When Robert Frank died last September, it was both unsurprising and shocking. Unsurprising because he was, after all, 94 years old, and no one lives forever; shocking because his passing leaves a hole in American photography—in American art—that is intolerably large. I can’t think of a single living artist who has as secure a status in his or her chosen field, and I doubt there will be one for some time.
In the days and weeks that followed, nearly everyone had something to say about him: critics and curators, other photographers, anyone who had met him—as, it seemed, almost everyone had. Even for eulogies, these were unusually loving: he was an endearingly open and thoughtful man, both gentle and exacting. I myself interviewed him once, and had lunch with him once. The word I would use is “soulful.” But when the tributes are done and history gets back onto its implacable path, being soulful doesn’t count for much. One becomes a great photographer by taking great photographs, and that he surely did.
It’s curious to notice, then, that almost the entirety of Frank’s reputation rests upon a single work, a book of photos that he made on a two-year-long road trip that looped all through the United States. He called it The Americans, and it was first published in France in 1958, and then in the US in 1959, when he was thirty-five. Much work followed: some photographs, though not very many, then photo-painting hybrids, art films, budgetless features and documentaries, including an infamous one about the Rolling Stones. Much sorrow followed as well. He had always been a melancholy man, and as the years passed it proved prophetic: both of his children died young, one in a plane crash and one by suicide. I’m not comfortable airing these facts, but there they are. He was less shy about them than I am. “I expressed in my pictures something that haunted me, that I had to express,” he said to me, then a stranger interviewing him on the telephone, “whether it was about my family, or the place that I lived in, or the solitude, or the darkness, or the absurdity.” He said it matter-of-factly, the way most people would say they’d had trouble getting their car started that morning. Later, he spoke of “the disappearance of love, or getting different in your life, or the struggle for money” in much the same tone.
The pictures, though. There’s one from The Americans that I’ve loved from the moment I first saw it; as it happens, it was Frank’s favorite, too, and many others’. It’s called San Francisco, and it was taken in Alamo Square Park in 1956. It is an unruly and liberating photograph, both loaded and elusive, and, so far as I know, quite unlike any picture that had ever been published before, at least in an art setting. When Cezanne first broke the picture plane into an assembly of tiled forms, when Picasso multiplied perspectives, they transformed both their chosen medium and human visual experience. This picture did something like that.
Let me begin by pointing out that much of what makes it so good is that it’s so incontestably bad. The horizon is skewed, and with it the path and road and building-tops, giving the whole composition a slightly sickening, off-kilter feel, like a picture from a ship’s deck in a storm. In cinematography this is called a “Dutch angle,” and it was much used in both expressionist and horror movies, but in this case it seems to be a byproduct of haste. Moreover, the background details are washed out, over-exposed, the highlights blown. The main figures, a couple surprised during an afternoon tryst, are jammed into the bottom of the frame and cut off at her waist and his lower shoulder. If they weren’t staring at the camera, you might think the focus of the picture was supposed to be the tree in the middle.
Some of this is easily explained. Frank was shooting quickly, possibly with the camera held at waist level, so composition was catch as catch can. Moreover, as a rule, it’s difficult to get a good picture of a dark face against a light background—in this case, both the white buildings and the gray sky. (The same, of course, is true in reverse: it’s hard to get a good picture of a pale face against a dark background.) The human eye can see a relatively high dynamic range: we can make out details in both shadows and highlights at the same time. Film has a harder time of it, and depending on how the exposure is set, it will either wash out the highlights or muddy the shadows. To be sure, there are ways around this. Artificial lighting can help, though it wasn’t available to Frank, who was shooting naturally, guerilla style, and often outdoors. Alternatively, one can try to correct things in the darkroom, exposing the dark parts for longer than the light parts, so that they reach some sort of equilibrium. So far as I can tell, Frank didn’t do this, either: he exposed for the black faces in his photos, and let the rest melt into air. Another picture from The Americans, called Charleston, South Carolina, shows a black woman holding a white child: the woman’s face is shown in all its detail, while the baby is so washed out that she looks like an albino, her dress ghostly, the street behind them blanched.
More errors, violations, unexpected choices. In San Francisco, the couple is not just looking at the camera, they’re glaring at it, and this, too, is a startling breach of custom. Many people look into a camera when their picture is taken, and some of them make faces of various sorts. But this couple isn’t posing; they’re simply reacting, with an array of emotions: surprise, worry, anger, all of them directed at Frank himself. In doing so they break down photography’s own fourth wall, the one that sustains the conceit that the person holding the camera is not part of the picture.
All street photography is voyeuristic, and some of it is predatory. A picture is something you take, preferably without your subject’s knowledge, and so you hide that taking whenever you can. The medium rests upon the photographer’s invisibility—his or her ability to see without being seen. Frank ruins that sacred truth, for this couple not only sees him, they’re bothered by him. And now the image is not of two people in a park: it’s of two people in a park and the photographer standing behind them, to whom they respond with unmediated alarm. In effect, Frank is selling himself out, making it very plain that yes, he was there, and no, they didn’t like it, and yes, he’s going to publish the photo anyway, because exploitation is part of photography’s métier, and if he’s going to indulge in it he might as well make it part of the picture’s point.
So there it is, crooked, unbalanced, badly exposed, self-indicting. It’s difficult to overstate how contrary San Francisco was to the prevailing aesthetic of its day, how insulting, really, to the agreed-upon practices of the medium. Since its advent in the mid-19th century, photography had always been prone to a certain anxiety about whether it was an art, a science, or a hobby. Anyone could take a picture, so long as they had the money for the equipment, and many people did. Similar pastimes—playing the piano, sailing, tennis—drew upon more elaborate skills, skills that took time to acquire and were readily measureable, and therefore made it easier to distinguish between weekenders and pros. But anyone could push a shutter button and wind up with something decent. So how could photography carry aesthetic weight? Only by adopting a somewhat painterly set of skills—framing, composition, and clarity, for example, and above all a canon of taste. Whence the formal demands of Alfred Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moments,” and so on; or alternately, the slightly gauzy and forgiving dream-logic of surrealism.
Frank’s picture simply ignores all that. In 1956, almost every photographer in the world would have looked at this print and chucked it; Frank published it. But one decade’s apparent blunders have a way of becoming the next decade’s working style. In the years following the release of The Americans, all manner of “mistakes”—visible grain, lens flare, motion blur, focal problems, red-eye, broken compositions—became standard, in their way. If Frank hadn’t cleared the path, Garry Winogrand’s work would not have had its purchase on photographic culture. Nor would Lee Friedlander’s, or Larry Clark’s. And today—at least outside of stock photography and the more conservative precincts of photojournalism—the idea of a “good” photograph has almost entirely given way to the virtues of a compelling one. (Much the same has happened with painting and music: you might think of San Francisco as the photographic equivalent of Bob Dylan’s voice.) The result is a new approach to the very act of taking a picture, one that suggests that photography is not about making beautiful images: it’s about the moment and the vision, about that curious intersection of artist, subject, and audience. It’s about Being There.
You will have noticed that the couple is black. But what that means for the picture isn’t easy to decide. It’s common to treat San Francisco as a commentary on race in America, by way of a confrontation between black subjects and a white photographer. And there’s certainly an element of truth to that. On the whole, Frank took more pictures of black people than most white photographers of his day, and took better ones, too, in large part because he was an outsider in this country, himself, a Swiss Jew who arrived in this country soon after World War II, bearing a heavy accent and imperfect English. As such, he was acutely conscious of peril, suspicion, injustice, and dignity, the very elements, it would seem, that determine his subjects’ expressions.
On the other hand, many people, white or black, would respond to being interrupted by a photographer, white or black, exactly as they did: the confrontation they stage with their glares may be a response to the camera more than the man wielding it. Besides, if race is all that’s on the table here, we run the risk of robbing the subjects of their individuality, making their skin color the most important thing about them, hence of seeing them as little more than figures in a parable, when in fact they’re much more than that, even in their anonymity. They’re citizens—Americans—engaged in recreation, reposed in nature; and above all they are, one assumes, lovers. A couple, shocked out of a couple’s point of view, at that moment when the dissolving world suddenly starts to coalesce again.
As he traveled across the country and back, Frank shot some 27,000 photographs. Eighty-three of them made it into his book, and they remain among the most celebrated and studied photographs ever printed. Looking In, a catalog of the making of The Americans, published in 2009 to accompany an exhibition at the National Gallery, is 500 pages long, a compendium of essays, maps, chronologies and the like, which ends with page after page of Frank’s contact sheets. This last has become something of a scholarly fashion—Diane Arbus’s contact sheets have been published as well—and it effectively changes the way we look at photographs, how we read them, and above all how we understand what a photographer does.
The medium is split into two parts. Most of us, trying to get a photo of, say, a child looking through a window, will take a few frames and hope for the best (this was especially true when people shot on film, which was costly and cumbersome). But most professionals take dozens, and then search the results for the one that works best; and the searching can be more onerous than the shooting. (Garry Winogrand left behind 2500 rolls of undeveloped film when he died, and another 6500 which he’d developed but hadn’t had a chance to look at.) Operating the camera, then, is only half the art. The other half is selecting from among the results, saying, “Not that one, not that one, not that one. That one.” Frank said “Not that one” 26,917 times, or thereabouts, and “That one” only 83, and so I ask you to imagine him peering through his loupe at image after image after image—you can see the ones he rejected in the catalog—and then landing on one that looks like a mistake. Who would choose it, as wrong as it is, as ill-formed, as casual and contingent, with its half-hidden veins of meaning, its contradictions, its ambivalence? That moment, the moment of choice, is as important as the instant he took the shot. In Frank’s case, that moment was when photography became what it is today: a glorious mess, beholden to no one, from which almost anything might emerge.
One of the great difficulties of art history, or any other history, is understanding the difference between how a revolution feels afterwards, to us, looking back from our side, and how it felt when it happened. It’s one thing to know that a photograph like this changed things, to acknowledge its importance, to trace its effects. It’s quite another to feel, from the inside as it were, what it was like to live in a world where this sort of picture didn’t exist, or anyway wasn’t canonical, and then to feel what it was like to have it suddenly appear. Free verse, a monochrome canvas, rock and roll, magic realism: all of these inventions were unthinkable until someone thought them, and then they rather quickly became obvious. The trick is to try to find them unthinkable again, and then ask yourself what it would take—who you would have to be—to dare them for the first time. For myself, I’m wary of the word “genius.” It has lost what little currency it once had, and what’s left is mostly hyperbole. I don’t think I’ve ever used it in print. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, in its true and undiminished form. If there was ever a photograph I would describe in such terms, it is this one: San Francisco is a work of genius, and now the man who made it is gone.