Robert Frank, one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, whose artistic vision was altered by an arrest in Arkansas, died Monday in Inverness, Nova Scotia. He was 94.
His death, at a hospital on Cape Breton Island, was confirmed by Peter MacGill, whose Pace-MacGill Gallery in Manhattan has represented Frank's work since 1983. Frank, a Manhattan resident, had long had a summer home in Mabou, on Cape Breton Island.
Born in Switzerland, Frank moved to New York at the age of 23 as an artistic refugee from what he considered to be the small-minded values of his native country.
He was best known for his groundbreaking book, The Americans, a masterwork of black-and-white photographs drawn from his cross-country road trips in the mid-1950s and published in 1959.
The Americans challenged the presiding midcentury formula for photojournalism, defined by sharp, well-lit, classically composed pictures. Frank's photographs were cinematic, immediate, off-kilter and grainy.
Frank had come to detest the American drive for conformity, and the book was thought to be an indictment of American society. Yet at the core of his social criticism was a romantic idea about finding and honoring what was true and good about the United States.
With financing from a Guggenheim Fellowship, Frank drove more than 10,000 miles in a Ford Business Coupe all over America, carrying two cameras and boxes of film. Frank said he took more than 27,000 pictures during that trip, from which he culled 83 for The Americans.
In November 1955, Frank was stopped by a police officer outside McGehee and tossed in the city jail. The police report noted that Frank needed a bath and that he spoke with a foreign accent. Also suspicious were the contents of the car: cameras and foreign liquor.
''Are you a Commie?'' he was asked.
"In Arkansas," Frank recalled in a 2015 interview, "the cops pulled me in. They locked me in a cell. I thought, Jesus Christ, nobody knows I'm here. They can do anything. They were primitive.''
Across the room, Frank could see ''a young black girl sitting there watching. Very wonderful face. You see in her eyes she's thinking, 'What are they gonna do?'''
Because his camera had been confiscated, Frank considered the girl his missing Americans photograph.
Around midnight, Frank was released. A policeman told Frank he had 10 minutes to get across the Mississippi River.
''That trip I got to like black people so much more than white people," he said.
Four days later, he took one of his most famous photographs: Trolley -- New Orleans, which showed the outside windows of a streetcar with white people in front seats and black people in the back.
Once Frank saw that girl in McGehee, he knew what to look for, said the photographer Eugene Richards.
Information for this article was contributed by Nicholas Dawidoff from a 2015 article in The New York Times.
Metro on 09/11/2019
Print Headline: Photographer Frank dies at 94