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Here’s how Robert Frank revolutionized photography

Here’s how Robert Frank revolutionized photography
Photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank [Photo: Patrick Downs/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images]

Robert Frank, the Swiss-born American photographer, has died at 94, numerous outlets are reporting.

Frank is best known for The Americans, his 1950s anthology of photos taken on a series of trips across the United States. Unlike previous photographers, Frank captured ordinary people and places, from bus stops to parking lots to gift shops, looking at stereotypically conformist Eisenhower-era America through a wry, skeptical lens, and he didn’t shy away from capturing how the United States struggles with race or class.

Odd angles, sometimes blurry shots, and unusual lighting made the work memorable. In one photograph from the collection, “Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey,” Frank managed to capture what seems to be the essence of two apartment dwellers looking out their windows, even though one’s face is obscured by darkness and the other by a large American flag.

Though the book was originally met with some confusion, it went on to inspire generations of professional and amateur photographers. Janet Malcolm, the New Yorker critic, famously called Frank the “Manet of the new photography.” A widely influential 1967 Museum of Modern Art exhibit titled “New Documents” featured work by Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand, but critics frequently point out that their styles each follow in the trail Frank blazed with The Americans.

Frank also worked in film: A 1959 short called Pull My Daisy features Beat luminaries Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and it’s frequently cited as an influential work of avant-garde cinema. The graphic 1972 documentary Cocksucker Blues documents the Rolling Stones’ U.S. tour that year, though a court order bars it from being screened in most circumstances, as its depictions of sex and drug use were embarrassing to the band, which commissioned it.

If you’re interested in seeing more about Frank and his work, a documentary called Don’t Blink is available for streaming on several platforms, including Amazon, which has it listed for 99-cent rental.

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