Robert Frank died yesterday. If I know something about photography I owe it to him. He certainly taught me the difference between a good photo and a beautiful photo.
Today I was talking to some friends and I discovered they had never heard of him before, for at least two reasons: because Frank had almost stopped photographing in the 1960s — devoting himself to directing — because Frank is the perfect example of a not-so-popular but incredibly influential artist.
It’s the paradox of popularity vs influence: you can be popular and not influence anything culturally, or be unknown and influence the culture of decades to come.
Frank was certainly popular among photographers but the influence he had on the broad visual vocabulary was really powerful.
His message has been so strong that today, because of him, “dirty and realistic” photography is accepted. Even if not for the most part, we owe him a lot.
I remember when I looked at his famous “The Americans” book for the first time, many years ago. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t even like it, maybe because my visual literacy was stuck at the concept of beauty. I didn’t find any beautiful pictures in that book: all I saw were grainy, technically questionable, edgy photos, often composed up to the point of visual collapse, being therefore unstable, even annoying.
What I did not grasp was the story; it was how good those images were. I closed the book with the feeling that I hadn’t see anything beautiful, but with a story in my head. He told me that story.
He had not photographed the Americans: he had told them, touring 48 states in the USA back in 1958. After seeing his photos — his photographic story, I should say — I understood the USA more.
The story he told was not about the Promised Land. He was not interested in delivering any glossy and apologetic image of that country. He, a Swiss and a foreigner, saw and documented what was wrong and unfair there: broken landscapes, unstable human relationships, sidewalks trampled by the rich and the poor. The US was not only that but it was that, too, and he had decided to tell it, with unsurpassed harshness and honesty. No coincidence that this book was simply called “The Americans”; not “Beautiful America” or “America The Strongest”. “Americans”: the people, the landscapes, the humanity.
The quality of his photos exceeds beauty because they contain it. If you look carefully there is all the beauty of humanity and honesty in those photos. There is also the unique ability of photography to show the nudity of the soul, to strip people down and show them how they really are: sleepy workers drinking coffee at the bar, old decrepit men, worried mothers, businessmen without scruples. A humanity unaware it’s been caught in its own nakedness as it walks through a city 1958’s America.
Yet it is a humanity that certainly does not have an aesthetic beauty but has that of its very nature. It’s like that and in no other way.
It does not hide or make you believe that you are other than what you are. Frank caught that inner nature that becomes beautiful in being un-aesthetic. It is as aesthetic as only truth can be.
A certain kind of beauty — the deepest and thickest — does not appear and does not reveal herself. It’s shaped like a story, visually told. A story must be listened to, reconstructed in the mind, imagined.
You must listen to Robert Frank, with your eyes.