Robert Frank, photographer behind 1958’s seminal book ‘The Americans,’ dead at 94

Robert Frank’s "Trolley -- New Orleans," from "The Americans."
Robert Frank’s "Trolley -- New Orleans," from "The Americans."

Robert Frank, whose 1958 book, “The Americans,” changed the face of 20th-century photography, died Monday in Nova Scotia. He was 94. The cause of death was not immediately known.

Robert Frank.
Robert Frank.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/file

As the novelist Jack Kerouac wrote in his introduction to “The Americans,” “Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand . . . sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.”

What Mr. Frank did in that book was to take the leading tradition of American photography — the documentary tradition, with its reverence for the particular, of Timothy O’Sullivan, Lewis Hine, and Walker Evans — and enlarge it: to emblematize the particular and make it mythic.


As Mr. Frank wrote in his application for the Guggenheim Fellowship that underwrote the photographic travels that resulted in “The Americans,” “ ‘The photographing of America’ is a large order — read at all literally, the phrase would be an absurdity. What I have in mind, then, is observation and record of what one naturalized American finds to see in the United States that signifies the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere.”

In the end, the book’s 83 images are about nothing so much as American immensity, a span of distance both inner and outer. So many of the people pictured in the book stare off elsewhere. Rarely do they look at one another, and almost never into the camera. For all that the book’s title suggests otherwise, “The Americans” is not about people. It’s about the space that holds them.

“In this picture,’’ Evans wrote of an image of an empty highway, ‘‘US 285, New Mexico,’’ ‘‘you instantly find the continent. The whole page is haunted with American scale and space, which the mind fills in quite automatically . . .”


Five days after Mr. Frank arrived in the United States, in 1947, he wrote home, “Nothing is impossible here. They have electric toothbrushes and nail clippers. . . . In 10 minutes you have eaten and there are three men standing behind you, waiting for you to leave . . . I can only tell you this; you have to see for yourself.” That sense of discovery informs every image in “The Americans,” as Mr. Frank’s camera reveals a land of highways and jukeboxes, unwatched televisions and waving flags, mink stoles and movie premieres.

Robert Frank’s “Bar -- New York City," from "The Americans."
Robert Frank’s “Bar -- New York City," from "The Americans."

With his cool, disarmingly hungry eye, Mr. Frank gathered up America in a casual embrace. Affecting neither advocacy nor scorn, he offered no judgments on the continent-sized country he was capturing with his camera, no judgments other than a kind of narrow-eyed wonder.

At the time of the book’s publication, many did not see Mr. Frank’s work that way. A Popular Photography reviewer agreed with Kerouac on the poetic quality of “The Americans”; but, put off by its often-scruffy subject matter and seemingly artless style, he denounced “this sad poem for sick people.” Six decades later, the book looks vastly different: Yesterday’s subversion has become today’s unkempt appreciation.

Robert Frank, "Welsh Miners," 1953 © Robert Frank
Robert Frank, "Welsh Miners," 1953 © Robert Frank© Robert Frank

In addition, “The Americans” profoundly influenced the work of two generations of photographers. The critic Janet Malcolm likened its creator to the painter who ushered in Impressionism. Mr. Frank, she wrote, was “the Manet of the new photography.” What was once a revolutionary document now looks like a manual of late-20th-century photographic style. In redefining an art form, Mr. Frank had an impact on photography comparable to Marlon Brando’s on acting, a few years earlier, and Bob Dylan’s on popular music, a few years later.


‘‘Never before,’’ the photographer Joel Meyerowitz has written of ‘‘The Americans,’’ ‘‘was there a book of photographs with the wholeness of literature and the clarity of a poem. Many photographers of my generation succumbed to his vision and through it saw the difficulties and potential of photography and the adventure in store for us were we to misread that work in our own inevitable ways.’’

The impact of Mr. Frank’s work extended beyond photography and film. “I’ve always wished I could write songs the way he takes pictures,” Bruce Springsteen once said.

Robert Frank was born in Zurich on Nov. 9, 1924, the son of Hermann and Regina Frank. His father was a German businessman who’d moved to Switzerland after World War I. Mr. Frank’s interest in the United States and photography came early. As a boy, he clipped a photo of Franklin D. Roosevelt and placed it over his bed. As a teenager, he apprenticed himself to a local photographer and got his first photographic job, taking stills on a movie set, when he was 17.

Robert Frank, "Charleston, South Carolina," from "The Americans."
Robert Frank, "Charleston, South Carolina," from "The Americans."

Mr. Frank immigrated to the United States in 1947 and was almost immediately hired to work as a photographer for the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar. “I could feel the possibilities,” he said nearly half a century later of his first years in New York. “You could do anything, go anywhere; nobody really cared.”


In 1950, he married the sculptor Mary (Lockspeiser) Frank. She and their two children accompanied Mr. Frank on parts of the 1955-56 cross-country travels in a 1950 Ford that produced “The Americans.” It was a journey both mundane (Mr. Frank went to the American Automobile Association to plan his route) and exotic (suspicious of his accent, the Arkansas State Police sent his fingerprints to the FBI).

In its combining the commonplace and extraordinary, the journey was like something out of Kerouac’s novel “On the Road.” In fact, Mr. Frank collaborated with such Beat writers as Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The best known of these collaborations is the film “Pull My Daisy,” made in 1959, and Mr. Frank spent much of his time in subsequent years making experimental films. “When you make a film, you have a conversation,” he said in a 1994 New York Times interview. “You have more contact with people. When you photograph, often you walk away.”

Film also had the advantage of letting Mr. Frank get away from his old style. The astonishing influence “The Americans” had on other photographers dismayed him. As the ’60s wore on, more and more “people would come by or send me photographs, and they looked like my photographs. Then I realized there was no more point. I wanted to move on.”

Robert Frank’s "Rodeo — New York City ," from "The Americans."
Robert Frank’s "Rodeo — New York City ," from "The Americans."

Mr. Frank turned to more haphazard techniques of photography: marking up negatives, assembling collages, and emphasizing spontaneity at the expense of composition. An example of his later style is the album cover of the Rolling Stones album “Exile on Main Street,” for which Mr. Frank provided the art. Mr. Frank also made a documentary film about the group’s 1972 tour, “CS Blues,” which the Stones banned for many years because of its graphic representations of backstage drug use and sexual situations.


In 1969, Mr. Frank built a house in Mabou, Nova Scotia, and started to divide his time between there and New York. Also in that year, he and Mary Frank divorced.

In 1972, Mr. Frank published a photographic autobiography, “The Lines of My Hand.” An expanded edition appeared in 1989. A year later, he donated an archive of some 5,500 negatives, contact sheets, and prints to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the first time that institution had collected the work of a living photographer. The gallery organized a major retrospective of Mr. Frank’s work in 1995. Other museums that organized exhibitions of Mr. Frank’s work include New York’s Museum of Modern Art; the George Eastman Museum, in Rochester, N.Y.; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; New York’s Whitney Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The many exhibitions devoted to Mr. Frank notwithstanding, the touchstone of his career remained “The Americans.” The National Gallery organized a major show in observance of its 50th anniversary, ‘‘Looking In: Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans.’ ’’

“I think that trip was almost pure intuition — I just kept on photographing,” he wrote upon concluding his journey in 1956. “I kept on looking. . . . That made me work so hard until I knew I had something, but I didn’t even know I had America.”

He leaves his wife, June Leaf. A son, Pablo, died in 1994. A daughter, Andrea, died in a plane crash in 1974.

Robert Frank’s "Santa Fe, New Mexico."
Robert Frank’s "Santa Fe, New Mexico."© Robert Frank

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.