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Robert Frank: A Disillusioned Photographer

Daniel Chen: Expos Essay Three: Final Draft

In an interview nineteen years after his seminal work, The Americans, Swiss

photographer Robert Frank laments the shortcomings of photography. He says, “[I left

photography] because I felt I [became] caught up in being kind of analytical and building

onto it and perfecting it…As a still photographer I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. I

could walk around and not say anything. You’re just an observer; you just walk around,

and there’s no need to communicate. And so you feel that you don’t have to use words”

(“Interview” 53). This sentiment from a man who has become one of the most influential

photographers in the last century ironically compels him to leave still photography to

pursue film and other mediums. Frustrated with the limitations of the still camera, Frank

believed that film was a more effective medium. Not only would he be forced to connect

with his subjects, he was also able to more directly communicate with the audience: “I

think film is more of a living thing—more of an instant communication between people.

If I were to show a film, it would be a very definite statement…Photographs leave too

much open to bullshit. There’s too much aesthetics involved—too much peripheral talk”

(“Interview” 54). More recently, Frank has moved back to photography in a manner

where he collages, rips, tapes, and scratches words on his photographs and negatives

attempting to bring meaning to the medium.

Frank’s development from photography to film came as a result of his personal

life and the societal and historical context in which he was living. An immigrant to the

United States, he photographed from an outsider’s perspective. Furthermore, he arrived

in post-WWII America, a decade of disillusion, materialism, and alienation. In his

collection of photographs, Frank shows the viewer a world where “the natural world had

been replaced with dubious consolations of the jukebox, TV set, lunch counter, liquor

store, and betting shop…But all the consumerism in the world, couldn’t cheer up the sad,

down-at-heel, angry people Frank observed along his journey” (Dorment 21). Thus it

was only fitting that Frank was embraced by the Beat-Hipster generation, a movement

which saw the same disease spreading in America. The Beats also sought to document

and critique modern society, a society which they believed to be barren, detached,

materialistic, and emotionless. Indeed, the stark pages of The Americans, present the

viewer a desolate and isolated view of America. The photographs are quick and

spontaneous with seemingly haphazard compositions and subjects. Grainy and often

blurry, they lack the artistry and mastery that previous photographers like Walker Evans,

and Ansel Adams exhibited. A photography critic for the London-based Guardian writes,

“In Frank’s pictures, it is as if the camera only just succeeded in stopping time. And even

then we are always being urged on. These pictures are apparently so casual as to seem

hardly worth dwelling on” (Dyer 16).

In these informal quick photographs, Frank attempts to draw our attention to the

alienation in American life. The aesthetics and style of his photography exactly reflect

his critique of modern society; his detached photographs depict a detached society.

Because of this inherent distancing effect in photography, Frank leaves still photography.

Thus, his lamentations about photography and the American life were the same—that the

photographic medium and modern society were both too alienated and too machine like.

Hence, Frank’s photographs then bring up the clichéd but applicable saying “form

follows function.” Before we apply this old adage, we must ask: What were Frank’s
intentions? What purpose did he have when he began his trip across America? If Frank

did intend to compassionately reform American society, then the form and aesthetics of

the photographs seem to undermine his intentions since after viewing the photographs,

we only feel more detached from humanity. However, after looking at Frank’s own

personal life and his eventual disillusionment with photography, Frank can be seen in a

different and more tragic light. Perhaps Frank did not start with the purpose of critiquing

a distant American society, but rather it became inevitable because of the very nature of

the photographic medium. He left the medium because he realized that his photographs

in their detached and alienating nature ultimately exacerbated the feeling of disconnect he

despised in society.

Before looking at Frank’s photography, we must consider what caused the

detached aspects of American society. A century ago, Karl Marx predicted and

commented on modern society, “owing to the extensive use of machinery and to division

of labor, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and consequently

all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine” (Marx

“Manifesto of the Communist Party”). Industrialization and the machine age had taken

over American life. The automobiles, televisions, jukeboxes were all now permanent

symbols in American life and they were here to stay. Frank immigrated to the United

States in the 1950s and he noted the growing prominence of technology. Hence, Frank’s

photographs often show the importance of machines in America’s new suburban and

urban life. One such photograph is Restaurant—U.S. 1 leaving Columbia, South

Caroline. The photograph of a typical kitchen is neither well printed nor composed, yet

Frank has emphasized the television. The television sits alone in the center in the room,
empty of humanity. Because Frank has purposely captured the scene without any

humans, the photograph suggests that machines have replaced humans as the center of

life and humanity. When Frank immigrated to this country, he perceived this emptiness

in humanity and he sought to capture it in his photographs. In our hyper-industrialized

society, he observed that the machines were more human than the human beings.

Like Frank, the Beat-Hipster generation was disillusioned by the barrenness of

American culture. George Cotkin, a contemporary critic explains the Beats believed that

“the blood of America had been sucked out by a materialistic, alienating, absurd culture”

(Cotkin 26). In response they adopted a different style of living which emphasized

movement rather than stability. Cotkin writes in his essay, “The Beat Hipster Idiom”,

“…the existential hipster craved ‘experiential transcendence,’ a state in which the present

moment is lived ‘with such intensity that time and death are, in effect, eliminated’”

(Cotkin 20). The Beat generation thought the only way to fill the emptiness in American

culture was to live spontaneously, intuitively, and “in the moment.” In his introduction to

Frank’s The Americans, the Beat author Jack Kerouac writes, “hitch yourself a ride

beyond the fastest freight train, beat the smoke, find the thighs, spend the shiney, throw

the shroud, kiss the morning star in the morning glass…” (Kerouac vii). Keroouac’s

quote exemplifies the Beat-Hipster ideal: soulful, intuitive, and fast. Even Kerouac’s

rhetoric and style mimicked the Beat-Hipster ideals. Full of action verbs and lacking any

grammatical structure, Kerouac’s sentences were pure stream of consciousness. Like

Frank, Kerouac’s style embodies a style which mimicked an aspect of American culture

that he is critiquing.
A photo which illustrates many of the goals Beats strived for is US 285—New

Mexico where Frank captures a long dirt-streaked empty highway. The viewer is

unaware of where the road begins or where it ends. We only are sure of one fact—that

we are somewhere on this road and we should only be concerned with the “now,” the part

of the road we stand on at this instant. In response to US 285—New Mexico, Cotkin

writes, “the road stretches on forever into the night skies; the passing lanes of the

highway suggest escape and speed, but evoke danger, or one can glimpse the outline of

an on-coming car, headlights faint, in the passing lane” (Cotkin 22). Only through living

in the face of danger, confronting death, and experiencing the moment could we cure the

alienation and detachment of modernity.

In the same collective as the Beat writers, Frank had a similar message: life

needed to be lived spontaneously and on the edge. Frank photographed his subjects in

the same way he believed life should be lived. By photographing quickly with an

emphasis on movement,c many of his photographs capture people in motion; often the

subjects are moving so fast that they appear as a blur on the print. He chose to take

photographs intuitively without carefully and analytically constructing a scene. Rather

than interacting with his subjects, Frank moved in and out unobtrusively. Frank himself

writes about his own photography, “My photographs are not planned or composed in

advance and I do not anticipate that the onlooker will share my viewpoint. I feel that if

my photograph leaves an image on his mind—something has been accomplished” (Frank

in “Photographers on Photography”).

Frank leaves an image on the viewer’s mind but does this image only perpetuate

alienation or does it help fix it? The very manner in which he lives is the manner in
which he photographs. Hence, the images constantly urge the viewer on to the next

photograph. In Bar Galup Mexico, Frank disorients the viewer, as the ground tilts

towards us and then tilts again to the left. On the right a large black shadow looms,

occupying nearly half the entire space. Further in, a few men stand, shielding their eyes

from the intense light bulb which strongly radiates from the ceiling. Frank does not show

these humans with any dignity. Instead, they are blurred by camera motion, the print is

grainy, and the composition haphazard and careless. It looks as though Frank took the

snapshot right off the hip without ever looking through its viewfinder. Photograph critic

and essayist Janet Malcom writes that Robert Frank was the Manet of photography:

“He scrupulously shed all the pictorial values of his predecessors—

composition, design, tonal balance, print quality—and produced
pictures that look as if a kid had taken them while eating a popsicle…
Frank showed photograph at its most nakedly photographic. All the
accidents of light, the messy conjunctions of shape, the randomness of
the framing, the disorderliness of the composition, the arbitrariness of
gesture and expression, the blurriness and graininess of the printing…”
(Malcom 114)

The photograph disorients the viewer and contributes to the alienation and detachment

which Frank and Marx were critiquing. Frank’s photographs jar us from our normal

lives, they remove us from what is familiar. In this sense they further increase this

estrangement from humanity by encouraging the loss of this common thread which

formerly united humans.

Besides the disorienting manner in which he took these photographs, Frank also

distances his subjects as far away from him as possible. In many ways, he experiences

through his photography the same disconnect that he is critiquing. As the photographer,

Frank never seems to connect with his subjects. On the contrary, he often tries to avoid
any type of contact with his subjects. In En Route from New York to Washington, Club

Car, Frank purposely distances himself from the three subjects. Two large men with their

backs turned away from the viewer anchor the photograph and in between the two men is

another older man who is looking toward his right. There is no direct eye contact with

the viewer. Moreover, the two large men who sit in front increase the distance between

the viewer and the primary subject. Two frames work in this photograph; one is defined

by the two men framing the center man and the other defined by the boundaries of the

image. Thus, Frank has gone to great lengths to distance himself as far as possible from

the viewer and subject. The result of this distance is that the viewer becomes less

engaged with humanity. The viewer ultimately flips through the book of photographs

only feeling more detached.

Therefore, we must consider Frank’s intentions when he began his photographic

journey across America. Frank writes, “there is one thing photograph must contain the

humanity of the moment” (Frank in “Photographers on Photography”). It seems that

Frank had similar beliefs to the documentary photographers of the 1930s. Although

Frank admits that he saw a sad and detached America, he “tried to cast a sympathetic eye

on it” (Frank 77). Looking for the redeeming aspects in humanity, Frank writes, “life for

a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference. Opinion often consists of a kind of

criticism. But criticism can come out of love…” (Frank in “Photographers on

Photography”). Furthermore, Frank also writes that one of his greatest influences was

Walker Evans, one of the pre-eminent 1930s documentary photographers. When Frank

looked at an Evan’s photograph, he writes, “I thought of something Malraux wrote: ‘To

transform destiny into awareness’” (Frank in “Photographers on Photography”).

Malraux’s quote exemplifies the documentary photography which Walker Evans and

Dorothea Lange practiced. They sought to bring intimacy and awareness of humanity in

unexpected subjects. Frank’s admiration and friendship with Walker Evan suggests that

he did not intend to capture such a cold and hopeless vision of America. Thus it can be

argued that Robert Frank did not set out to harshly critique American culture—nor did he

intend to produce photographs which many would consider the antithesis of 1930s


Frank’s photographs then begin to paint a very personal internal struggle. New

York Times photography critic Michael Kimmelman argues, “These pictures are very

much one man’s view of America. It is about the existential drama of his own life. For

the last 25 years or more, he has turned his camera literally on himself and the people and

places closest to him. But in a deep sense his art has always been about self exploration

and self revelation” (Kimmelman C24). Frank claims that his photographs are extremely

personal, “I guess I am an observer in a way. It also has to deal with the fact that a lot

of my work deals with myself…It’s very hard to get away from myself. It seems,

almost, that’s all I have. That’s sort of a sad feeling” (“Photograph within the

Humanities” 36). Some photographs seem to have an autobiographic aspect such as

Canal Street—New Orleans. Frank fills the entire frame with movement; people of all

ages and races walk across except for one individual, a tall man who stands out from this

crowd, oddly out of place. Although dozens of people surround him, he is isolated and

stares straight ahead. Similar to this man, Frank must also have felt isolated in this

foreign environment. Photography critic and historian Donald Kuspit writes:

All of Frank’s works are, in a sense, an attempt to feel intimacy in far

form intimate circumstances, to find something that could give him a
feeling of intimacy in an anonymous environment when realistically,
there was none. With intimacy, perhaps he could gain insight into
himself, indeed, secure a deep sense of self…and in doing so alter his
consciousness, precipitating self-consciousness (Kuspit 23).

Frank observed alienation and detachment in society, yet it seems that he, himself,

suffered the same condition. In a foreign country, he was looking for normality and some

connection to America. His collection of photographs sheds new light on Frank’s inner

struggle to find his own identity and after producing The Americans, he leaves still

photography because he realized it was the wrong medium for his purposes

To escape the physical and psychological limitations of still photography, Frank

looked to film and collage. He was confused and disillusioned because he had spent so

much of his life photographing, but he continued to feel detached from humanity.

Kuspit’s comment helps us understand Robert Frank’s psyche: “It is as though he is

casting about for new methods to convey his despair and I think his profound perplexity”

(Kuspit 23). In his later years, an airplane accident killed his daughter and his son was

diagnosed with a mental illness (Kuspit 22). In response, Frank began to write and

scratch words on his images to communicate more directly with his audience. His later

works, far less spontaneous and much more analytical and forced imply that Frank felt

profoundly dissatisfied from the Beat life.

Frank represents a somewhat tragic figure in the art world. Photography

represented his choice artistic medium, a mechanism of commerce, capitalism, and the

industrial age—and ironically the cause of isolation from society. In an interview he

admits that his original concept for The Americans drew heavily from the 1930’s FSA

documentary style. In response to a question posed about the documentary nature of The

Americans, Robert Frank states, “Well, that may have been the idea” (Frank in Wallis
78). However, looking at his collection of photographs, we only see the antithesis.

Frank’s departure from still photography implies at some point he realized there was a

failure in his medium. He was unable to accomplish what he set out to do.

Frank’s entire development from still photography to film makes us wonder

about the photographic medium itself. A few decades after The Americans, Susan

Sontag wrote about the nature of photography in her essay “In Plato’s Cave.” She argues

that “knowledge gained through still photographs will always be some kind of

sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist. It will be a knowledge at bargain prices—a

semblance of knowledge, a semblance of wisdom; as the act of taking pictures is a

semblance of appropriation…photography makes us feel that the world is more available

than it really is.” In other words, Sontag believes that photographs inherently distance

the viewer and the photographer from the subject (Sontage 27). For the viewer, the

subject will always be a representation, a condensed and framed view of reality bounded

by the white edges of the print. For the photographer, himself, the subject will inevitably

be distanced. Whether the photographer makes eye contact with the subject, speaks to

the subject, or becomes intimate friends with the subject, the very action of pushing down

the camera’s shutter button plants an inseparable barrier between subject and artist.

Works Cited
Cotkin, George. “The Photographer in the Beat-Hipster Idiom: Robert Frank’s The
Americans” American Studie 26:1 (1985): 19-33.

Dorment, Richard. “Enough to make you snap.” The Daily Telegraph (London). 27
October 2004, Pg. 21.

Dyer, Geoff. “The road to nowhere: Robert Frank traveled the US taking artfully empty
pictures of the most banal things.” Gaurdian Saturday. 16 October 2004, pg. 16.

Frank, Robert. “A Statement.” In Photographers on Photography. Ed. Nathan Lyons.

Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966. 66-67.

“Interview with Robert Frank.” In Photograph within the Humanities. Eds. Eugenia
Parry Janis and Wendy MacNeil. Danbury, New Hampshire: Addison House Publishers,
1977. 52-65.

Kerouac, Jack. Introduction to The Americans. New York: An Aperture Book, 1969. i-vi

Kimmelman, Michael. “Uncompromising Artist Covers Rough Ground.” New York

Times. 17 November 1995, late edition, pg. 24.

Kuspit, Donald. “Robert Frank: The Eye of a Stranger.” New Art Examiner 22:4
(December 1994): 20-23.

Malcom, Janet. Excerpts from “Two Roads, One Destination” and “Slouching Towards
Bethlehem, PA. In Diane and Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photograph. Boston:
David R. Godine, Publisher, 1980, 114-115, 139-145, 154.

Marx, Karl. Manifesto of the Communist Party. 1948

Marx, Karl. Grundisse. 1857

Sontag, Susan. “In Plato’s Cave.” In On Photography. New York: Picador, 1977. 3-27

Wallis, Brian. “Robert Frank: American Visions.” An interview in Art in America 84:3
(March 1996): 74-79.