Robert Frank (1924–2019)

Robert Frank, Trolley—New Orleans, 1955. © Robert Frank, from The Americans. Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York, and Sammlung Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur.

THE WEEK ROBERT FRANK DIED, the West Berlin building formerly known as Amerika Haus, now the gallery C/O Berlin, opened the exhibition “Robert Frank: Unseen.” As it happened, I was in town, staying no more than a few blocks away. The press preview was packed, the mood far from funereal—Frank was already an immortal. Indeed, his first German show had been at Amerika Haus back in 1985, when the place was programmed by the USIA, the now-defunct cultural diplomacy branch of the US government. Perhaps his work should have been permanently installed there.

The title was a teaser. The show was half devoted to Frank’s early work—atmospheric images of Paris, London, and Barcelona—and half devoted to The Americans (1958), as if to re-create the explosive shock occasioned by his once-exotic images: lonesome cowboys and hard-faced waitresses, posturing politicians and religious zealots, segregated buses and two-lane blacktops, billboards and drive-ins, shabby bus depots and solitary lunch counters, iridescent jukeboxes and glowing TV sets. Completely familiar, forever strange. The Southern sheriff who figured Frank as a Commie agent and arrested him on the Arkansas-Mississippi border wasn’t wrong—Frank was a spy.

Traveling across the US in 1955 and 1956, Frank created an iconography that made him one of the central figures of our time. Taking around a year to shoot and about as long to edit, The Americans is the real On the Road (1957) and the original Highway 61 Revisited (1965) It is also a novel, analogous in some ways to Kafka’s Amerika (first published in 1927 but written over a decade before), and a movie, analogous in other ways to Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003)—visionary works by European artists imagining a country they never visited, though Frank would doubtless have preferred to be compared to his friend and fellow immigrant Willem de Kooning. “I was very free with the camera,” reads a quote from Frank, installed as a wall plaque in the C/O show. “I didn’t think of what would be the correct thing to do; I did what I felt good doing. I was like an action painter.”

Did the total involvement required to make The Americans exhaust Frank’s interest in photography? For the rest of his long life, he mainly made movies and objects fashioned from his earlier photographs. Some films, like the 1959 beatnik funfest Pull My Daisy (codirected with painter Alfred Leslie) and the 1972 rockumentary road film Cocksucker Blues (commissioned and banned by the Rolling Stones), are part of cinema history. Others, like the single, hour-long shot titled C’est vrait! (One Hour, 1990), were simply excellent.

Frank never made anything comparable to The Americans. Nor did anyone else. More than a photographer or a filmmaker, Frank was a camera artist. Walker Evans and Helen Levitt notwithstanding, I would argue that he was the greatest camera artist America ever produced, although in truth it would be more correct to say that, as his greatest work suggests, he produced America.

J. Hoberman was a Village Voice film critic for thirty years and has been contributing to Artforum for even longer. His new book is Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan (The New Press, 2019).