By PHILIP GEFTER
WHILE his dark, penetrating eyes still radiate intensity, Robert Frank, at 84, is not as mobile as he used to be, shuffling in slow motion around a modern one-bedroom apartment in a high-rise on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His wife, the artist June Leaf, explained that they rent the apartment because it is harder for him these days to navigate the nondescript three-story house where they have lived, a few blocks away, since the 1970s.
The living room is spare, a white box with just a few pieces of well-worn furniture — a lived-in couch, some old chairs and the old wooden table where Mr. Frank recently sat for an interview, near a bank of windows yielding an unobstructed view of Midtown, the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building off-center in the frame.
No one has had a greater influence on photography in the last half-century than the Swiss-born Mr. Frank, though his reputation rests almost entirely on a single book published five decades ago. While he has produced other volumes over the years and made 31 films and videos, all roads in his career lead back to this masterpiece, “The Americans,” an intimate visual chronicle of common people in ordinary situations drawn from several trips he made through his adopted country in the mid-1950s.
He didn’t seem interested in reflecting on why the book continues to have such an afterlife or why it has become a cultural touchstone, but chose instead to explain why it is still meaningful to him. “I’m very proud of this book because I followed my intuition,” he said, speaking with the clipped inflections of his native Swiss accent. He added that the idea of making a photographic chronicle of America wasn’t simply to take one picture at a time; it was a larger endeavor, “a matter of putting a book together the way I saw it.”
Whether he welcomes the public attention, activities are swirling around the 50th anniversary of the English-language publication of “The Americans.” In January a comprehensive publication, “Looking In: Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans,’ ” will accompany a major exhibition in Washington at the National Gallery of Art, where all 81 contact sheets (out of the 767 rolls of film) from “The Americans” will be presented. The exhibition will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art later in the year. And Mr. Frank was not averse to making a trip to Germany to approve proofs for an anniversary edition of “The Americans,” recently published by Steidl and the National Gallery.
Until Mr. Frank came along, the hallmarks of good documentary photography were sharp, well-lighted, classically composed pictures, whether serious war coverage, social commentary or homespun Americana. Life magazine photographers like Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Eisenstaedt and W. Eugene Smith had been setting a standard for the picture essay, though Magnum, the photography collective founded in 1947 by, among others, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, was challenging that standard with a more candid approach to topical or socially conscious material.
When Grove Press first published “The Americans” in 1959, a chorus of critical disdain rose from the few who bothered to write about photography at the time. Popular Photography magazine derided Mr. Frank’s black-and-white pictures of isolated individuals, teenage couples and groups at funerals for their “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness.”
Critics considered the book an indictment of American society, and his pictures did strip away the veneer of breezy optimism reflected in magazines, movies and television programs of the period. Mr. Frank, who was 23 when he moved to the United States in 1947, said he found America, during his travels cross-country, to be a much harsher place than Europe. “Here it seemed that everyone was sort of alone more,” he said, in contrast with the more social Europe he remembered, where everyone was friendlier. “I didn’t think it was a sad experience, but it was different than Europe.”
He noted the difficulty people had just making a living in this country. “There wasn’t that much sunshine, even in California,” he said. “They have to work harder to have an existence that’s above the minimum.”
Still, the social critique he was thought to level at America was essentially a romantic quest to honor what was true and good about the nation. “I thought I was qualified to make a picture of America, and people thought I hated America,” he said, adding that the responses he was most proud of “came from young people who said that it’s a good book.”
Photographers, critics and scholars have long since concluded that Mr. Frank liberated the photographic image from the compositional tidiness and emotional distance of his predecessors. The ordinary, incidental moments captured in his pictures — and their raw, informal look — paved the way for photographers like Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand a decade later. Today Mr. Frank is viewed as a pioneer of the snapshot aesthetic, a term coined in the late 1960s to denote the spontaneous style and modest subject matter that came to dominate black-and-white photography of that period.
Twenty years after “The Americans” was published Gene Thornton wrote in The New York Times that “The Americans” ranks “with Alexis de Tocqueville’s ‘Democracy in America’ and Henry James’s ‘The American Scene’ as one of the definitive statements of what this country is about.”
When Mr. Frank arrived in New York from Zurich, he had been an apprentice for several design and photography studios and was well tutored in the visual ideas that defined Modernism in Europe between the world wars. He said he emigrated because he felt that Switzerland was “too closed, too small.” Sarah Greenough, curator of photographs at the National Gallery and the author of “Looking In: Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans,’ ” writes that “like so many others of his time, his philosophical and moral stance was also deeply affected by existentialism.”
Mr. Frank’s first photographic assignment in New York came from Alexey Brodovitch, the legendary art director of Harper’s Bazaar. He urged Mr. Frank to discard the formal aspects of Modernism that he had been taught in Switzerland in favor of a more emotional, spontaneous style. In the early ’50s Mr. Frank cultivated relationships with Edward Steichen, then director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, and Walker Evans, then picture editor at Fortune magazine, who encouraged him to apply for the Guggenheim fellowship that would finance his cross-country trips.
Living on East 11th Street in Manhattan, Mr. Frank became friends with Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Allen Ginsberg. “I didn’t know any people in Europe that lived like that,” he said. “They were free, and that impressed me. They paid no attention to how you dressed or where you lived. They made their own rules. They didn’t belong to bourgeois society which I come from in Europe.”
Abstract Expressionism defined the artistic climate in which Mr. Frank produced the photographs for “The Americans.” Jackson Pollock and de Kooning, among others, set a precedent for the Beat writers and poets, whose improvisational style aimed for authenticity and spontaneity. In “Looking In” Ms. Greenough writes that artists of the period were “inspired by the idea that art was an expression not of fact but of experience and that what they created was a record of their confrontation with the canvas.”
Setting out across America, Mr. Frank said, “I would drive the car and stop,” but there were segments of the trips he could not leave to chance. “The automobile was the important thing, so I was interested in Detroit and had to get permission to go and photograph at Ford. In America, unlike Europe then, the car was a phenomenon. You needed a car. The country was big.”
Mr. Frank described the contrast between his full life in New York and the isolation he felt while traveling — a loneliness that runs through “The Americans.” “When I came to New York, I found a group of people, and I was amongst them, and we were friends, and I had a family,” he said. “Setting off on a trip, well, I guess I was attracted — because it’s a more photographic theme — to follow the people that are alone instead of being at picnics or swimming.
“Whenever I talked to people, I knew that I was a foreigner, and they looked at me as a foreigner, because America, it’s not like New York.”
He also described his encounters with racism (“I was certainly aware of it”) and being stopped by a small-town patrolman in Arkansas and asked what he was doing there.
“I remember the guy took me into the police station, and he sat there and put his feet on the table,” he said. “It came out that I was Jewish because I had a letter from the Guggenheim Foundation. They were really primitive.”
He said the sheriff told him, “Well, we have to get somebody who speaks Yiddish.” He continued: “They wanted to make a thing of it. It was the only time it happened on the trip. They put me in jail. It was scary. Nobody knew where I was. I was alone.”
It’s tempting to draw associations between Mr. Frank’s trips and Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road,” another cultural artifact from the period, which came out two years before “The Americans.” Kerouac wrote the introduction to “The Americans,” but the two men did not meet until after Mr. Frank’s journey.
Still, Mr. Frank’s picture of a man at the wheel taken from the passenger seat of the car, “U.S. 91, Leaving Blackfoot, Idaho,” might well double for a portrait of the characters in “On the Road.” He was quick, however, to dismiss that association, remembering the men simply as “hitchhikers I picked up,” adding, “We were going to Butte, I think.”
Mr. Frank referred several times to the lessons he gained from just such opportune moments: “to find your way by intuition, not by intelligence, but intuition.”