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Timeless Lessons Street Photographers Can Learn from Robert Frank’s “The Americans”

[Frank didn't pledge] allegiance to such “pure” photography, in which a single, great exposure was the ultimate achievement “. Therefore by working on this project, Frank was less interested about creating single powerful images (as many... It challenged the rules of photography, and emphasized feeling Not only did Frank challenge how he approached documentary photography and the aesthetic in which he employed– he also created images with an emphasis on feeling above all else. Steichen also gave Frank some practical advice with his photography (that carries lots of practical value today as well) on not doing photography full-time. It challenged the aesthetic of photography During the 1950′s, the tradition and aesthetic of photography championed clean, well-exposed, and sharp photographs. ” To better understand where Frank got his gritty aesthetic from, let us explore a bit of his background: When Frank started photography in his early twenties, he studied with Alexey Brodovitch , a Russian-born innovator for Harper’s Bazaar. Although many of us dream of making our photography a living, Steichen’s advice of keeping your photography and work separate carries strong weight. Steichen stressed the importance of getting an income elsewhere to keep photography separate from the need to earn a living – to truly focus on the photography without any constraints. It challenged the documentary tradition During the era that Frank published “The Americans”, documentary photography was seen to be as something transparent and not to be influenced by the thoughts, emotions, or viewpoint of the photographer. Takeaway point : Although Frank didn’t entirely listen to Steichen (for the rest of his career he pursued video-making and his photography) I think it carries great value for photographers today. “In the late 1950s and early 1960s neither The Americans nor Frank’s work made on his Guggenheim fellowship were well received, especially by the photography press. Introduction “The Americans” is a photography book by Swiss-born Robert Frank, published first in France (1958) and then in the US (1959). Don’t think that your day job prevents you from creating strong photographic work – rather see it as something that will help support you and in your photography. You can see that Frank took up Brodovitch’s advice by leaving his comfortable home of Switzerland to pursue photography in NYC. Edgy, critical, and often opaque at a time when photography was generally understood to be wholesome, simplistic, and patently transparent, the photographs disconcerted editors even before the book was published. Lessons from Edward Steichen (on getting closer to your subjects / keeping your photography and income separate) “I sometimes feel that I would like to see you more in closer to people. “Rebelling against the popular 1950s notion championed by Edward Steichen and others that photography was a universal language, easily understood by all, he wanted a form that was open-ended, even deliberately ambiguous - one that engaged his... This would be great early training in the early tradition of documentary photography to help him immerse himself into his “Americans” project. A Linchpin of “modern” photography, in the United States at least, this approach emphasized relatively un-manipulated prints made form a single negative, with glory given to the work that summarized an instant into a supreme moment of beauty of... “‘Straight’ photography was a favored term when both men began to photograph. Many of us don’t have the luxury or the chance to pursue our photography full-time. If we are much more sporadic and vigorous when shooting street photography, we should slow down and try to be more contemplative. That is, to practice photography on the side while getting a source of income elsewhere. I believe you made a fine decision in taking yourself and family away from the tenseness of the business of photography there. Frank worked in a very sociological, methodological manner – often utilizing a large-format camera and wanted to create transparent and “objective” photographs. How Frank Prepared his Trip to Photograph “The Americans” For those of you who are curious how Frank prepared his trip to photograph “The Americans” below is a rough itinerary of what he prepared:. Lessons from Brodovitch (on equipment and taking risks) When Frank was a young photographer, he shot mostly with a medium-format square-format Rolleiflex camera. Lessons from Walker Evans (on working in a methodological manner) Walker Evans, the already famous photographer for taking his “ American Photographs ” book was one of Frank’s early mentors. Gathered maps and itineraries from the American Automobile Association Collected letters of reference from the Guggenheim Foundation and friends in the press (in-case people questioned his photographing intentions) Introductions to representatives... Brodovitch was experimental, and “encouraged students to use blur, imprecise focus, large foreground forms, bleach negatives, radically crop and distort print, or print two photographs on top of each other, put gauze over lens of enlargers – to... On one account, when Frank went out to shoot with Evans, Frank noted how it was important to be more reflective (rather than spontaneous) when photographing. Responding to the country, as he later said, not by “looking at it but by feeling something from it. ”. Frank acted very much like the detached observer when photographing, and didn’t strive to make a sociological or analytical view like Evans did. Therefore Frank learned that in order to create emotional photographs, he needed to experiment with different techniques in photographing, printing, and presenting his work. Frank’s Early Inspirations Before Frank went on to shoot “The Americans” he learned many lessons from his mentors. Not only did Evans champion Frank’s work, but Frank learned many lessons from him (although their styles were quite different). If you look closely at his contact sheets, many of his photographs were either too bright, too dark, so off-balance, and out-of-focus that “Frank seems at times not even to have looked through the viewfinder or bothered to check the controls on... Frank was impressed with Evan’s careful observation of his subjects and his patience in waiting until the light revealed the scene exactly as he wanted to picture it. Although patience was never an attribute Frank valued or cultivated, keen... Subject matter that Frank Ended up Photographing Below are some re-occurring subjects that he ended up photographing in his trips around the U. S. 1. Therefore in today’s terms, I would advise against using a bulky DSLR and perhaps using a more nimble camera like a Micro 4/3rds, compact camera, or even an iPhone. […] Frank photographed his subjects with their backs to the camera, their faces partially obscured, or looming ominously in the foreground, as if they were about to turn and confront him (photos 29, 32). Frank was clear in saying that his work was a personal account of America, as he mentioned in U. S. Camera Annual 1958. Why Frank Decided To Shoot “The Americans” Therefore he embarked on a journey to America, and spent a considerable amount of time in NYC, where he met some of the most influential photographers and curators at the time including Andre Kertesz,... Brodovitch was well known for turning the magazine from having drab and boring photographs and adding dynamic montages of photos and text. It consisted of 83 photographs, with only one photograph per page. For example, if we tend to photograph slowly, we can gain skill by trying to photograph quicker. Public parks “When Frank helped Evans photograph tools for Fortune, he “learned what it is to be simple” and “to look at one thing and look at it very clearly and in a final way”. Oh yeah, and having certain cameras or lenses will do little in creating unique work (they knew that even half a century ago). Not only that, but Frank experimented printing his photographs with extreme contrast (disregarding the need to create an image with good tonal range), printing in extreme shapes (trapezoids), and would crop radically. For example, he would often be rejected by LIFE magazine to publish his work. However at the time, the Leica was the smallest, most maneuverable, and quickest camera to use. Steichen only thought it would be possible for Frank to do this by spending more time getting in-depth with the subjects that he captured, to get to know the small nuances and what made his subjects unique. However Alexey Brodovitch, a Russian-born photographer, designer and instructor (who Frank looked up to) suggested him to ditch the Rolleiflex for a 35mm Leica. What Frank learned from Brodovitch was “to respond to situations not analytically or intellectually but emotionally and to create highly original works of art that reflected their personal respond to their environment. Frank made no similar effort and rarely conversed with the people he photographed , for despite what was written in his Guggenheim application, his intention was not sociological, analytical, or documentary. Takeaway point : Therefore to sum up, Frank believed the importance of having role models and other photographers to draw inspiration from. When Frank embarked to photograph “The Americans”, he traveled over 10,000 miles across 30 states in 9 months. However in Frank’s “The Americans”, he was first harshly criticized by critics saying things like the prints were “Flawed by meaningless blur grain, muddy exposure, drunken horizons, and general sloppiness”. Rather to Frank, the feeling that the viewer got from the photograph was the most important. Rather, he was more interested in creating a strong body of work in which his interpretation of America wouldn’t be summed up in a single image- but rather through all of his images as a collective. After hearing this advice, Frank was inspired to go to Caerau, Wales in 1953, where he photographed a miner named Ben James for several days. Lessons from Henri Cartier-Bresson (on inspiration, influences, and originality) “Frank quickly learned from and assimilated new influences, often only to turn against them after extracting that all he found useful, a pattern that repeated itself... Frank was deeply impressed, it challenged him to become more than a fashion photographer. Frank lived with him in his home and photographed his entire day. “In the coming months, as he gained more confidence in his new approach and worked himself into what he later referred to as a “State of grace”, Frank’s style became looser, more casual, even gestural, and all about movement. “Evans had also photographed people in the south, but he had often gotten to know them first, as in his work with James Agee for their celebrated book ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’ (1941). When Robert Frank worked on the Americans, consider it from his viewpoint. Steichen saw Frank’s strength at capturing the environment and mood of his subjects, but stressed the importance of getting to know “the soul of man”....


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