Robert Frank, Photographer And Filmmaker Known For 'The Americans,' Has Died : The Picture Show In The Americans, a book of photos taken while road-tripping across the country in the 1950s, his portrait of the United States was dark, grainy and free from nostalgia. He died on Monday night.
NPR logo

Influential Documentary Photographer Robert Frank Dies At 94

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Influential Documentary Photographer Robert Frank Dies At 94


Robert Frank changed the way we see photography, and that photography changed the way we see the world around us. His 1959 book "The Americans" showed a country at odds with the optimistic views of prosperity that characterized American photography at the time. Robert Frank died yesterday in Nova Scotia, where he had a home. He was 94 years old. NPR's Tom Cole has this appreciation.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: Robert Frank's Leica camera captured gay men in New York, factory workers in Detroit and a segregated trolley in New Orleans - sour and defiant white faces in front and the anguished face of a black man in back. The book was savaged. Mainstream critics called Frank sloppy and joyless, as Frank told NPR in 1994.


ROBERT FRANK: The Museum of Modern Art wouldn't even sell the book, you know? I mean, certain things one doesn't forget so easy. But the younger people caught on.

COLE: Eventually, the black-and-white photographs in "The Americans" became canon, inspiring legions of photographers. One of them was Joel Meyerowitz. In an interview for the same 1994 NPR story, Meyerowitz, who is an acclaimed photographer in his own right, remembered watching Frank at work early on.


JOEL MEYEROWITZ: And it was such an unbelievable and powerful experience watching him twisting, turning, bobbing, weaving. And every time I heard his Leica go click, I would see the moment freeze in front of Robert.

COLE: Robert Frank arrived in New York from Switzerland in 1947, and even then, his pictures were seen as too rough, spontaneous, personal. He was turned down by the respected photo agency Magnum, but Frank knew what he wanted to do, and he had the training to back up his vision, as the late poet Allen Ginsberg pointed out in 1994.


ALLEN GINSBERG: Robert has this fantastic education since he was 17 as an apprentice to an industrial photographer, so he knows the chemicals of it. He knows how to light a factory with magnesium flares. So he's got this fantastic discipline, which he applies to being able to be spontaneous.

COLE: Ginsberg was a friend and photography student of Frank's. He also starred in Frank's first film, the 1959 "Pull My Daisy." It was based on part of an unproduced play by Jack Kerouac and featured the author as narrator.


JACK KEROUAC: Yes, it's early, late or middle Friday evening in the universe. Oh, the sounds of time are pouring through the window and the key.

COLE: "Pull My Daisy" was Robert Frank's reaction to a restlessness he felt around still photography, as he told NPR in 1988.


FRANK: In still photography, you have to come up with one good picture, maybe two or three. But that's only three frames. There's no rhythm. Still photography isn't music. Film is really, in a way, based on a rhythm like music.

COLE: Yet Frank's films share a lot with his photographs. They're personal. They evoke emotions as much as they tell stories. They're like home movies, and he made more than 20 of them before returning to photography. By then, he was a legend, acknowledged as an inspiration by such noted artists as Ed Ruscha, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. What comes through in all of Frank's work is his ability to catch a moment, and that came from truly looking.


FRANK: Like a boxer trains for a fight, a photographer, by walking in the streets and watching and taking pictures and coming home and going out the next day - same thing again - taking pictures. It doesn't matter how many he takes or if he takes any at all. It gets you prepared to know what you should take pictures of.

COLE: Frank seemed to capture how he saw his work in this voice-over narration to the 1985 video he called "Home Improvements."


FRANK: I'm always looking outside, trying to look inside, trying to tell something that's true, but maybe nothing is really true except what's out there. And what's out there is always different.

COLE: Robert Frank saw that, and we're lucky he shared what he saw.

Tom Cole, NPR News.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.