Living In The Shadow of Robert Frank

In many ways, all street photographers today are playing at Robert Frank. And that’s not to take anything away from the new blood, it’s not what they lack — it’s what he had. Inside and out. A great set of eyes, sure, but also something today’s photographers struggle mightily to attach themselves to — an era.

The small rangefinder “experience” of seeing and shooting discretely, without the trouble of metering or preparing the shot coincided with a cultural revolution. It brought us up-close war photography, literally onto the boats at Normandy, as well as candid images of a country being ripped apart. For the first time, it’s about people being their unposed selves, laid bare and revealed — enter LIFE Magazine. Enter Magnum photographers. The genre changed overnight, as guided by new, young talent as by an era that demanded them.

Robert Frank seemed to capture both that talent and that era perfectly.

By the time Robert Frank got his grant to go travel the country and capture life as it really is in America, he was already teeming with ability at this new technique of reportage photography. But these images that emerged of middle America created such an incredible eye-opening revelation, it completely changed what photography was. And to such an iconic and defining degree, everything since then has felt like a kind of jaded recreation.

What is it that makes a Robert Frank image a Robert Frank image? I believe it is a level of curiosity. His images tilt like an innocent before the spectacle of the everyday. His eye looks and looks and then chooses to shoot based on some criteria that is so particular to the insatiable outsider that it becomes not just about Americans, or segregation, but about our craving to understand ourselves, like looking into the mirror for the first time. The camera lunges forward, it moves in time, it longs for the rawness of a private moment of truth. And it grabs it.

And then there is just the pure talent of composition and timing.

I don’t think it’s being too reverential to say that any contemporary black and white street shooter would be satisfied in capturing a shot as stunning and evocative as this 1952 masterpiece, once in a lifetime. Robert Frank’s catalog appears to be filled only with images this effective. The most mundane scene, though his eyes, elevates to museum-level iconography.

Todays black and white shooters owe so much to Robert Frank, but many can’t quite comprehend how integral he and the era were to each other. And many of the more popular photographers are simply all about themselves, and their images convey that. Their images demand you look at them but mostly only serve to highlight their talent, leaving little to comprehend beyond the stunning visual. One writer describes it as this:

“…we have entered an age of didacticism in the visual arts. In photography, the result too often is that killer of true art: obviousness. Contemporary art, with its fixation on shock and its long and painful stumble into smug self-regard, has produced photographs and works in other media that all too often offend their subjects, even as they aggrandize the artists who make them.”

In my opinion, the lesson of Robert Frank is one of curiosity and empathy. This wide-eyed look at the world coincided so supremely with the moodiness of black and white, it has seemed to define the epitome of reportage photography.

It’s on today’s photographers to figure out what it is in this generation that needs us. It’s not enough to simply have talent anymore. We must figure out a way to make our work meaningfully tied to today’s culture. Or risk having all our work only live, and get lost, in the shadows of the greats.

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Thanks for reading. You can ride along on my daily journey in the exploration of black and white at joshsrose.

A deep dive into photography, with professional photographer, artist and director, Josh S. Rose. Top Writer: Photography and Creativity.

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