Robert Frank's photographs are sometimes affectionately, sometimes bitterly witty. They are austere, lyrical, and post-romantic.
This last quality distinguishes his work from that of his greatest American predecessors (Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, and Man Ray), and from Walker Evans and Cartier-Bresson, his contemporaries and kindred spirits.
By spurning romanticism, Frank's art denies us romanticism's consolations. That denial is at the heart of his art's power. Frank's photographs, particularly in The Americans, add beauty to the world without reinforcing or adding to our fantasies of happiness.
While his art isn't itself romantic, he shows us that Americans, like all religious people, are fiercely romantic; and our romanticism—or, specifically, the peculiar manner by which we articulate it—is what he believes merits attention.
Here we arrive at the source of Frank's genius: his refusal to frame Americans romantically has the ironic effect of emphasizing our intensely romantic disposition.
Even at our most downtrodden, our most lonely, there's flair; there's extravagance. (Note, most obviously, the belt buckle. There would be no photograph without it. Beyond that: the tightness of the clothing, the intricate stitching of the boots, the elegant inward under-statedness of the man's stance, the floral curves of the hat, etc.) Our extravagance is embattled, apologetic; the subtle means by which we decorate our world and ourselves gives us a complex splendor and rescues us from pity and from self-pity. (We do not—or did not—have time for self-pity.)
Frank finds beauty where we least expect it: among our most bewildered and despised, among the old and broken, in failure, in what we forget, in inconsequence, and not—during the triumphant American century—in our triumphs.
We've received no greater gift from any photographer.
This slideshow, with its accompanying commentary, offers a wonderful introduction to this astonishing artist: