There are some photographs that capture the secrets and truths of American life. Sometimes it takes foreign eyes to see what is in front of us (see Paris Eyes, about Ludwig Favre); othertimes, it's the dedication and enthusiasm of youth (see The Polaroid Kidd, about Mike Brodie). The photograph above is an iconic beauty by a man of foreign birth taken during his later youth. The man is Robert Frank.
Born in 1924 in Zurich, Switzerland, Frank's photographs of America are considered iconic, and he is toasted as perhaps the most influential photographer of the post-war era. He's unpretentious, and has softened into a different soul in his advancing wisdom and age. Before the publication of The Americans in 1959 he took a year-long road trip through America photographing the inner heart of life in our country. There are couples in love, folks in prayer, those who are alone and those who are in crowds. Each is a quiet but powerful vision of American culture.
During the travel time, Frank was married; he had a daughter and a son. Money was scarce, and Frank was often absent. Eventually, the marriage ended - and nearly immediately, Frank took up with his wife's good friend. That union of more than 40 years is still in tact today. Frank's daughter tragically died in a plane crash; his son committed suicide in 1994. And through his own personal life events, Frank has grown into a much more mellow and compassionate soul. But the lens of his camera was always both compassionate and truthful.
On his year-long quest, Frank amassed some 27,000 photographs and clocked more than 10,000 miles. When he returned home, he sorted; he culled; he pondered. He finally selected 83 photos that he deemed best and hoped to publish them in a book. There were no takers in America, and the book was published first in France. The enormous success of the French edition led the way, and the following year, what do you know? All those rejections later, the book was published in the United States.
The images are, in so many ways, plain observations. But they are complexly emotional, too. Everyone has a story, and the lure and seduction of Frank's photos is partly in the story. We don't know the story; we have to imagine the story. Therein is a huge part of the beauty of Frank's body of work.
A recent New York Times Magazine article (The Man Who Saw America) is a full and fascinating view of Robert Frank and his work. Of course, The Americans is an art book to own and house on your own shelf within easy reach. Owning one of his prints may be a bit out of reach for most people - at a recent Christie's auction, the Chicago sousaphone player above commanded $91,000. But there is that book, you know, and the promise of hours of pleasure within its covers.