In 1959 a book of photographs was published in the United States that broke all the rules. Pictures were out of focus, heads were missing and the subjects rarely looked at the camera. The Americans by Robert Frank is widely credited as revolutionizing the narrative potential of photography. The book was a record of Frank’s journey across the United States, documenting the people, places and objects he saw on the way. ‘The pictures took us by ambush,’ said the curator John Szarkowski. ‘He established a new iconography for contemporary America, comprised of bits of bus depots, lunch counters, strip developments, empty spaces, cars and unknowable faces.’ It remains one of the most important photography books of the 20th century.
Born in Switzerland in 1924, Frank emigrated to the United States in 1947 where he worked as a photographer in the fashion and advertising industries. In 1949 he started to take pictures that reflected his search for artistic freedom. He travelled to South America and Europe to shoot stories of ordinary life, filled with images of loneliness and shadow. Peru, photographed in 1948, focused on rural traditions, while Wales, made in 1953, depicted the harsh realities of life in a remote mining village.
In 1955 he was awarded a Guggenheim Grant, which financed a series of road trips across America. He shot around 28,000 pictures, from which 83 black and white images were chosen for The Americans. The book was considered provocative because it flew in the face of the wholesome American photojournalism of the time. Frank, with his apparently casual compositions, simply showed things the way they were. From identical twins to moody commuters to an old man standing in front of a littered grass bank, he uncovered the extraordinary in everyday life. As Jack Kerouac wrote in his famous introduction, Robert Frank ‘sucked a sad poem out of America’.
In 1996 he was presented with the Hasselblad Award for his contribution to the development of post-war photography.
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