Robert Frank (American, b. Switzerland, 1924)
Trolley—New Orleans, 1955
Gelatin silver print; 8 5/8 x 13 1/16 in. (21.9 x 33.2 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gilman Collection, Purchase, Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Gift, 2005 (2005.100.454)
Photograph © Robert Frank, from The Americans
Robert Frank at 90
Robert Frank is 90 years old on Sunday. The great pioneer and iconoclast has become a survivor, celebrated and revered, but still resolutely an outsider. One thing we can be sure of: he won’t be looking back.
“The kind of photography I did is gone. It’s old,” he told me without a trace of regret in 2004, when I visited him at his spartan apartment in Bleecker Street, New York, where a single bread roll and a mobile phone the size of a brick sat forlornly on the kitchen table. “There’s no point in it any more for me, and I get no satisfaction from trying to do it. There are too many pictures now. It’s overwhelming. A flood of images that passes by, and says, ‘why should we remember anything?’ There is too much to remember now, too much to take in.”
Nevertheless, it is impossible to imagine photography’s recent past and overwhelmingly confusing present without his lingeringly pervasive presence. Frank was 31 in 1955 when he secured the Guggenheim Grant that financed his various road trips across America the following year with his wife and his two young children in tow. He shot around 28,000 pictures. When Les Americains was published by Robert Delpire in France in 1958, it consisted of just 83 black and white images, but it changed the nature of photography, what it could say and how it could say it. Published in the United Sates as The Americans by Grove Press a year later, it remains perhaps the most influential photography book of the 20th century.
“I had Robert Frank’s The Americans as a teenager,” Jeff Wall told me recently, describing the early epiphany that led him into elaborately-staged art photography. “In fact, I made pencil drawings from various photographs in it. Frank and Walker Evans closed the door for me. What they did was so well done, I could never have matched it and I don’t think anyone has. They nailed it once and for all. That was a huge realisation – that I could not follow in their footsteps.”
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Ronald Fischer, beekeeper, Davis, California, May 9, 1981
Avedon’s most recent portrait effort, In the American West, published by Abrams in 1985, furthers that theme, once again by a characteristic emphasis at the end of the book. There, in studies of slaughtered sheep and steer, he insists upon such details as glazed and sightless eyes, blood-matted wool, and gore languidly dripping from snouts. As his father was the only unprominent person in the first campaign, so the animals are the only nonhuman subjects in the second. It’s as if Avedon were each time underlining his philosophy by breaking his category. Adjoining the guignol presences of the animals are ghoulish images of miners and oil-field workers, as befouled by the earth as the animals by their spilled entrails.