American Witness - Robert Frank

An interesting read about one of “America’s” most innovative photographers who sadly passed away in 2019.  He was born in Switzerland but never really fit the mold of the good Swiss citizen.  He was Jewish and was only granted citizenship by the Swiss Government after WWII.  Soon after he left for America.  While traveling all over South America and Europe, New York City was his home base.  He did commercial work only as a means to survive.  He was a true non-conformist in this regard. Odd fact - he once was hired to shoot publicity stills for the Three Stooges!

He applied and received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his project to document America.  He was given about $3800 to do this project.  He bought a 1940’s businessmen’s Ford - no back seat which was great as he could carry all his equipment.  And off he headed.

While in Arkansas he was jailed for suspicion of……. just suspicion.  The police didn’t like that he had a foreign accent, was Jewish and had camera equipment.  He was fingerprinted and they were sent to the FBI.  At this time there was a lot of concern for communist spies like the Rosenbergs.  They finally let him go when he showed them an article he’d done for Fortune magazine!


After getting all the pictures edited and thinned into a manageable book he was turned down by several American publishing houses.  His friend, Msr. Delpine in Paris agreed to publish it.  Initially Walker Evans was going to write the intro but then Frank fell in with the likes of Jack Kerouac who eventually got the nod to write.


In 1959 the book finally was published and then soon after was picked up by a small American publishing house, Grove Press who was instrumental in getting the book out here in states


There is this urban legend that the book was panned.  It was in the popular photography magazines but it garnered praise from more intellectual quarters.  The popular press was not at all used to his style of photography - not every picture was perfectly in focus.  The pacing of the book was unlike anything seen before and was not like the usual 10 page layout that you might see in Life or Look magazine.  There was no beginning, middle and end.  Each photo stood by itself. There also was the factor that many editors felt that Frank was criticizing the US of A when that was not the intent.


I have often said that to me this is THE best photography book ever published.  Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy and decide for yourself.

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