17 September 2019

News

Obituary Robert Frank

(1924–2019) 

Text: Jörg Stürzebecher

His work in the medium of photobooks was of such importance that the history of the photobook itself can be divided into a history before his first publication and a history after it. The photographer Robert Frank who died on 9 September 2019.





 

He took photographs and made films, and as Freddy Langer, a writer for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, pointed out in 2018, he helped young colleagues such as Gundula Schulze Eldowy, who was living in the GDR at the time. In addition, his work in the medium of photobooks was of such importance that the history of the photobook itself can be divided into a history before his first publication and a history after it. This first volume was “Les Américains”, originally released in France in 1958, and then published in New York in 1959 with a foreword by Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac. It had to wait until 1993 for a German edition. Robert Frank died on 9 September.

Swiss by birth and trained by Hans Finsler at the then School of Applied Arts in Zurich, as a scholarship holder Frank visited 48 states in the US, i.e. almost every one, and then assembled 175 photographs showing a cross-section depicting not just people, but at least human influence. But the special thing about it was not the gathering of rich and poor, young and old, black and white, cheerful and sad, the everyday and the holiday, but rather its use of its middle ground and flightlines, intimacies and vastness, isolation and panorama. Frank photographed in black and white in the Technicolor age and making much use of the landscape format brought the idea of Cinemascope into photography. The horizontality of American landscapes was also captured in this way to provide a counter image to the verticality of Switzerland. But obliqueness and shifted perspectives - as well as the juxtaposition of what was separated or faded out in the great illustrated magazines such as Life - allow us to sense that the USA is a country, but not monolithic, rather one where the urinal is a part of luxury and rust-coloured foliage leaves are a part of the Stars and Stripes. In addition to people and cars and the associated infrastructure, Frank's third recurring motif is the jukebox as a trivialisation of the constitutional promise of happiness. Jack Kerouac also understood this when he remarked in his article, “When you have seen these pictures, you don't know at the end whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin.”

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