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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.

Robert Frank’s Guggenheim Trip and the Making of The Americans

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From the National Gallery of Art, The Robert Frank Collection*:

In October 1954, with the guidance of Walker Evans, Frank applied for a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, proposing to drive across the United States photographing American life.

He was awarded the fellowship and in the summer of 1955 began his 10,000-mile journey with a trip to Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. He then traveled with Mary down the East Coast, photographing in North and South Carolina and Georgia. That fall he drove to Florida, and from there he crossed the country, through Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada, arriving in California around Christmas. While in California, Frank applied for a renewal of the Guggenheim fellowship. When it was granted in April 1956, he drove a northern route back to New York, passing through Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

The map below charts the three routes driven by Frank during the period of his Guggenheim fellowship.

Red: late June – mid-July 1955
Gold: summer 1955
Blue: October 1955 – early June 1956

A dotted line indicates an unconfirmed route.

Franks Map

Back in New York by June 1956, Frank developed film, made and reviewed contact sheets of all 767 rolls of film shot for the project, made approximately 1,000 work prints, and began to sequence the photographs that would become his seminal book, The Americans.

After choosing frames from his contact sheets to print, Frank annotated his work prints with the corresponding number of the roll of film, often in red grease pencil. He then spread them on the floor and thumb-tacked them to walls, grouping them by themes such as race, religion, politics and the media, as well as subjects including cemeteries, jukeboxes, and lunch counters. Frank moved the pictures, sometimes ripping them, and eliminated hundreds before arriving at the 83 prints to be included in The Americans. He continued to refine his selections through June 1957.

The Americans, 1955–1957

Robert-Frank-The-Americans-Covers-

In October of 1958, French publisher Robert Delpire released Les Américains in Paris. The following year Grove Press published The Americans in New York with an introduction by Jack Kerouac (the book was released in January 1960).

Like Frank’s earlier books, the sequence of 83 pictures in The Americans is non-narrative and nonlinear; instead it uses thematic, formal, conceptual and linguistic devices to link the photographs. Unlike Peru, in which the order of pictures was not firmly established, The Americans displays a deliberate structure, an emphatic narrator, and what Frank called a “distinct and intense order” that amplified and tempered the individual pictures.

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Although not immediately evident, The Americans is constructed in four sections. Each begins with a picture of an American flag and proceeds with a rhythm based on the interplay between motion and stasis, the presence and absence of people, observers and those being observed. The book as a whole explores the American people—black and white, military and civilian, urban and rural, poor and middle class—as they gather in drugstores and diners, meet on city streets, mourn at funerals, and congregate in and around cars. With piercing vision, poetic insight, and distinct photographic style, Frank reveals the politics, alienation, power, and injustice at play just beneath the surface of his adopted country.

Since its original publication, The Americans has appeared in numerous editions and has been translated into several languages. The cropping of images has varied slightly over the years, but their order has remained intact, as have the titles and Kerouac’s introductory text. The book, fiercely debated in the first years following its release, has made an indelible mark on American culture and changed the course of 20th-century photography.

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* THE ROBERT FRANK COLLECTION, NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, WASHINGTON D.C. The Robert Frank Collection at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, was begun in 1990 with a generous gift from the artist that included 27 vintage photographs, one of the three extant copies of Black White and Things, 1952 (a handmade book of 34 original photographs made between 1948 and 1952), 999 work prints, 2,296 contact sheets, and 2,241 rolls of film, as well as annotated book dummies for The Lines of My Hand. In the three years that followed, the Gallery acquired a total of 61 objects, including one print of every photograph reproduced in The Lines of My Hand, 1989. In 1994 Frank gave the Gallery another large donation that included 91 vintage photographs, 442 work prints, and 814 contact sheets. In 1996 he gave a third gift, this time including 12 photographs and his volume of photographs, Peru. Then in 2010 Frank gave one photograph and his volume of photographs, 40 Fotos. Most recently, Frank gave four photographs, six contact sheets, one work print, and three videos in 2012. The Gallery has continued to collect works by Robert Frank, acquiring 61 objects from 1994 to 1996, seven objects in 2000 and 2001, three objects in 2006, 20 objects in 2010, and one object in 2011.

Nearly all accessioned objects in the collection came to the Gallery directly from Frank’s own collection. The exceptions are: four objects given in 1991 by, respectively, Amy and Philip Brookman, George F. Hemphill and Leonore A. Winters, Christopher and Alexandra Middendorf, and the Middendorf Gallery; 16 objects given in 1996 by John Cohen; six objects given in 2000 by Jane Watkins; one object given in 2001 by Lee and Maria Friedlander; and 20 objects given in 2010 by the Estate of Kazuko Oshima.

The collection is available online at http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/features/robert-frank.html

Why B&W Photography?

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I really like Robert Frank. If I have a photographic mentor, it would be Robert Frank. He’s known mainly for The Americans, but I prefer his earlier European work – Valencia and England/Wales, both of which have a raw immediacy and lack of pretense sometimes absent from The Americans. You see him finding his style in his European work, mistakes and all. Sometimes the ‘mistakes’ are the best parts of his work. Frank has always been open to the serendipitous, the casual look, the throw-away visual remark others would pass up without seeing the meaning pregnant within. Even so, Frank can be remarkably inarticulate about his own work, as most great artists are. Its because Art comes from a place apart from reason or words. Great Art is pre-articulate. You can’t define it, but, like pornography, you know it when you see it. So Frank’s comment, above, about B&W photography, is interesting, but it doesn’t tell us much about why B&W photography is evocative in a way not available to color photography. Once a necessity of technological constraints, black and white photography now requires a deliberate choice. Why, then, would a modern photographer opt to photograph in black and white?

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A visitor to Picasso’s studio, after looking at the discombobulated forms of a portrait Picasso was painting, remarked that in his opinion good painters should paint things the way they are — objective pictures, recognizable things. Picasso, silent for a moment, asked him what he meant by “the way things are”? The visitor produced a photograph of his wife from his wallet and said, “There, you see, that is a picture of how she really is.” Picasso looked at it and said, “She is rather small, isn’t she? And flat?”

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Gianni Gardin

I love that story. With one simple question it deconstructs the naive assumptions that underlie our perceptions of two dimensional representations. The ‘reality’ of paintings and photographs is that they are just flat bands of pigment on a two dimensional surface. The illusion of ‘representation’ is made possible by perspectival construction. The vanishing point is the beginning of the illusion, an illusion that the picture is really a window, something we look through and see to the reality behind.

What the viewer is really doing is mentally constructing a three dimensional representation by looking through the photo and constructing its meaning from his or her own idiosyncratic visual catalogue, much like a Rorsach ink blot. At bottom, the picture remains inert, two dimensional, not ‘representative’ of anything but its own reality. This, of course, is the simple theoretical statement behind abstract painting: the painting is its own thing, its own world, an object outside of and apart from its potential to represent something else. It ‘represents’ only what it is. A Jackson Pollock drip painting is something entirely autonomous, not in any way tethered to conceit of representation. As all true Art, it is its own representation.

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Jackson Pollock’s “No. 1, 1949” 

This simple fact becomes further confused when we examine a photograph. The photograph, by the very means of its production, aspires to be a representation of an existing visual state of affairs. Light from something (the ‘subject’) reflected from it to the film substrate via the medium of the lens. The photograph is that subject’s visual trace. So, a photograph is something different than a representational painting (that purports to ‘represent’ a visual state of affairs). There exists an indexical relationship between the photograph and reality that does not exist in representational painting – the photograph is itself a trace of that visual reality, “something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.” With this comes the almost universal popular notion that a photograph is the faithful recreation of an existing state of visual affairs. Since photography’s inception, the photo album has replaced the written page as the primary means of fixing of memory, and this is because we believe in the veracity of the photograph, it’s ability to objectively reflect and fix the past. Its this naive belief that precludes many from considering photography  Art. But is this notion true? Is what is shown below what was, or is it something else?

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 Josef Koudelka

All pictures contain form. Form is independent of, and prior to, color. Color is a secondary characteristic. Color, when employed as part of an inherently representational medium like photography, is like windex to the pictures medium; it helps obscure the autonomy of the picture as a thing. Remove the color and you have one less step to abstraction. Black and White is a way to re-establish the the formal realities of a photograph, to emphasize the often hidden form over content, a hint of what is implicit in all photography but is so easily hidden by the indexical nature of the medium. With Black and White we can help bend back the photograph to its formal essence. Its content is seen for what it is, our projection onto the photograph of what we want to see. The picture by Ralph Gibson below is a perfect example: it can be seen as a picture taken out of the side window of a vintage car, or it can be seen in its formal abstraction while not precluding its view as a representation of something ‘real.’ Had it been in color, we’d probably have seen the first at the expense of the latter.

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 Ralph Gibson

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Photography, as Robert Frank has stated, is “an art for lazy people.” And it is an easy medium to master, more so now than ever. But really good photography, evocative images that have something to say, are still as rare as hen’s teeth. It’s always been that way with every creative medium. For every Mozart, a million Salieris; for every Robert Frank, a million photographers printing super large, vibrantly colorful, resolutely superb junk. The mistake comes from thinking that Art results simply from doing something competently. Its the mistake of the Salieris of the world. True Art, the product of a unique inspiration, uses the artistic medium as a way to make statements about itself rather than the subject in front of the artist. The best black and white photography, reducing images to essential visual elements of form, shape and tonal relationships, allows the viewer to see behind the photograph’s illusion as representation in a way not available to color images.

 

The Cult of Leica

 

 

Fifty miles north of Frankfurt lies the small German town of Solms. Turn off the main thoroughfare and you find yourself driving down tranquil suburban streets, with detached houses set back from the road, and, on a warm morning in late August, not a soul in sight. Nobody does bourgeois solidity like the Germans: you can imagine coming here for coffee and cakes with your aunt, but that would be the limit of excitement. By the time you reach Oskar-Barnack-Strasse, the town has almost petered out; just before the railway line, however, there is a clutch of industrial buildings, with a red dot on the sign outside. As far as fanfare is concerned, that’s about it. But here is the place to go, if you want to find the most beautiful mechanical objects in the world.

Many people would disagree. Bugatti fans, for instance, would direct your attention to the Type 57 Atlantic, the only car I know that appears to have been designed by masseuses. Personally, I would consider it a privilege to die at the wheel of a Lamborghini Miura—not difficult, when you’re nudging a hundred and seventy m.p.h. and waving at passersby. But automobiles need gas, whereas the truest mechanisms run on nothing but themselves. What is required is a machine constructed with such skill that it renders every user—from the pro to the banana-fingered fumbler—more skillful as a result. We need it to refine and lubricate, rather than block or coarsen, our means of engagement with the world: we want to look not just at it, however admiringly, but through it. In that case, we need a Leica.

There have been Leica cameras since 1925, when the Leica I was introduced at a trade fair in Leipzig. From then on, as the camera has evolved over eight decades, generations of users have turned to it in their hour of need, or their millisecond of inspiration. Aleksandr Rodchenko, André Kertész, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Robert Frank, William Klein, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and Sebastião Salgado: these are some of the major-league names that are associated with the Leica brand—or, in the case of Cartier-Bresson, stuck to it with everlasting glue.

Even if you don’t follow photography, your mind’s eye will still be full of Leica photographs. The famous head shot of Che Guevara, reproduced on millions of rebellious T-shirts and student walls: that was taken on a Leica with a portrait lens—a short telephoto of 90 mm.—by Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, better known as Korda, in 1960. How about the pearl-gray smile-cum-kiss reflected in the wing mirror of a car, taken by Elliott Erwitt in 1955? Leica again, as is the even more celebrated smooch caught in Times Square on V-J Day, 1945—a sailor craned over a nurse, bending her backward, her hand raised against his chest in polite half-protestation. The man behind the camera was Alfred Eisenstaedt, of Life magazine, who recalled:

I was running ahead of him with my Leica, looking back over my shoulder. But none of the pictures that were possible pleased me. Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked.

He took four pictures, and that was that. “It was done within a few seconds,” he said. All you need to know about the Leica is present in those seconds. The photographer was on the run, so whatever he was carrying had to be light and trim enough not to be a drag. He swivelled and fired in one motion, like the Sundance Kid. And everything happened as quickly for him as it did for the startled nurse, with all the components—the angles, the surrounding throng, the shining white of her dress and the kisser’s cap—falling into position. Times Square was the arena of uncontrolled joy; the job of the artist was to bring it under control, and the task of his camera was to bring life—or, at least, an improved version of it, graced with order and impact—to the readers of Life.

Eisenstaedt and his Leicas

Still, why should one lump of metal and glass be better at fulfilling that duty than any other? Would Eisenstaedt really have been worse off, or failed to hit the target, with another sort of camera? These days, Leica makes digital compacts and a beefy S.L.R., or single-lens reflex, called the R9, but for more than fifty years the pride of the company has been the M series of 35-mm. range-finder cameras—durable, companionable, costly, and basically unchanging, like a spouse. There are three current models, one of which, the MP, will set you back a throat-drying four thousand dollars or so; having stood outside dustless factory rooms, in Solms, and watched women in white coats and protective hairnets carefully applying black paint, with a slender brush, to the rim of every lens, I can tell you exactly where your money goes. Mind you, for four grand you don’t even get a lens—just the MP body. It sits there like a gum without a tooth until you add a lens, the cheapest being available for just under a thousand dollars. (Five and a half thousand will buy you a 50-mm. f/1, the widest lens on the market; for anybody wanting to shoot pictures by candlelight, there’s your answer.) If you simply want to take a nice photograph of your children, though, what’s wrong with a Canon PowerShot? Yours online for just over two hundred bucks, the PowerShot SD1000 will also zoom, focus for you, set the exposure for you, and advance the frame automatically for you, none of which the MP, like some sniffing aristocrat, will deign to do. To make the contest even starker, the SD1000 is a digital camera, fizzing with megapixels, whereas the Leica still stores images on that frail, combustible material known as film. Short of telling the kids to hold still while you copy them onto parchment, how much further out of touch could you be?

To non-photographers, Leica, more than any other manufacturer, is a legend with a hint of scam: suckers paying through the nose for a name, in a doomed attempt to crank up the credibility of a picture they were going to take anyway, just as weekend golfers splash out on a Callaway Big Bertha in a bid to convince themselves that, with a little more whippiness in their shaft, they will swell into Tiger Woods. To unrepentant aesthetes, on the other hand, there is something demeaning in the idea of Leica. Talent will out, they say, whatever the tools that lie to hand, and in a sense they are right: Woods would destroy us with a single rusty five-iron found at the back of a garage, and Cartier-Bresson could have picked up a Box Brownie and done more with a roll of film—summoning his usual miracles of poise and surprise—than the rest of us would manage with a lifetime of Leicas. Yet the man himself was quite clear on the matter:

I have never abandoned the Leica, anything different that I have tried has always brought me back to it. I am not saying this is the case for others. But as far as I am concerned it is the camera. It literally constitutes the optical extension of my eye.

Asked how he thought of the Leica, Cartier-Bresson said that it felt like “a big warm kiss, like a shot from a revolver, and like the psychoanalyst’s couch.” At this point, five thousand dollars begins to look like a bargain.

HCB with leica

Many reasons have been adduced for the rise of the Leica. There is the hectic progress of the illustrated press, avid for photographs to fill its columns; there is the increased mobility, spending power, and leisure time of the middle classes, who wished to preserve a record of these novel blessings, if not for posterity, then at least for show. Yet the great inventions, more often than not, are triggered less by vast historical movements than by the pressures of individual chance—or, in Leica’s case, by asthma. Every Leica employee who drives down Oskar-Barnack-Strasse is reminded of corporate glory, for it was Barnack, a former engineer at Carl Zeiss, the famous lens-makers in Jena, who designed the Leica I. He was an amateur photographer, and the camera had first occurred to him, as if in a vision, in 1905, twenty years before it actually went on sale:

Back then I took pictures using a camera that took 13 by 18 plates, with six double-plate holders and a large leather case similar to a salesman’s sample case. This was quite a load to haul around when I set off each Sunday through the Thüringer Wald. While I struggled up the hillsides (bearing in mind that I suffer from asthma) an idea came to me. Couldn’t this be done differently?

Five years later, Barnack was invited to work for Ernst Leitz, a rival optical company, in Wetzlar. (The company stayed there until 1988, when it was sold, and the camera division, renamed Leica, shifted to Solms, fifteen minutes away.) By 1913-14, he had developed what became known as the ur-Leica: a tough, squat rectangular metal box, not much bigger than a spectacles case, with rounded corners and a retractable brass lens. You could tuck it into a jacket pocket, wander around the Thuringer woods all weekend, and never gasp for breath. The extraordinary fact is that, if you were to place it next to today’s Leica MP, the similarities would far outweigh the differences; stand a young man beside his own great-grandfather and you get the same effect.

Barnack took a picture on August 2, 1914, using his new device. Reproduced in Alessandro Pasi’s comprehensive study, “Leica: Witness to a Century” (2004), it shows a helmeted soldier turning away from a column on which he has just plastered the imperial order for mobilization. This was the first hint of the role that would fall to Leicas above all other cameras: to be there in history’s face. Not until the end of hostilities did Barnack resume work on the Leica, as it came to be called. (His own choice of name was Lilliput, but wiser counsels prevailed.) Whenever you buy a 35-mm. camera, you pay homage to Barnack, for it was his handheld invention that popularized the 24-mm.-by-36-mm. negative—a perfect ratio of 2:3—adapted from cine film. According to company lore, he held a strip of the new film between his hands and stretched his arms wide, the resulting length being just enough to contain thirty-six frames—the standard number of images, ever since, on a roll of 35-mm. film. Well, maybe. Does this mean that, if Barnack had been more of an ape, we might have got forty?

When the Leica I made its eventual début, in 1925, it caused consternation. In the words of one Leica historian, quoted by Pasi, “To many of the old photographers it looked like a toy designed for a lady’s handbag.” Over the next seven years, however, nearly sixty thousand Leica I’s were sold. That’s a lot of handbags. The shutter speeds on the new camera ran up to one five-hundredth of a second, and the aperture opened wide to f/3.5. In 1932, the Leica II arrived, equipped with a range finder for more accurate focussing. I used one the other day—a mid-thirties model, although production lasted until 1948. Everything still ran sweetly, including the knurled knob with which you wind on from frame to frame, and the simplicity of the design made the Leica an infinitely more friendly proposition, for the novice, than one of the digital monsters from Nikon and Canon. Those need an instruction manual only slightly smaller than the Old Testament, whereas the Leica II sat in my palms like a puppy, begging to be taken out on the streets.

That is how it struck not only the public but also those for whom photography was a living, or an ecstatic pursuit. A German named Paul Wolff acquired a Leica in 1926 and became a high priest to the brand, winning many converts with his 1934 book “My Experiences with the Leica.” His compatriot Ilsa Bing, born to a Jewish family in Frankfurt, was dubbed “the Queen of the Leica” after an exhibit in 1931. She had bought the camera in 1929, and what is remarkable, as one scrolls through a roster of her peers, is how quickly, and infectiously, the Leica habit caught on. Whenever I pick up a book of photographs, I check the chronology at the back. From a monograph by the Hungarian André Kertész, the most wistful and tactful of photographers: “1928—Purchases first Leica.” From the catalogue of the 1998 Aleksandr Rodchenko show at MOMA: “1928, November 25—Stepanova’s diary records Rodchenko’s purchase of a Leica for 350 rubles.” And on it goes.

Ilse Bing 1932

The Russians were among the first and fiercest devotees, and anyone who craves the Leica as a pure emblem of capitalist desire—what Marx would call commodity fetishism—may also like to reflect on its status, to men like Rodchenko, as a weapon in the revolutionary struggle. Never a man to be tied down (he was also a painter, sculptor, and master of collage), he nonetheless believed that “only the camera is capable of reflecting contemporary life,” and he went on the attack, craning up at buildings and down from roofs, tipping his Leica at flights of steps and street parades, upending the world as if all its old complacencies could be shaken out of the bottom like dust. There is a gorgeous shot from 1934 entitled “Girl with a Leica,” in which his subject perches politely on a bench that arrows diagonally, and most impolitely, from lower left to upper right. She wears a soft white beret and dress, and her gaze is blank and misty, but thrown over the scene, like a net, is the shadow of a window grille—modernist geometry at war with reactionary decorum. The object she clasps in her lap, its strap drawn tightly over her shoulder, is of the same make as the one that created the picture.

When it came to off-centeredness, Rodchenko’s fellow-Russian Ilya Ehrenburg went one better. “A camera is clumsy and crude. It meddles insolently in other people’s affairs,” he wrote in 1932. “Ours is a guileful age. Following man’s example, things have also learned to dissemble. For many months I roamed Paris with a little camera. People would sometimes wonder: why was I taking pictures of a fence or a road? They didn’t know that I was taking pictures of them.” Ehrenburg had solved the problem of meddling by buying an accessory: “The Leica has a lateral viewfinder. It’s constructed like a periscope. I was photographing at 90 degrees.” The Paris that emerged—poor, grimy, and unposed—was a moral rebuke to the myth of bohemian chic.

You can still buy a right-angled viewfinder for a new Leica, if you’re too shy or sneaky to confront your subjects head-on, although the basic thrust of Leica technique has been to insist that no extra subterfuge is required: the camera can hide itself. If I had to fix the source of that reticence, I would point to Marseilles in 1932. It was then that Cartier-Bresson, an aimless young Frenchman from a wealthy family, bought his first Leica. He proceeded to grow into the best-known photographer of the twentieth century, in spite (or, as he would argue, because) of his ability to walk down a street not merely unrecognized but unnoticed. He began as a painter, and continued to draw throughout his life, but his hand was most comfortable with a camera.

When I spoke to his widow, Martine Franck—the president of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, in Paris, and herself a distinguished photographer—she said that her husband in action with his Leica “was like a dancer.” This feline unobtrusiveness led him all over the world and made him seem at home wherever he paused; one trip to Asia lasted three years, ending in 1950, and produced eight hundred and fifty rolls of film. His breakthrough collection, published two years later, was called “The Decisive Moment,” and he sought endless analogies for the sensation that was engendered by the press of a shutter. The most common of these was hunting: “The photographer must lie in wait, watching out for his prey, and have a presentiment of what is about to happen.”

There, if anywhere, is the Leica motto: watch and wait. If you were a predator, the moment—not just for Cartier-Bresson, but for all photographers—became that much more decisive in 1954. “Clairvoyance” means “clear sight,” and when Leica launched the M3 that year, the clarity was a coup de foudre; even now, when you look through a used M3, the world before you is brighter and crisper than seems feasible. You half expect to feel the crunch of autumn leaves beneath your feet. A Leica viewfinder resembles no other, because of the frame lines: thin white strips, parallel to each side of the frame, which show you the borders of the photograph that you are set to take—not merely the lie of the land within the shot, but also what is happening, or about to happen, just outside. This is a matter of millimetres, but to Leica fans it is sacred, because it allows them to plan and imagine a photograph as an act of storytelling—an instant grabbed at will from a continuum. If you want a slice of life, why not see the loaf?

The M3 had everything, although by the standards of today it had practically nothing. You focussed manually, of course, and there was nothing to help you calculate the exposure; either you carried a separate light meter, or you clipped one awkwardly to the top of the camera, or, if you were cool, you guessed. Cartier-Bresson was cool. Martine Franck is still cool: “I think I know my light by now,” she told me. She continues to use her M3: “I’ve never held a camera so beautiful. It fits the hand so well.” Even for people who know nothing of Cartier-Bresson, and for whom 1954 is as long ago as Pompeii, something about the M3 clicks into place: last year, when eBay and Stuff magazine, in the U.K., took it upon themselves to nominate “the top gadget of all time,” the Game Boy came fifth, the Sony Walkman third, and the iPod second. First place went to an old camera that doesn’t even need a battery. If the Queen subscribes to Stuff, she will have nodded in approval, having owned an M3 since 1958. Her Majesty is so wedded to her Leica that she was once shown on a postage stamp holding it at the ready.

aaaaaa--5

It’s no insult to call the M3 a gadget. Such beauty as it possesses flows from its scorn for the superfluous; as any Bauhaus designer could tell you, form follows function. The M series is the backbone of Leica; we are now at the M8 (which at first glance is barely distinguishable from the M3), and, with a couple of exceptions, every intervening camera has been a classic. Richard Kalvar, who rose to become president of the Magnum photographic agency during the nineties, remembers hearing the words of a Leica fan: “I know I’m using the best, and I don’t have to think about it anymore.” Kalvar bought an M4 and never looked back: “It’s almost a part of me,” he says. Ralph Gibson, whose photographs offer an unblinking survey of the textures that surround us, from skin to stone, bought his first Leica, an M2 (which, confusingly, postdated the M3), in 1961. It cost him three hundred dollars, which, considering that he was earning a hundred a week, was quite an outlay, but his loyalty is undimmed. “More great photographs have been made with a Leica and a 50-mm. lens than with any other combination in the history of photography,” Gibson said to me. He advised Leica beginners to use nothing except that standard lens for two or three years, so as to ease themselves into the swing of the thing: “What you learn you can then apply to all the other lengths.”

One could argue that, since the nineteen-fifties and sixties, the sense of Europe as the spiritual hearth of Leica, with the Paris of Kertész and Cartier-Bresson glowing at its core, has been complemented, if not superseded, by America’s attraction to the brand. The Russian love of the angular had exploited the camera’s portability (you try bending over a window ledge with a plate camera); the French had perfected the art of reportage, netting experience on the wing; but the Leicas that conquered America—the M3, the M4, and later the M6, with built-in metering and the round red Leica logo on the front—were wielded with fresh appetite, biting at the world and slicing it off in unexpected chunks. Lee Friedlander, photographing a child in New York, in 1963, thought nothing of bringing the camera down to the boy’s eye level, and thus semi-decapitating the grownups who stood beside him. (All kids dream of that sometime.) Men and women were reflected in storefront windows, or obscured by street signs; many of the photographs shimmered on the brink of a mistake. “With a camera like that,” Friedlander has said of the Leica, “you don’t believe that you’re in the masterpiece business. It’s enough to be able to peck at the world.” One shot of his, from 1969, traps an entire landscape of feeling—a boundless American sky, salted with high clouds, plus Friedlander’s wife, Maria, with her lightly smiling face—inside the cab of a single truck, layering what we see through the side window with what is reflected in it. I know of long novels that tell you less.

Before Friedlander came Robert Frank, born in Switzerland; only someone from a mountainous country, perhaps, could come here and view the United States as a flat and tragic plain. “The Americans” (1958), the record of his travels with a Leica, was mostly haze, shade, and grain, stacked with human features resigned to their fate. No artist had ever studied a men’s room in such detail before, with everything from the mop to the hand dryer immortalized in the wide embrace of the lens; Jack Kerouac, who wrote the introduction to the book, lauded the result, taken in Memphis, Tennessee, as “the loneliest picture ever made, the urinals that women never see, the shoeshine going on in sad eternity.” Then, there was Garry Winogrand, the least exhaustible of all photographers. Frank’s eighty-three images may have been chosen from five hundred rolls of film, but when Winogrand died, in 1984, at the age of fifty-six, he left behind more than two and a half thousand rolls of film that hadn’t even been developed. He leavened the wistfulness of Frank with a documentary bluntness and a grinning wit, incessantly tilting his Leica to throw a scene off-balance and seek a new dynamic. His picture of a disabled man in Los Angeles, in 1969, could have been fuelled by pathos alone, or by political rage at an indifferent society, but Winogrand cannot stop tracking that society in its comic range; that is why we get not just the wheelchair and the begging bowl but also a trio of short-skirted girls, bunched together like a backup group, strolling through the Vs of shadow and sunlight, and a portly matron planted at the right of the frame—a stolid import from another age.

I recently found a picture of Winogrand’s M4. The metal is not just rubbed but visibly worn down beside the wind-on lever; you have to shoot a heck of a lot of photographs on a Leica before that happens. Still, his M4 is in mint condition compared with the M2 owned by Bruce Davidson, the American photographer whose work constitutes, among other things, an invaluable record of the civil-rights movement. And even his M2, pitted and peeled like the bark of a tree, is pristine compared with the Leica I saw in the display case at the Leica factory in Solms. That model had been in the Hindenburg when it went up in flames in New Jersey in 1937. The heat was so intense that the front of the lenses melted. So now you know: Leica engineers test their product to the limits, and they will customize it for you if you are planning a trip to the Arctic, but when you really want to trash your precious camera you need an exploding airship.

20130812-M4_Winograd 1

If you pick up an M-series Leica, two things are immediately apparent. First, the density: the object sits neatly but not lightly in the hand, and a full day’s shooting, with the camera continually hefted to the eye, leaves you with a faint but discernible case of wrist ache. Second, there is no lump. Most of the smarter, costlier cameras in the world are S.L.R.s, with a lumpy prism on top. Light enters through the lens, strikes an angled mirror, and bounces upward to the prism, where it strikes one surface after another, like a ball in a squash court, before exiting through the viewfinder. You see what your lens sees, and you focus accordingly. This happy state of affairs does not endure. As you take a picture, the mirror flips up out of the light path. The image, now unobstructed, reaches straight to the rear of the camera and, as the shutter opens, burns into the emulsion of the film—or, these days, registers on a digital sensor. With every flip, however, comes a flip side: the mirror shuts off access to the prism, meaning that, at the instant of release, your vision is blocked, and you are left gazing at the dark.

To most of us, this is not a problem. The instant passes, the mirror flips back down, and lo, there is light. For some photographers, though, the impediment is agony: of all the times to deny us the right to look at our subject, S.L.R.s have to pick this one? “Visualus interruptus,” Ralph Gibson calls it, and here is where the Leica M series plays its ace. The Leica is lumpless, with a flat top built from a single piece of brass. It has no prism, because it focusses with a range finder—situated above the lens. And it has no mirror inside, and therefore no clunk as the mirror swings. When you take a picture with an S.L.R., there is a distinctive sound, somewhere between a clatter and a thump; I worship my beat-up Nikon FE, but there is no denying that every snap reminds me of a cow kicking over a milk pail. With a Leica, all you hear is the shutter, which is the quietest on the market. The result—and this may be the most seductive reason for the Leica cult—is that a photograph sounds like a kiss.

From the start, this tinge of diplomatic subtlety has shaded our view of the Leica, not always helpfully. The M-series range finder feels made for the finesse and formality of black-and-white—yet consider the oeuvre of William Eggleston, whose unabashed use of color has delivered, through Leica lenses, a lesson in everyday American surrealism, which, like David Lynch movies, blooms almost painfully bright. Again, the Leica, with its range of wide-aperture lenses, is the camera for natural light, and thus inimical to flash, yet Lee Friedlander conjured a series of plainly flashlit nudes, in the nineteen-seventies, which finds tenderness and dignity in the brazen. Lastly, a Leica is, before anything else, a 35-mm. camera. Barnack shaped the Leica I around a strip of film, and the essential mission of the brand since then has been to guarantee that a single chemical event—the action of light on a photosensitive surface—passes off as smoothly as possible. Picture the scene, then, in Cologne, in the fall of 2006. At Photokina, the biennial fair of the world’s photographic trade, Leica made an announcement: it was time, we were told, for the M8. The M series was going digital. It was like Dylan going electric.

In a way, this had to happen. The tide of our lives is surging in a digital direction. My complete childhood is distilled into a couple of photograph albums, with the highlights, whether of achievement or embarrassment, captured in no more than a dozen talismanic stills, now faded and curling at the edges. Yet our own children go on one school trip and return with a hundred images stashed on a memory card: will that enhance or dilute their later remembrance of themselves? Will our experience be any the richer for being so retrievable, or could an individual history risk being wiped, or corrupted, as briskly as a memory card? Garry Winogrand might have felt relieved to secure those thousands of images on a hard drive, rather than on frangible film, although it could be that the taking of a photograph meant more to him than the printed result. The jury is out, but one thing is for sure: film is dwindling into a minority taste, upheld largely by professionals and stubborn, nostalgic perfectionists. Nikon now offers twenty-two digital models, for instance, while the “wide array of SLR film cameras,” as promised on its Web site, numbers precisely two.

Even a company like Leica, servant to the devout, has felt the brunt. For the fiscal year 2004-05, the company posted losses of almost twenty million euros (nearly twenty-six million dollars), and in 2005 the banks partially terminated its credit lines; in short, Leica was heading for extinction. Since then, there has been something of a turnaround. Major restructuring is still under way, with a new C.E.O.—a genial Californian called Steven K. Lee—brought in to oversee the changes. According to a report of June 20, 2007, the past year has seen the company inching back into profitability, and much of that improvement is due to the M8. The camera’s birth was fraught with complications, and reports streamed in from owners that in certain conditions, thanks to a glitch in the sensor, black was showing up on digital images as deep purple—troubling news if you happened to be shooting a portrait of Dracula, or a Guinness commercial. There were also rumblings about the quality of the focus, which is the last thing you expect from a Leica. One well-known photographer described the camera to me as “unusable,” and said he sometimes felt like throwing it against a wall. But the company responded: cameras were recalled to the factory, Lee signed four thousand letters of apology, and the crisis passed. Nevertheless, the camera still needs a filter fixed to every lens to correct its vision, and Leica will want to do better next time. When I asked Lee about the possibility of an M9—an upgraded M8, with all the kinks ironed out—he smiled and said nothing.

Lee knows what is at stake, being a Leica-lover of long standing. Asked about the difference between using his product and an ordinary camera, he replied: “One is driving a Morgan four-by-four down a country lane, the other one is getting in a Mercedes station wagon and going a hundred miles an hour.” The problem is that, for photographers as for drivers, the most pressing criterion these days is speed, and anything more sluggish than the latest Mercedes—anything, likewise, not tricked out with luxurious extras—belongs to the realm of heritage. There is an astonishing industry in used Leicas, with clubs and forums debating such vital areas of contention as the strap lugs introduced in 1933. There are collectors who buy a Leica and never take it out of the box; others who discreetly amass the special models forged for the Luftwaffe. Ralph Gibson once went to a meeting of the Leica Historical Society of America and, he claims, listened to a retired Marine Corps general give a scholarly paper on certain discrepancies in the serial numbers of Leica lens caps. “Leicaweenies,” Gibson calls such addicts, and they are part of the charming, unbreakable spell that the name continues to cast, as well as a tribute to the working longevity of the cameras. By an unfortunate irony, the abiding virtues of the secondhand slow down the sales of the new: why buy an M8 when you can buy an M3 for a quarter of the price and wind up with comparable results? The economic equation is perverse: “I believe that for every euro we make in sales, the market does four euros of business,” Lee said.

BP M3 5414 1

I have always wanted a Leica, ever since I saw an Edward Weston photograph of Henry Fonda, his noble profile etched against the sky, a cigarette between two fingers, and a Leica resting against the corduroy of his jacket. I have used a variety of cultish cameras, all of them secondhand at least, and all based on a negative larger than 35 mm.: a Bronica, a Mamiya 7, and the celebrated twin-lens Rolleiflex, which needs to be cupped at waist height. (“If the good Lord had wanted us to take photographs with a 6 by 6, he would have put eyes in our belly,” a scornful Cartier-Bresson said.) But I have never used a Leica. Now I own one: a small, dapper digital compact called the D-Lux 3. It has a fine lens, and its grace note is a retro leather case that makes me feel less like Henry Fonda and more like a hiker named Helmut, striding around the Black Forest in long socks and a dark-green hat with a feather in it; but a D-Lux 3 is not an M8. For one thing, it doesn’t have a proper viewfinder. For another, it costs close to six hundred dollars—the upper limit of my budget, but laughably cheap to anyone versed in the M series. So, to discover what I was missing, I rented an M8 and a 50-mm. lens for four hours, from a Leica dealer, and went to work.

If you can conquer the slight queasiness that comes from walking about with seven thousand dollars’ worth of machinery hanging around your neck, an afternoon with the M8 is a dangerously pleasant groove to get into. I can understand that, were you a sports photographer, perched far away from the action, or a paparazzo, fighting to squeeze off twenty consecutive frames of Britney Spears falling down outside a night club, this would not be your tool of choice, but for more patient mortals it feels very usable indeed. This is not just a question of ergonomics, or of the diamond-like sharpness of the lens. Rather, it has to do with the old, bewildering Leica trick: the illusion, fostered by a mere machine, that the world out there is asking to be looked at—to be caught and consumed while it is fresh, like a trout. Ever since my teens, as one substandard print after another glimmered into view in the developing tray, under the brothel-red gloom of the darkroom, my own attempts at photography have meant a lurch of expectation and disappointment. Now, with an M8 in my possession, the shame gave way to a thrill. At one point, I stood outside a bookstore and, in a bid to test the exposure, focused on a pair of browsers standing within, under an “Antiquarian” sign at the end of a long shelf. Suddenly, a pale blur entered the frame lines. I panicked, and pressed the shutter: kiss.

On the digital playback, I inspected the evidence. The blur had been an old lady, and she had emerged as a phantom—the complete antiquarian, with glowing white hair and a hint of spectacles. It wasn’t a good photograph, more of a still from “Ghostbusters,” but it was funnier and punchier than anything I had taken before, and I could only have grabbed it with a Leica. (And only with an M. By the time the D-Lux 3 had fired up and focused, the lady would have floated halfway down the street.) So the rumors were true: buy this camera, and accidents will happen. I remembered what Cartier-Bresson once said about turning from painting to photography: “the adventurer in me felt obliged to testify with a quicker instrument than a brush to the scars of the world.” That is what links him to the Leicaweenies, and Oskar Barnack to the advent of the M8, and Russian revolutionaries to flashlit American nudes: the simple, undying wish to look at the scars.

By Anthony Lane. Originally published in The New Yorker, September 24, 2007

Robert Frank Gets Arrested Down South

robert-frank-leica

In November 1955, Lt RE Brown of the Arkansas State Police spotted an unshaven and shabbily dressed suspicious looking man driving an old Ford near the Mississippi River.The man’s car was full of maps, numerous papers written in foreign languages, and a number of strange German “Leica’ cameras with bags and bags of exposed films. Suspecting the man to be a communist spy, Lt Brown arrested Robert Frank and brought him to the McGehee City jail for fingerprinting and interrogation. A local citizen “who knew several foreign languages” was brought in to assist in Frank’s questioning even though Frank spoke fluent English.

The Swiss-born Frank protested that he was a professional photographer who had received a grant to travel America taking pictures. He explained that his work had been published in the New York Herald Tribune, the New York Times and Life and Look magazines. Frank showed the Lt. some of his work, what looked to Lt. Brown like spy photos: blurry images, often out of car windows, of things like bridges, factories and power stations. It was only when Frank  produced a well worn copy of Forbes magazine with his name and photos prominently displayed was he finally allowed to go on his way. His fingerprints were forwarded to the FBI.

Four years later, in 1959,  some of the same pictures he showed Lt Brown would be published in book form in Frank’s seminal work The Americans.

 

ARKANSAS STATE POLICE
Little Rock, Arkansas

December 19, 1955

Alan R. Templeton, Captain
Criminal Investigations Division
Arkansas State Police
Little Rock, Arkansas

Dear Captain Templeton:

On or about November 7, I was enroute to Dermott to attend to some business and about 2 o’clock I observed a 1950 or 1951 Ford with New York license, driven by a subject later identified as Robert Frank of New York City.

After stopping the car I noticed that he was shabbily dressed, needed a shave and a haircut, also a bath. Subject talked with a foreign accent. I talked to the subject a few minutes and looked into the car where I noticed it was heavily loaded with suitcases, trunks and a number of cameras.

Due to the fact that it was necessary for me to report to Dermott immediately, I placed the subject in the City Jail in McGehee until such time that I could return and check him out.

After returning from Dermott I questioned this subject. He was very uncooperative and had a tendency to be “smart-elecky” in answering questions. Present during the questioning was Trooper Buren Jackson and Officer Ernest Crook of the McGehee Police Department.

We were advised that a Mr. Mercer Woolf of McGehee, who had some experience in counter-intelligence work during World War II and could read and speak several foreign languages, would be available to assist us in checking out this subject. Subject had numerous papers in foreign langauges, including a passport that did not include his picture.

This officer investigated this subject due to the man’s appearance, the fact that he was a foreigner and had in his possession cameras and felt that the subject should be checked out as we are continually being advised to watch out for any persons illegally in this country possibly in the emply of some unfriendly foreign power and the possibility of Communist affiliations.

Subject was fingerprinted in the normal routine of police investigation; one card being sent to Arkansas State Police Headquarters and one card to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington.

Respectfully submitted,
Lieutenant R.E. Brown, Lieutenant Comanding
Troop #5
ARKANSAS STATE POLICE
Warren, Arkansas

 

Robert Frank and the Leica Legacy

Would Robert Frank be using the latest digital Leica M if he were working today? Who knows, although I doubt it. He probably couldn’t afford one, certainly if he were unemployed and making ends meet on a Guggenheim fellowship. I suspect, were he travelling the States with Mrs. Frank today, updating his classic The Americans, he’d be driving a used Hyundai and shooting a digital point and shoot he bought second hand on Ebay. Or maybe, just maybe, he’d be using a beater M and shooting Arista Premium 400 he bought bulk from Freestyle.

robert-frank-_detroit-river-rouge-plant_-1955-dia-no-1999-8-b

Frank wasn’t much concerned about his equipment. He had started out using a Rolleiflex TLR  but had switched to a Leica IIIc because it was small and unobtrusive and better suited to his documentary aesthetic. Its 50mm Sonnar was seriously out of whack, offset sufficiently from the film plane that it was exposing the sides of the image around the film’s sprocket holes.

robert-frank-from-the-bus-2

This is not to accuse Leica of being cynical or disingenuous with its ad campaign for the latest M digital. Frank did use a Leica for some of the iconic photos of the twentieth century, and he continued to use them through the 1980’s, after which he dropped out of site photographically. (I recall seeing him in NYC in that era, sitting with 2 Leica M’s on a table next to him.) They’ve earned the right to claim Frank’s loyalty.

Frank was a visual purist. It was only the image that mattered. And I don’t mean that in the sense of what digital photographers mean by ‘image quality.’ He couldn’t care less about sharpness and resolution and bokeh and all the other foolish things current photographers mistake for quality. His best images are remarkably free of such pedestrian concerns. It was always about whether the image spoke to you.

robert_frank_london

Leicas have always been expensive. They’ve always prided themselves on the quality of their optics. But there’s been a sea-change in the public’s perception of what is unique to a Leica rangefinder since the advent of the digital M. Traditionally, Leicas were prized by Frank’s generation because they were small, and quiet and discreet. Their Summicrons and Elmars and Elmarits were excellent lenses, well-made and optically sound, but they weren’t that much better than the 50’s and 60’s era offerings from Zeiss and Nikon. (Many of the iconic Americans photographs were taken with a Zeiss Sonnar.) What mattered was seeing the picture and getting the picture, needs that a small pocket-size camera that could scale focus met well.

Frank

Now Leica stands for exclusivity and unparalleled, over the top optical excellence. Nothing wrong with that. But it wasn’t why Robert Frank used a Leica, and it wouldn’t be today if he were still photographing.

robert frank 2009

Robert Frank, 2009