were instantly themselves. ‘‘Jagger said, ‘Let’s rent a room.’ I sat them down in chairs and made them use hotel furniture. That’s their life. Hotel rooms. Hotel rooms and polish.’’

The band was soon to go on tour, and they invited Frank and his Super-8 along. In the resulting film, ‘‘ Cocksucker Blues,’’ the band and its entourage are becalmed travelers ordering room service, gargling, masturbating, getting it on with drugs and groupies, moving through places they have no connection to, looking for ways to overcome lethargy and longueur. Frank now says of the experience: ‘‘I didn’t care about the music. I cared about them. It was great to watch them — the excitement. But my job was after the show. What I was photographing was a kind of boredom. It’s so difficult being famous. It’s a horrendous life. Everyone wants to get something from you.’’

Frank showed Jagger a rough cut. ‘‘He looked at it and then he said, ‘Richards came out better than me.’ Probably was right.’’ Richards agrees, of course: ‘‘One of Mick’s hangups is himself. Robert made the better man win! It’s a very true documentation of what went down.’’

The Stones’ lawyers worried that the explicitness would create problems and forbade screening it unless Frank was in attendance. As a result, the all-but-unavailable ‘‘Blues’’ is a celluloid apparition. The novelist Don DeLillo watched a cheap bootleg reproduction. He’d admired Frank’s photographs for the way they ‘‘imply a story or a sociology,’’ but the film, De­Lillo thought, was different. ‘‘There’s nothing behind it. There’s something pure.’’ In DeLillo’s ‘‘Underworld,’’ as characters view the film, De­Lillo describes at length its crepuscular, edge-of-time feeling.

Frank in Mabou, Nova Scotia, in 1970, during a visit by Danny Seymour, a collaborator and friend. Frank and Seymour were photographing each other. Credit: From Raul Van Kirk

Since the 1970s, Frank’s subversive approach has made him a godfather to young filmmakers. ‘‘The strength of his films is in what he says is problematic,’’ Jim Jarmusch says. ‘‘The beauty is they don’t satisfy certain narrative conventions.’’ Out in Texas in 1995, Richard Linklater was just beginning his film career when he staged a Frank retrospective at a theater in Austin. ‘‘If Robert Frank weren’t so acclaimed as one of the most influential photographers of all time, he’d have a much larger profile as an American indie filmmaking icon,’’ Linklater says. ‘‘It seems our culture struggles with the idea that someone could be that groundbreaking in more than one area. If it were just the films, I think he’d be credited as a founding father of the personal film.’’ He adds: ‘‘Beyond that, there’s this tremendous range of a restless, searching artist pushing the boundaries of the documentary, experimental and more traditional narrative forms.’’

During his 1969 short documentary, ‘‘Conversations in Vermont,’’ Frank portrays Pablo and Andrea confronting their youth spent growing up with a mother and father who put their art first. ‘‘You always said you wanted normal parents,’’ Frank challenges his children. That same year, Frank and Mary separated and Frank immediately began life with Mary’s friend June Leaf.

Overwhelmed in New York, craving ‘‘peace,’’ Frank asked Leaf to go to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, to find them a home. It was winter. She bought a pair of thick boots and flew north: ‘‘He knew I’d do anything for him,’’ she says now.

They moved to Mabou, where the March wind was so strong you had to walk backward. They knew nobody, and the house they’d purchased overlooking the sea was, in the local expression, ‘‘after falling down.’’ As a young woman, Leaf was given a prestigious Paris studio to work in, and now in Mabou, she found she had sufficient inner creative stamina to make art in what her husband calls ‘‘a sad landscape’’ where ‘‘the sheep ate all the trees.’’

Rebuilding the house became their creative collaboration. ‘‘You learned a completely different rhythm of life,’’ Frank says. ‘‘It has to do with keeping warm and getting your food. That occupies most of your time. It’s severe. With time we found two friends.’’

Soon came devastation. Frank’s daughter, Andrea, aspired to become a teacher and a midwife. She was radiant, with flashing, dark eyes that infatuated Frank’s young photographer friends. Leaf likens her to Frank himself: ‘‘marvelous, like him. She intimidated people because she made everybody want her to love them. She was so similar to him — stern, critical, sexy, tough. Very tough. She was interested in life!’’ In 1974, Andrea died in a plane crash. She was 20.

Frank went immediately to the United States, leaving Leaf alone and wretched on a Nova Scotia island in winter, frightened that Frank would no longer love her because she could not fully share his grief.

Within a year of Andrea’s death, Pablo had cancer as well as schizophrenia. ‘‘Pablo,’’ Leaf says, ‘‘was a bird, a butterfly. The drugs he later took and the death of his sister pushed him over the edge into illness. That changed Robert incredibly, slowly, agonizingly. He became a sweet father to Pablo, where before he’d been explosive. Very critical, dictatorial, authoritarian, like many European fathers. Pablo was so ethereal, funny, charming, sweet. The illness made Robert a better father. He had to be.

For many years after leaving New York, Frank remained relentlessly productive; he made films and resumed taking photographs, personal images of a very different style from street photography. In 1972, a Japanese first-time publisher named Kazuhiko Motomura collaborated with Frank on ‘‘The Lines of My Hand.’’ An expanded American edition was published in 1989, and became a book crucial to American photographers. Jim Goldberg describes it as ‘‘a road map for the rest of us.’’ Many of the most powerful pictures are of Pablo, his face ravaged by illness. Photographs are distressed, dripping with tears of paint, rived with scratched-out messages. Of his son, Frank writes: ‘‘What a hard life we have together. I can’t take it.’’

In and out of institutions, Pablo committed suicide in 1994. ‘‘Robert was always attracted to mad people like Julius Orlovsky,’’ Leaf says, ‘‘because he had nothing of that in him. So it’s fate, isn’t it, Pablo.’’ Eventually, Frank gave in to grief. ‘‘It takes concentration for me to work and the wish to succeed,’’ Frank says. ‘‘I didn’t have it anymore.’’ With such loss, he said, ‘‘you have to cope every day, and it doesn’t go away. You try hard to find some peace and acceptance.’’

Frank dislikes talking about any of it: ‘‘It’s not good to look back too much. It’s often sad. Better to look forward.’’ I felt I should ask him about Leaf’s descriptions of his children. He didn’t disagree with anything she’d said. Then he sighed: ‘‘I could’ve helped him. He would’ve needed another family. A real mother, a real father to take care of him. I think about that too often, because it’s too late.’’

Frank and Leaf now live most of the year in a building off the Bowery that has open hearths and rough surfaces and feels like a vertical farmhouse, a Manhattan version of Mabou. In a neighborhood now awash in tony boîtes and boutiques, Frank and Leaf are remnants of vanished bohemian New York. In Frank’s musty basement studio, amid a jumble of contact sheets, Camus novels, toy crocodiles and checkerboards, ‘‘EAT’’ is scrawled on the wall in yellow. ‘‘Patti Smith wrote that,’’ he says.

Frank with his son, Pablo, in 1994 at Frank’s home. This photo appeared in The New York Times Magazine’s 1994 profile of Frank. Pablo died in 1994. Credit: Eugene Richards

Visitors are always stopping by. Leaf receives them bright-eyed — ‘‘I’m a bouncy!’’ Frank watches warily, but with an eyebrow raised. ‘‘He’s always waiting for something extraordinary,’’ Leaf says. Frank and Leaf married in 1975, while passing through Reno, Nev., an echo to the eloping couple in ‘‘The Americans.’’ Over the years Leaf has developed what she calls ‘‘a bad habit of studying Robert.’’ Once she asked me, ‘‘Do you think Robert’s elusive?’’ Instead, Frank answered: ‘‘I used to be. I didn’t like to explain anything.’’

‘‘You still don’t,’’ she said, ‘‘and you don’t like things to be explained, and I’m a great explainer. It’s a miracle we lasted this long!’’ At 85, Leaf has a grave, mystical face that resembles Georgia O’Keeffe’s. She sees her husband clearly — ‘‘You have no idea how mean Robert can be’’ — and with delight. In Philip Brookman’s 1986 documentary on Frank, ‘‘Fire in the East,’’ Leaf says: ‘‘He goes through life in this wonderful secret way, in the water, under the water. And things just come to him. So he’s like a fish, a beautiful fish in the dark, lighting up the water.’’

Although Frank still retains a certain Swiss civility, he enjoys provocation in others. He refers to the French celebrity photographer Francois-Marie Banier, notorious for insinuating himself into the affections of wealthy older women, as ‘‘the bad-man friend of mine.’’ Onstage at Lincoln Center, when his chosen interviewer, Charlie LeDuff, asked about the state of Frank’s rectum, Frank was amused at the general mortification.

Some days Frank is a steel door; others he is impish, a trickster. Not long after he renounced his Leica, word circulated among other photographers that he was entering photo contests under assumed names and winning. Ask him how he is, and Frank may reply, ‘‘Fifty percent!’’ What does that mean? ‘‘If it goes below 50 percent, my red light goes on!’’ One day, he loves crowds. Another day, crowds are ‘‘impossible.’’ A third pass, and the dark eyes gleam, and there’s nothing like ‘‘a medium-size crowd.’’ His terse style of speaking sometimes produces epigrams: ‘‘It’s the misinformation that’s important.’’

January 29, 2013 photo of Frank at his New York home, with a note by the photographer Jim Goldberg: “I’ve known Robert Frank since 1979 and this is the first time that I photographed him.” Credit: Jim Goldberg/Magnum Photos

‘‘Take that seriously,’’ warns Brookman, who has known Frank since the 1970s. ‘‘He loves misleading people.’’ When Frank is feeling affectionate, his puckish banter is seductive to younger artists — especially photographers. Many men have felt for a time like a second son to Frank, only to abruptly find that some sort of personal fission has occurred, the focus of Frank’s guarded eyes has moved on and they’ve been purged. His longtime gallerist Peter MacGill has grown accustomed to offering consolation: ‘‘Robert hurts the people he’s closest to.’’ One photographer, in an anticipatory gambit, stopped talking with Frank for more than two years. When I met MacGill, he warned me, ‘‘Everybody who knows him gets periodically fired.’’

‘‘It’s that you’re not a contestant anymore for something extraordinary,’’ Leaf says. ‘‘We all fall short. It’s the way a man desires a woman. This is the one! He’s always hoping somebody will change the view of the world.’’ The personal quality Frank perhaps values most is autonomy, and when others want too much from him, he gets prickly and feels exploited; it’s time to leave. ‘‘It was always important to him to remain independent of Switzerland, his family, Life magazine, Cartier-Bresson, Evans and go forward, keep pushing,’’ Brookman says.

There have been unbroken bonds. Sarah Greenough, senior curator of photographs at the National Gallery, says Frank and Motomura always ‘‘were devoted, even though Robert didn’t speak Japanese and Motomura didn’t speak English.’’ Another person on whom the door has never closed is Peter Kasovitz, the gregarious owner of K&M Camera in New York. Many in Frank’s community wonder why Kasovitz should be spared. Frank, whose father sold electronics, says Kasovitz is the consummate independent operator: ‘‘He doesn’t go by others’ rules. He just runs things in a way he believes.’’

For decades, Frank refused honors and exhibitions. He once skipped a private celebration for the Museum of Modern Art’s new photography curator because he wanted to test the set of tires he’d just acquired for his Subaru. But lately, he attends his openings; this summer he accepted an honorary degree from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

Frank retains the spontaneous enthusiasm of a much younger man. In his tenth decade, he is still a free-form outsider seeking untried situations, fresh leaps — and nothing pleases him more than picking up on the scent of something exceptional. Last year, after receiving intriguing letters postmarked North Carolina from an itinerant laborer named Gustavo, Frank set off to find him. He discovered Gustavo in Winston-Salem painting a house, he says, but ‘‘I was disappointed in him. He was ordinary. He seemed not to be possessed by anything. He just drifts.’’

A more satisfactory result came after an unannounced knock on the door from a California family. The father, Leaf says, ‘‘was a junk collector looking for a masterpiece.’’ Recently he’d purchased three pictures. ‘‘One looked like it was from Woolworth’s, and he thought it was a Boucher. The second was the worst thing you ever saw. He thought it was a de Kooning. The third, somebody tells him it’s a Sanyu. He looks it up and sees Robert knows him.’’ So the family crossed the country by car to show Frank the painting possibly by Sanyu. ‘‘You don’t have to open your eyes to see it’s not a Sanyu painting,’’ Leaf says. ‘‘He doesn’t mind. He’s a speculator! He’s happy!’’ Eventually, Leaf and Frank had to go out. ‘‘What do you want to do?’’ Leaf asked their visitors.

‘‘Nothing,’’ came the answer. ‘‘We came to see you.’’ The family made their hosts tortillas from scratch and drove off for Louisiana to surprise an aunt.

Frank found all of this immensely satisfying. ‘‘I liked his directness. Completely direct. I could tell them about Sanyu. They had no interest in June or in my photographs.’’ And so Frank decided that the father should have his masterpiece after all. ‘‘I sent them two of my photographs. I wonder if they found out what people pay for a print like that.’’

Nicholas Dawidoff is the author of five books, most recently ‘‘Collision Low Crossers,’’ an investigation of the inner life of the New York Jets that was a finalist for the 2014 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing.

De-Constructed and De-Materialized

Valencia, 2005. Leica M4, 35mm VC, HP5 pushed to 1600 ISO

From a philosophical point of view, photography is a remarkable medium. It is ‘mimetic’ in the sense that it records visual reality. It is, in Roland Barthes’ words, a “trace of the real,” the optical stenciling of light. Barthes’ inspiration for Camera Lucida was a simple photograph of his mother when she was a young girl. This photo held such emotional and philosophical resonance for Barthes because he claimed it possessed a direct trace of her physical presence. It was a guarantor of her existence, proof of her materiality, something beyond mere symbolism, a concrete physical trace stenciled off her physical being.

Yet photos are also, like language, symbolic, one element in an abstract relationship of referent and symbol. As French Post-Structuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida notes in Speech and Phenomena, photos are “a sign put in place of the thing itself, the present thing – ‘thing’ holding here for the sense as well as the referent. It represents the present in its absence; it takes the place of the present. When we cannot take hold of or show the thing, let us say the present, the being present, when the present does not present itself, then we signify, we go through the detour of signs. ” So, it is, in Barthes’ words, the direct trace of the real…while also being, in Derrida’s words, a “detour” to the real. It is necessarily both, never either….or at least until digital capture severed the link of indexicality. It’s this dichotomy that animates the history of the medium, and I would contend, its this intrinsic duality – simultaneously trace of, and symbol of – that has given photography its unique status in the visual arts. It is large enough to encompass both photojournalism and ‘Art’ or ‘Conceptual’ photography, both at the same time, the medium as purveyor of objective fact and subjective experience.

The photo at the top of the page can be considered as either document or expression, but its reality is that it will always be an admixture of both. It documents an event (in this instance Semana Santa in Valencia, Spain) but also can be de-contextualized as ‘Art,’ symbolic of something the ‘Artist’ (me) might be wanting to articulate. Read it as you may, it always will be both, never merely one or the other. Expression will always leach into documentation; traces of the real will be found in even the most abstract and conceptual photography. It’s the nature of photography to be both. And it’s up to you, the viewer, to accord the relative status of how each manifests itself when regarding a photo.

*************

Untitled, 2019, Hanging in My Bathroom Photography Made Possible this Painting

It’s photography’s mimetic function that forever changed painting, a profound imagistic revolution predicated on photography’s unquestioned ability to reflect the real. Until the mid-19th century, Western painting had been representational; with the diffusion of photography as a visual medium, painting increasingly moved to non-representative subjective expression. German Art Theorist Peter Burger rightly notes that the advent of photography, with its “precise mechanical reproduction of reality,” commenced painting’s slow but inexorable transformation. Photography was so much better at doing what painting had heretofore been attempting to do that, to survive, painting had to radically alter its course; hence impressionism and ultimately abstraction completely untethered from the concept of mimesis.

I find it ironic that photography is now experiencing an imagistic revolution on par with that experienced by painting at the advent of photography. Where the advent of photography caused the de-contextualization of painting, digitization has caused the increasing de-materialization of photography. What we’re experiencing is a basic change in how we understand, use, transmit, exhibit and store photography. Superficially, digital photographs might not look different, but the underlying ethos and modes of photography have been permanently changed. Photography no longer partakes of the physical, either in its capture, its presentation, or its storage.

Just as painting reacted to the mimetic nature of photography by moving toward abstraction, photography has reacted to digitization by de-materializing, all the better to serve digital’s needs of instant replication and dissemination via new platforms of virtual receivership. Photos are no longer printed and viewed hanging in a gallery or pasted into a book but rather are virtually disseminated, shared, moved, and manipulated. Even film photography has largely conceded its materiality to virtualization. If you read this blog, you’ve seen many of my photographs, most taken with a film camera. You might even have a sense of a ‘style’ particular to me. Yet, none of you have seen my work hanging on a wall, and probably never will. That’s not how it’s done anymore. I’m not sure what to think of that, although I think it’s worth noting.