Robert Frank: He got eyes


To Robert Frank I now give you this message: You got eyes.

That was Jack Kerouac, in his introduction to Frank’s seminal work The Americans, first published in 1958.

Funeral – St. Helena, South Carolina

‘You got eyes’ is just about the highest compliment you can pay to any photographer. It’s probably more important than the technical skills or equipment. No, not probably, absolutely. In The Photographer’s Eye John Szarkowski says ‘It was the photographer’s problem to see not simply the reality before him but the still invisible picture, and to make his choices in terms of the latter. This was an artistic problem, not a scientific one.’

Few understood this better than Robert Frank.

Frank’s images in ‘The Americans’ display wit, a sense of the ironic, an uncanny ability to capture what Kerouac dubbed ‘American-ness’ and, at a time when the American Dream was at its most compelling, the courage to reveal what he believed lay at the heart of ‘American-ness’.

Political rally – Chicago

Robert Frank came to the United States from his native Switzerland in the mid-1940s with an upbeat outlook on American life, particularly its culture. That quickly changed when some of the true colours of American society began to show through. True, it was through an essentially European middle-class filter that Frank viewed American life. But did that invalidate what he saw and recorded?

Charleston, South Carolina

Influenced to an extent by the work of Walker Evans, funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship grant, Frank took nearly 30,000 shots over two years traveling from coast to coast. Just over 80 of these shots made it into the book.

At first glance, the photographs in The Americans form a simple iconography of the time (1950s) and place: American flags and bunting, jukeboxes and diners, fast food and finned cars, signs and slogans, jolly and not-so-jolly gatherings, family outings, political rallies. But look closer. And what emerges are gritty images of privilege and disaffection, an often blind chauvinism and ritual patriotism; class, racial and religious tensions. All of these themes are explored and assembled in an almost cinematographic sequence. It was an intimation of what Frank would turn his talents to in later years.

I will have to express without fear my feelings about the world of which I am a part.  Robert Frank

Parade – Hoboken, New Jersey

And here’s one of the things I really like about the work of Frank, in particular ‘The Americans’: the fact that despite his training, technical skills and background as an art, graphic and fashion photographer, here he captured images about which critics of the time said “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness”.  Frank basically said screw the rules .

Yet today, these images are admired as a prescient exploration of what the late John Szarkowski called ‘the gaudy insanities and strangely touching contradictions of American culture.’

Trolley – New Orleans

To be sure, Frank’s captures are certainly not about technical perfection. They are about raw fact, real people in unguarded moments, bleak scapes, almost empty rooms. Almost, except for… There is also ambiguity in these images – profound ambiguity as curator, writer and teacher of the history of photography, Colin Westerbeck has commented. An ambiguity which he puts down to Frank’s ambivalence towards both his adopted country and his subject matter. A certain detachment from the former, a compassion for the latter – particularly African Americans.

It’s an ambivalence I share, a feeling that resonates with me as an American who has chosen to spend most of his life in other countries; an influence that occasionally comes through in my own work.

Patriot garage, Maine – Fred Shively

In my opinion what Frank has captured in The Americans provides as penetrating a picture of the American condition today as when he made those images in the 1950s.

Fred ShivelyFred Shively was born in the USA, but has lived and worked most of his life in Europe. His current base is Spain. His background of writing and creative direction in advertising and corporate communications exposed him to some of the world’s most talented photographers, designers, musicians and film-makers, all of whom influenced his work. Fred is now primarily involved in photography.