“When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.” — Robert Frank
Robert Frank revolutionized documentary photography, embedding “the snapshot aesthetic” into visual culture. His boundary-breaking career spanned more than six decades, influencing generations of photographers and transcending genres.
Here, nine contemporary photographers reflect on how he and his seminal book, “The Americans,” had an impact on their work. Their comments have been edited for clarity and length.
Eli Reed was the first African-American full member of Magnum Photos, joining the agency in 1988.
I met Robert Frank while covering a demonstration outside the 1984 National Democratic Convention in San Francisco. I was surprised that he was using a small, amateur 35-millimeter camera that could have disappeared inside my large hands.
I do not remember the conversation about that particular camera, my only thought being that I was inside a conversation with a man who helped me grab onto a ready-to-launch understanding of the importance of being inside visual truths for the right reasons and not advertisements for the self.
He was an ultimate truth seeker who laid pathways for others to follow. His lot was to do the work that would inspire and call to arms those willing to go forward into battle with a clear sense of what it takes to stand your visual ground with the photographs that were painfully truthful.
Justine Kurland is known for her utopian photographs of American landscapes and the fringe communities, both real and imagined, that inhabit them.
I’ve needed Robert Frank differently throughout my life — his Jewishness, his downtown-ness, his irreverence toward photographic convention. Once, when I studied at Yale, he arrived as a visiting artist. We all pinned our photographs to the wall for critique, and he admonished us for being safe and dull. “You have so much privilege,” he said. “You could do anything you want. And this is what you make? This?”
“The Americans” changed the possibilities of road-trip photography through radical subjectivity. Every picture is first and foremost a picture of Frank; it reflects an exterior world through the bias of an interior psyche: the view of Butte, Montana framed through his hotel curtains, the barbershop chair made visible through his silhouette on the plate glass window, the hitchhikers driving his car, with Frank the passenger.
But the picture I return to again and again traveling on road trips with my son during the first decade of his life is the last one in “The Americans.” Frank’s wife and son, June and Pablo, sleep inside the car on a shoulder of U.S. 90 in Texas. They slide unconsciously to the left, alone and vulnerable. I imagine sticky places on the seat beside them, and Cheerios ground into the floor mats, the sweet smell of gasoline and the sour smell of unwashed bodies.
Alec Soth, based in Minneapolis, is known for his distinctive photographs of the American Midwest. He published his landmark monograph, “Sleeping by the Mississippi,” in 2004.
My initial attraction to Robert Frank was to the romantic wanderlust of his photographs made on the road. But as I got older, what I appreciated was Frank’s introspection. The camera’s eye is always pointed outward, but Frank’s vision encompassed his inner world — and his inner demons. “Life can be good,” he once said in an interview, “then you lie down, and stare up at the ceiling, and the sadness falls on you.” Frank taught me how to make a life out of looking — with honesty, both outward and inward.
Eugene Richards has undertaken assignments on topics including the American family, drug addiction, emergency medicine, pediatric AIDS, aging and death. The International Center of Photography exhibited a retrospective of his work last year.
Best as I can remember, I first saw “The Americans” in the early 1970s, right after I got back from working as a social worker and reporter in the Arkansas delta. I was unemployed, carrying around pictures of impoverished sharecroppers no one wanted to look at, not to mention flat out depressed by the ongoing Vietnam War and the growing social divisions in the United States at that time.
Hard to explain. “The Americans” — not one or two or three pictures, the whole of it — pushed me back out on the streets. Once derided as crude and un-American, now lauded as a masterpiece, the old book had me wanting to take pictures again, had me speaking out again, even when I figured almost nobody would be listening.
Ruddy Roye has photographed ordinary people and their sometimes gritty lives for over a decade, inspired by his homeland, Jamaica. He is well known for his unflinching documentation of the black experience in America.
I might be one of a very few photographers who will openly say that I was not influenced at first by Robert Frank’s images. In fact, I came to them very late in life, and when “The Americans” literally fell in my lap, I remember leafing through its pages very confused. Except for a few of the images, I found myself questioning why some of them were even published.
What changed my mind was thinking of him as an “outsider.” I began looking at his images differently, as images that told a larger story as opposed to a one-off. For the past 10 years I have documented my America using both words and images to paint a theme of how I see the country that I have been living in for more than 20 years.
Robert Frank had the courage and foresight to use his blinders as an outsider to make a visual statement about his “America” that changed the way the whole world looked at this country. I can only hope.
Nina Berman’s wide-ranging work looks at American politics and resilience. Her 25-year-long project “An autobiography of Miss Wish,” collaboratively documented one woman’s struggle with addiction, abuse, and recovery.
I started photographing Times Square in the early 1990s, inspired by Robert Frank’s “The Americans.” I was looking at myths and dreams, the promise and lies of capitalism amid a landscape of rapid urban renewal. It was a time when Times Square was being transformed from a place where people lived out personal fantasies, sometimes sordid ones, to a place where corporations dictated those ideals and fantasies. I’d walked around with my Leica for days and years believing that maybe I would find a moment that meant something about that space, and that time, and the people who passed by looking and searching.
Most days I never made a picture, but sometimes I did, and my bar was always Robert Frank.
Joseph Rodriguez was a New York City cabdriver for 10 years. He lost his first camera in a stabbing and mugging. Undeterred, he got new gear and photographed what he saw on the job.
Robert Frank’s “The Americans” was very much an influence on my early development as a photographer. What I admired about his sharp eye is how he looked into the underbelly of our American society using his Leica. Issues that have always resonated with me were race and class. His photograph of the African-American nanny holding the white baby is one that still speaks volumes to me today. I see the same images in my neighborhood in Park Slope, where I grew up. I made this photograph back in 1984 when I was on my way back home from work as a taxi driver.
Frank did a series of photographs from a New York City bus, which inspired me to do my taxi series. (“Taxi: Journey Through My Windows” is to be published by powerHouse Books in February.)
Elinor Carucci is an Israeli-American photographer who documents the intimate day-to-day of her own life, including the highs and lows of motherhood.
Robert Frank. An artist. A genius. A father. An immigrant. A lover. A Jewish man. Someone with talent but with a sensitive soul. He made images that bring intellect and emotions, politics and human stories, analysis and feelings, together. All there, in his images.
I never asked myself if Robert Frank was one of the artists who influenced my work — if you are a photographer working today, you were influenced by Robert Frank. In 1995 I immigrated to America. It was a deeply challenging experience in many ways, but the first thing that hit me with pain was that I could not photograph in a country I didn’t know, with a culture and language that were foreign to me.
I turned to “The Americans” to look for comfort and inspiration.
I remember taking this picture. It was 2012. We went to Jerusalem to visit my grandfather, who was already very old and ill, and since we live so far away, my children were not very close to him. Again, I turned to Robert Frank’s work. The eye of the immigrant. The most sensitive eye. What he managed to see and to what depth! Maybe because of the pain of not fully belonging anywhere anymore once one leaves the paradise of belonging.
Jim Goldberg is a photographer and artist based in San Francisco. He works with text and images, often forming long-term collaborations with his subjects.
Robert, I woke up to the news that you were on to your next adventure.
You gave me the vocabulary to understand this world, yet I can’t seem to find the right words now to stress how important the role you played in my life was.
I am me — or rather, we are us — because of your crooked-impressionistic-out-of-focus-rule-breaking vision. Your words and images are seared into me, dripping with ink, smudged and blurred. You exposed our falsehoods and truths with a poetic understanding.
You beatnik road loving punk. My friend and my mentor. I, too, am sick of goodbyes.
If you are getting married, reserve the day at the Lightner Museum, the best of st Augustine wedding venues .