Robert Frank (1924–2019) – Artforum International

Robert Frank (1924–2019) - Artforum International

The monumental Swiss-born photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank, whose artistic vision served as a seven-decade-long journey through the American vernacular landscape, has died. He was ninety-four years old. Peter MacGill of Pace-MacGill, which has represented Frank’s work since 1983, confirmed his death.After studying photography and graphic design in Switzerland, Frank moved to New York City in 1947. “Never have I experienced so much in one week as here,” he wrote to his Swiss Jewish parents shortly after his arrival. He soon earned commercial assignments for magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and befriended artists and poets, including Peter Orlovsky, Allen Ginsberg, Walker Evans, Jonas Mekas, and Willem de Kooning. His first photography book, published originally in France as Les Americains (The Americans, 1958), would become a defining document of the postwar United States—a rambling essay in black-and-white whose gritty portrayals of American culture, including its racial and class disparities, pushed against the country’s conformism. Despite receiving a generally negative critical reception initially, the book influenced countless photographers worldwide who found in it a raw alternative to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous “decisive moment.” As Jack Kerouac wrote in his oft-cited introduction for the American edition: “After seeing these pictures you end up finally not knowing anymore whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin.”Soon after publishing The Americans, Frank shifted his focus to film and codirected his first feature, Pull My Daisy, with painter Alfred Leslie in 1959. Mekas—then a Village Voice critic and a 1960 cofounder, with Frank and other independent filmmakers, of the New American Cinema Group—championed Frank’s movie as one which pointed “towards new directions, new ways out of the frozen officialdom and mid-century senility of our arts, towards a new thematic, a new sensitivity.” MacGill, a longtime friend, suggested Frank would eventually be remembered for his work in film, rather than as a photographer.J. Hoberman, in the April 2007 issue of Artforum, wrote: “Populated by bohemian personalities basically playing themselves, blurring the distinction between documentary and artifice, Pull My Daisy presaged Frank’s subsequent interests. The dialectic between staged and unstaged, as well as between celebrity and obscurity, informs his impure documentary features . . . as well as the smaller, more personal, process-oriented movies, many of which derived their integrity from a sense that the filmmaker couldn’t care less if they were ever shown.”In Laura Israel’s documentary portrait of the artist, Don’t Blink—Robert Frank (2016), Frank was asked what makes a good photograph. “Sharp, number one,” Frank said. “Make sure they see the eyes, hopefully the nose, smiling, say cheese. The main thing: Get it over quick. Get people when they’re not aware of the camera. Usually the first picture is the best.”
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