Unseen Robert Frank photos at the New York Times

Almost every day in New York, when the weather is fair, I see the Swiss photographer Robert Frank sitting on a folding chair in the splash of sunshine in front of his building watching the pedestrian life pass by.  His book “The Americans” had an enormous impact on how I (and many others) look at the world but he now he just seems like a genial, disheveled old man and, mostly, he goes unnoticed.  I brought him a balloon, once.  I’d found a semi-deflated helium balloon hovering at waist height above the sidewalk, the detritus of some party the night before; across the street, I saw that he had been collecting others, also partially deflated, and had tied them to the green metal lattice covering the windows of his building.  This was a Beat neighborhood when he moved in to #7, half a century ago, and there followed many years when the protective lattice was necessary.  Now, it is a neighborhood without menace, littered with balloons.

The New York Times has rediscovered some lost or otherwise unseen Robert Frank photographs from that earlier New York, produced on commission in 1958 to promote the newspaper.  The text accompanying the find oversells them:

Some of the arrestingly elegant shots that resulted could have been taken by other fresh-eyed art or fashion photographers of the day, like William Kleinor Roy DeCarava or Lillian Bassman, who died Monday at 94. But other pictures – snapped seemingly midstride; decidedly grainier and blurrier than commercial work at the time; defined by seas of inky black and oceans of shiny reflective surfaces – are unmistakably the work of only one man: Robert Frank, who with his masterpiece “The Americans,” published the following year, was to change the course of photography.

Much as I admire Robert Frank — or, maybe, precisely because I so admire him — I can’t say these images, appealing though they are, strike me as quite that singular.  “The Americans” revealed something so profoundly true about American life, especially race in American life, that it scared many who wished to look away from such things and they denounced him for it.  No advertising department would have the courage for that kind of work, so it is no surprise that Frank didn’t give it to them.  These rediscovered images evoke New York as we wish it had been, which is a softer mission.  Still, any work by Frank is work worth having.

See the full set on the New York Times website.


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