Skip to main content

An undated photo provided by Dodo Jin Ming shows the photographer Robert Frank, who was known for his visually raw and personally expressive style.DODO JIN MING/The New York Times News Service

Robert Frank, one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, whose visually raw and personally expressive style was pivotal in changing the course of documentary photography, died on Monday in Inverness, N.S. He was 94.

His death, at Inverness Consolidated Memorial Hospital on Cape Breton Island, was confirmed by Peter MacGill, whose Pace-MacGill Gallery in New York has represented Mr. Frank’s work since 1983. Mr. Frank, a Manhattan resident, had long had a summer home in Mabou, on Cape Breton Island.

Born in Switzerland, Mr. Frank emigrated to New York at the age of 23 as an artistic refugee away from what he considered to be the small-minded values of his native country. He was best known for his groundbreaking book, The Americans, a masterwork of black-and-white photographs drawn from his cross-country road trips in the mid-1950s and published in 1959.

The Americans challenged the presiding midcentury formula for photojournalism, defined by sharp, well-lit, classically composed pictures, whether of the battlefront, the homespun American heartland or movie stars at leisure. Mr. Frank’s photographs – of lone individuals, teenage couples, groups at funerals and odd spoors of cultural life – were cinematic, immediate, off-kilter and grainy, like early television transmissions of the period. They would secure his place in photography’s pantheon. Cultural critic Janet Malcolm called him the “Manet of the new photography.”

But recognition was by no means immediate. The pictures were initially considered warped, smudgy, bitter. Popular Photography magazine complained about their “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons, and general sloppiness.” Mr. Frank, the magazine said, was “a joyless man who hates the country of his adoption.”

Mr. Frank had come to detest the American drive for conformity, and the book was thought to be an indictment of American society, stripping away the picture-perfect vision of the country and its veneer of breezy optimism put forward in magazines and movies and on television. Yet at the core of his social criticism was a romantic idea about finding and honouring what was true and good about the United States.

“Patriotism, optimism, and scrubbed suburban living were the rule of the day,” Charlie LeDuff wrote about Mr. Frank in Vanity Fair magazine in 2008. “Myth was important then. And along comes Robert Frank, the hairy homunculus, the European Jew with his 35-mm. Leica, taking snaps of old angry white men, young angry black men, severe disapproving southern ladies, Indians in saloons, he/shes in New York alleyways, alienation on the assembly line, segregation south of the Mason-Dixon Line, bitterness, dissipation, discontent.”

Charleston, South Carolina, 1955.Robert Frank/Courtesy Pace/MacGill

Trolley – New Orleans, 1955.Robert Frank/Courtesy Pace/MacGill

Les Americains, first published in France by Robert Delpire in 1958, used Mr. Frank’s photographs as illustrations for essays by French writers. In the American edition, published the next year by Grove Press, the pictures were allowed to tell their own story, without text – as Mr. Frank had conceived the book.

Mr. Frank may well have been the unwitting father of what became known in the late 1960s as “the snapshot aesthetic,” a personal, offhand style that sought to capture the look and feel of spontaneity in an authentic moment. The pictures had a profound influence on the way photographers began to approach not only their subjects but also the picture frame.

Mr. Frank’s aesthetic – as much about his personal experience of what he was photographing as about the subject matter – was given further definition and legitimacy in 1967 in the seminal exhibition New Documents at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The show presented the work of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, who at the time were relatively little-known younger-generation beneficiaries of Mr. Frank’s pioneering style. The show established all three as important American artists.

Robert Louis Frank was born in Zurich on Nov. 9, 1924, the younger son of well-to-do Jewish parents. His mother, Regina, was Swiss, but his father, Hermann, a German citizen who became stateless after the First World War, had to apply for Swiss citizenship for himself and his two sons.

Safe in neutral Switzerland from the Nazi threat looming across Europe, Mr. Frank studied and apprenticed with graphic designers and photographers in Zurich, Basel and Geneva. He became an admirer of Henri Cartier-Bresson, who co-founded the photo-collective Magnum in 1947 and whose photographs set the standard for generations of photojournalists.

Mr. Frank would later reject Mr. Cartier-Bresson’s work, saying it represented all that was glib and insubstantial about photojournalism. He believed that photojournalism oversimplified the world, mimicking, as he put it, “those goddamned stories with a beginning and an end.”

Early on, Mr. Frank caught the eye of Alexey Brodovitch, the legendary magazine art director, who gave him assignments at Harper’s Bazaar. Over the next 10 years, Mr. Frank worked for Fortune, Life, Look, McCall’s, Vogue and Ladies’ Home Journal.

Restless, he travelled to London, Wales and Peru from 1949 to 1952. From each trip, he assembled spiral-bound books of his pictures and gave copies to, among others, Mr. Brodovitch and Edward Steichen, then the director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art.

Walker Evans’s book American Photographs, which was not well known in the 1950s, may have been the greatest influence on Mr. Frank’s landmark Americans project.

“When I first looked at Walker Evans’ photographs,” he wrote in the U.S. Camera Annual in 1958, “I thought of something Malraux wrote: ‘to transform destiny into awareness.’ One is embarrassed to want so much of oneself.”

Mr. Evans, then the picture editor at Fortune, as well as Mr. Brodovitch and Mr. Steichen, wrote recommendations for Mr. Frank when he applied for a 1955 Guggenheim Fellowship to finance the project. Carrying two cameras and boxes of film in a black Ford Business Coupe, he travelled more than 10,000 miles and wound up taking, by his count, more than 27,000 pictures, from which he culled 83 for The Americans.

In 1949, he met artist Mary Lockspeiser, nine years his junior, and gave her, too, a handmade book of photographs, which he had taken that year in Paris. They married the following year and settled in Manhattan, in the East Village, in the heart of a vibrant abstract-expressionist art scene. (She is now known as Mary Frank.)

Mr. Frank remembered seeing through a window Willem de Kooning, paint brush in hand, pacing his studio in his underwear. At the Cedar Tavern, a legendary neighbourhood bar, he would drink and argue with the artists of the period. Their son, Pablo (named after cellist Pablo Casals), was born in 1951, and his daughter, Andrea, in 1954.

All the while, Mr. Frank supported himself sporadically, if reluctantly, with commercial work. Just before the American edition of The Americans was published, Lou Silverstein, The New York Times’ art director, hired Mr. Frank to make a series of photographs on the streets of New York for an advertising campaign entitled “New York Is,” and his pictures were later used in a slim promotional book of the same name to attract prospective advertisers. The pictures – even on a job for hire – contain a similar strain of loneliness that runs through The Americans. At Mr. Silverstein’s memorial service in 2011, Mr. Frank sent a note to be read aloud: “He gave me moral support as well as financial – and this made my life in New York City possible.”

After The Americans was published, Mr. Frank’s artistic energies shifted to film, and, although he continued to work in photography and video, he would never again reach the same level of recognition for his work.

His first film, Pull My Daisy (1959), is a cornerstone of avant-garde cinema. Made in Alfred Leslie’s art studio loft in the East Village, it was co-directed by Mr. Leslie, narrated by Jack Kerouac and featured, among others, Allen Ginsberg, Mary Frank, Gregory Corso, David Amram, Larry Rivers and Frank’s young son, Pablo.

Adapted by Mr. Kerouac from his play The Beat Generation, the film, 28 minutes long, follows in grainy black and white the antics of a merry band of bohemians who show up unannounced at a Lower East Side loft, where a painter, the wife of a railway brakeman, has invited a respectable bishop over for dinner. The film became a cult favourite as an expression of the Beat philosophy of improvisation and spontaneity even though, as Mr. Leslie later revealed, it was planned and rehearsed.

In 1960, Mr. Frank, along with Jonas Mekas (who died in January), Peter Bogdanovich and other independent filmmakers, founded the New American Cinema Group, the same year he began filming The Sin of Jesus, based on an Isaac Babel story.

He made his first feature-length film in 1965, Me and My Brother, about Julius Orlovsky, brother of Peter, who was Mr. Ginsberg’s lover. With this film, Mr. Frank began to blur the line between documentary filmmaking and staged narrative scenes.

The breakup of his marriage in 1969 coincided with Conversations in Vermont, the film he made about his children, Andrea and Pablo. The next year, he bought a fisherman’s house in Mabou with artist June Leaf, whom he married in 1975 and whom he leaves. Andrea died in a plane crash in Guatemala in 1974, and Pablo died in 1994.

In the early 1970s, Mr. Frank was commissioned to make photographs for the cover of the Rolling Stones album Exile on Main Street, and then asked by the band to shoot a documentary film about its 1972 concert tour. The film chronicled not only the group’s performances but also the violence of the crowds, the drug use and the naked groupies. It was not what the Stones had in mind, and the band obtained a restraining order, which put limits on where and how often the film could be shown.

That same year, Mr. Frank published Lines of My Hand, a book of photographs he had made before and after The Americans. His work was becoming more autobiographical, diaristic.

While the photographs in The Americans are the most widely acknowledged achievement of Mr. Frank’s career, they can be seen as a prelude to his subsequent artistic work, in which he explored a variety of mediums, using multiple frames, making large Polaroid prints, video images, experimenting with words and images and shooting and directing films, such as Candy Mountain (1988), an autobiographical road film directed with Rudy Wurlitzer.

Still, it is The Americans that will probably endure longer than anything else he did. In 2007, he consented to hang all 83 of the book’s photographs at the Pingyao International Photography Festival in China, in celebration of the book’s 50th anniversary. And, in 2009, the National Gallery of Art in Washington mounted “Looking In: Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans,’ ” an exhaustive and comprehensive retrospective of his masterwork, organized by Sarah Greenough. The show travelled to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Mr. Frank acknowledged that in photographing Americans he found the least privileged among them the most compelling.

“My mother asked me, ‘Why do you always take pictures of poor people?’ ” Mr. Frank told Dawidoff in The Times Magazine. “It wasn’t true, but my sympathies were with people who struggled. There was also my mistrust of people who made the rules.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Report an error