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Influential photographer Robert Frank dead at 94

Karen Wada, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Robert Frank, the fiercely independent photographer and filmmaker whose bleak yet poetic book "The Americans" jolted the nation's self-image and sparked a photographic revolution, has died. He was 94.

In his life and art, the Swiss-born Frank followed his twin muses -- intuition and imagination -- wherever they led. During a career that spanned nearly seven decades, he shifted from still to moving pictures and back again, sometimes blurring the lines between the two as he experimented with content and form.

His death was confirmed by the Pace-MacGill Gallery in Manhattan, the New York Times reported.

"The Americans," which was first published in the late 1950s, is considered one of the most influential photography books of the 20th century. Its 83 black-and-white images -- largely taken during a series of road trips -- made the ordinary seem extraordinary and established what the noted curator John Szarkowski called "a new iconography for contemporary America, comprised of bits of bus depots, lunch counters, strip developments, empty spaces, cars, and unknowable faces."

Initially derided by many critics, the book "came to be passionately embraced by younger photographers and artists, and then by the public, for its radically innovative subject matter and style," said Sarah Greenough, senior curator and head of the department of photographs at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which has mounted two Frank exhibitions and is home to a major archive of his work.

In the '50s, the nation liked to think of itself as being as prosperous and wholesome as the picket-fenced suburbia of television shows like "Father Knows Best." Frank presented a more diverse -- and disquieting -- view. His book looked "beneath the surface of America," Greenough told The Times, "revealing issues like racism, skepticism of political leaders and a rapidly rising consumer culture that are still relevant."

 

The immigrant photographer had set out to produce, as he put it, "a spontaneous record of a man seeing this country for the first time." Starting in the East, he and his Leica camera captured people of different races and classes living their lives, from Southern hamlets to Midwestern metropolises to western highways. Observing what others often overlooked, he exposed undercurrents of isolation and angst, discovered beauty in unexpected places and turned mundane scenes -- a passing trolley, an elevator ride -- into telling portraits of postwar society.

Compared to classic compositions of the day, Frank's pictures looked rough, as if done on the fly, poorly lighted and oddly framed. But to admirers, such imperfections made the images feel more "true," while prompting viewers to ponder their deeper meaning.

Frank's first film, "Pull My Daisy," a 1959 Beat tale he co-directed with Alfred Leslie, is regarded as an important example of American avant-garde cinema. Many of his other works were intensely personal. "I think I became more occupied with my own life, with my own situation, instead of traveling and looking at the cities and landscape," he said in the 1986 documentary "Fire in the East: A Portrait of Robert Frank." "And I think that brought me to move away from the single image, and begin to film, where I had to tell a story."

Robert Louis Frank was born in Zurich, Switzerland, on Nov. 9, 1924. He was the younger of two sons of Hermann, a successful businessman, and Regina, the daughter of a wealthy factory owner.

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