Robert Frank first viewed America from his home of Zurich Switzerland. He saw the glamorous red carpets and the flashy celebrities, so why didn’t he focus on the picture-perfect superstars just like everyone else in the 1950s? I believe that it was because Robert Frank was raised in a completely different society with different priorities. With multiple influences and a different mindset than most photographers, he began his essay The Americans.
Switzerland was a completely different place compared to the United States after World War I and during World War II. This period in time surrounded Robert as he grew older and built him to who he became. He lived in a country that wanted to remain neutral but still had to be prepared for war. His family was a wealthy Jewish family who felt the constant oppression from the Nazism that surrounded their homeland. Frank also had to deal with seeing the rest of his country struggling to survive the harsh economy. Photography was a way to escape from the pain, the oppression and the suffering all around him. To Robert and many other victims of the wars, America was a big deal, a well-known superpower of the wars and their people appeared to be thriving unlike any other country during the war. I believe that Robert wanted to find out what the U.S. was really like underneath the glamor.
A huge influence that would have been surrounding Robert from birth would be an art form known as Dada or Dadaism. Andre Breton, a famous French writer and poet, stated that “Dada is a state of mind…Dada is artistic free thinking….Dada gives itself to nothing…” (4). Dadaism is based upon the horrors of WWI. Artist turned from rationality, reason and the standards of art to “prizing nonsense, irrationality and intuition” (3). They were protesting the barbarians of logic such as the Swiss government only focusing on defending the country when the people were dying of starvation. Robert was living in the very center of Dadaism; it all began in Zurich just a few years before he was born. He would have been surrounded by artists claiming that the non-traditional is better to show what a person is really seeing.
Frank’s The Americans was first thought of as a “harsh, difficult reading” (1) and it was because the American people did not like that Frank was focusing on them, the real Americans. It wasn’t a “cherubic buoyancy of Steichen’s “Family of Man” exhibition” (1) like every other photograph essay of the time. It was something real and so rational that it was thought of as irrational. I believe that Robert took Dadaism in a similar but also different direction. To many European countries involved in the world wars, America was this untouchable and perfect nation that seemed to radiate glamour and success and just awesomeness. It was like a modern day fairytale to the people who witnessed horrible things. But Robert Frank went underneath the skin of the country to see how the entire body worked. He took what everyone believed to be the standards of American living and showed off what it was really like. Robert was the one who actually opened the eyes of the rest of the world to what America was really like and to the world it was a crazy, irrational and unacceptable idea.
Robert Frank’s biggest influence was that of Walker Evans, an American artist. Evans was very much a nobody in the eye of American artists and art-lovers. Evans had a small show around the time he was hanging out with Robert Frank in 1956, but that was after his biggest show that was held at the Art Institute of Chicago. He respected Robert Frank and also respected his work; so much that he helped Robert to apply for the Guggenheim Fellowship, which was the “scholarship” that supported Frank throughout the making of The Americans. There have been many similarities between the two artists and their photo books; such as the number of photographs, the print color, and the format of the pictures and even the size of the book (1). Evans is thought to have changed the way that Robert Frank took his pictures. The pictures that Frank took earlier on, while in Europe were radically different than when he was taking pictures with Evans. They looked like French photographer Cartier-Bresson’s photos from the decade before.
Henri Cartier-Bresson had fundamentals that he would follow as he took his pictures. He liked to focus on geometry, use only one lens, use lots of photos from different places and of different people, he did not use cropping, he waited for a perfect shot, he also liked to be unobtrusive or inconspicuous to his photo subjects. It appeared to me that Cartier-Bresson framed his photos towards a happy image or something that was interesting. He “framed” them, they were still spontaneous but they always had a perfect shot of something. Robert Frank still shows some of the influence that Cartier-Bresson gave him in The Americans as he takes pictures of subjects that don’t really seem to be paying attention or who find Frank as he is snapping the picture. Henri was a pioneer in “street photography” which is a form of photography that catches a moment in time. Like when a camera takes multiple shots in an action sequence, then the photographer picks out the best one. We heard of Robert Frank’s loads of photos and how he cut it down to only 83, this is an influence directly from Cartier-Bresson. Taking photos randomly allows the photographer to have a story to tell his or her audience but without anyone knowing the details of why the subject was there or what their background was. Just like the elevator girl, we don’t know why she was in that elevator or what she was thinking about that could give her such an emotional face that Robert caught in the reflection.
The photography of Walker Evans is also reflected in The Americans. His form of photography is still a branch off of the street photography that was made popular by Henri Cartier-Bresson, but at the same time, it was different. Evans didn’t try to frame his photos in any way. He snapped the camera at things that a person would see throughout everyday life. His photography was described as “puritanically economical, precisely measured, frontal, unemotional, dryly textured, insistently factual, qualities that seemed more appropriate to a bookkeeper’s ledger” (7). This is where we can see a huge similarity between Evans and Robert Frank’s photography style. They took photos of the normal people, of what an average person could see any day of their life and not be surprised or have a moment of awe. They wanted their audience of average people and other countries to see that there is beauty and glamor that is in the lives of the average American. Both of these photographers received similar comments on their photo essays, they were both taken pretty harshly by the public but were later on recognized for their brilliance.
During my research I was able to see how Robert Frank first viewed America from his war and poverty stricken home of Switzerland. I could see how America seemed so drastically different to him and other countries. Since Robert Frank had so many different influences than those of other popular photographers during that time I believe that with these influences Robert
Frank was able to capture the true image of American life.