In the Blink of Robert Frank’s Eye

photo: Robert Frank, from "The Americans"

With the publication in 1959 of his book, “The Americans” Robert Frank altered what would become acceptable to look at in a photograph. Gone was a reliance on time-honored formal composition. Adherence to conventions such as “the rule of thirds,” perspective correction, sumptuous lighting or a clearly delineated subject were discarded in favor of something more immediate. In their place was an imagery that wholeheartedly mimicked the photographer’s quickly darting vision, scenes identified in the blink of his eye. Often seemingly unbalanced and unsettling to the viewer, Frank’s pictures were largely dismissed by critics of the time as little more than snapshots, as if that alone were somehow condemnation enough, and by the public as ugly and unaesthetic. And yet, more than 50 years later the work is revered for helping revolutionize the way we see, both with and without cameras.

So what’s at work here that separated Frank’s imagery from that of those who preceded him? Not all that much, really. I know, easy to say with so much hindsight, but aside from the subject matter of most of the pictures (such as the baby on the floor overseen by a giant jukebox in the interior of a cafe in South Carolina, above) that comprise “The Americans” Frank was doing what all photographers before him and since have done, they “see” and then “photograph.” The primary differences between Frank and most of his forebears is the time between the “seeing” and subsequent “photographing” and that which he chose to include in or exclude from the frame.  Little time was available to compose his shots, the work is more the result of anticipating what might happen next and being in a good position to record it.

As architectural photographers we learn to make mental note of our “blinks” and replicate them with critical deliberation, while trying not to lose sight of the immediate circumstances that drew our attention in the first place.  The trick is in not allowing the life to drain out of our images in the process.