PostHeaderIcon Robert Frank’s Photo Revolution

Robert Frank in 1958

Robert Frank in 1958

Renowned photographer, Robert Frank, and his photo revolution is now sixty years old. When he set out from New York City on a 2,000-mile cross-country trip in 1955, his aim was to capture on film nothing less than American society at the height of the Cold War. The result was “The Americans”, his troubling portrait of a country that he saw as segregated, anxious, isolated and lonely.

Aided by famed photographer, Walker Evans, he was able to obtain a Guggenheim fellowship. He set out in 1955 and visited cities in the East, South, West and Midwest, including Detroit and Chicago. He shot roughly 28,000 photos documenting all strata of society from which he chose 83 images (a ratio of 1:350+ snaps) to print for the book which appeared in 1958.

"Charleston, South Carolina" (1955)

“Charleston, South Carolina” (1955)

The book did not sell well initially but the introduction by writer and fan, Jack Kerouac, kept it in print. Frank’s dark artistic vision was partly the result of being an outsider (born in Switzerland) who rebelled against America’s happy-go-lucky demeanor and its love affair with consumer capitalism. It was the heyday of Madison Avenue and television sitcoms like “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave it to Beaver.”

Initial reaction to the book was harshly critical. Popular Photography dismissed his “warped images of hate” as well as his blurred images, muddy exposures and “general sloppiness,” all cardinal taboos of that time. However, within a decade, his work gained approval and the book became a classic. It was also panned by The New York Times.

Movie Premier Hollywood (1955)

Movie Premiere, Hollywood, 1955-56.

Frank is considered the inventor of street photography. His images broke with that period’s rules: he shot from a moving car, sitting in a bar, hiding out of sight as well as on the fly. “The Americans” has since traveled the world to great acclaim but it was Hugh Edwards, curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, who gave Frank his first museum show in 1961 (a year before the Museum of Modern Art did) and bought 30 photos from the series for its permanent collection.

It seems fitting that the museum’s current exhibition of Frank’s classic and more recent work should return to its first home more than a half-century later.  Now that his “American” images enjoy iconic status, it is impossible to look at

 Political Rally-Chicago 1956

Political Rally-Chicago (1956)

them fresh or gauge the impact they had when they first appeared. They convey a not too pretty picture of mid-century America that we prefer not confront. The pictures may seem totally in the past but they still have power to startle and the themes they capture are still with us.

Visitors should check out the show’s catalogue which is printed in an old medium: newsprint. Steidl, Frank’s German publisher has produced a newspaper, lavishly illustrated, covering all aspects of Frank’s career–photos, film, books. It is for sale in the museum gift shop for a bargain $5. I hope there are still copies available.

“Robert Frank: Photos” is on view at the Art Institute through August 20. For information about it and other exhibits, go to

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