Tate Etc
Six reflections on the photography of Robert Frank
Fall 2004
BY Ed Ruscha, Lou Reed, Mary Ellen Mark, Robert Frank, Liz Jobey, Mark Haworth‑Booth

Political Rally, Chicago (1956)

I first saw this photograph in his The Americans when it was published in 1959. The book is still an inspiration to me. Robert Frank is a purist. He is so honest in his observation and he doesn't manipulate what he sees. He is able to describe the essence of everything he looks at, whether it's people on the bus, a barber's shop, or a covered car. He brings the feel, smell and sense of what a place is like.

In this picture, Frank did something that was daring at the time, which was to cut off part of the subject. I think he really understands the fact that sometimes an image is about how much you leave out of the frame. If it were just the man with the tuba alone, it wouldn't be as strong. The cut frame gives a sense of spontaneity. Frank creates movement with his camera and his subject in a truly original way. He's a narrative photographer. Looking at his pictures is like watching a part of film; you can imagine what is happening around the frame.

He uses the flag a lot in his work. It is such an iconic and symbolic image and he is very aware of that. It features in other photographs of the time, such as Parade ‑ Hoboken, New Jersey, where it obscures the face of one of the people standing at the window. In 4th July, New York (1954) the light goes through the flag. And in Bar, Detroit (1955) it takes on a surreal quality as if hanging in mid‑air.

His pictures are often about isolation. You can feel that loneliness. It is very much a feeling of America. It's a tough country, but a fascinating country, and I think he is able to pick out the ironic, the bad, the good, the funny and the very sad. When I look through his work, I feel that nothing has really changed. There are still funerals; there are still the deserted bars and people gambling. His is a tough and deeply poetic vision that will always be relevant.

Mary Ellen Mark is a photographer. Her exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago runs until 1 October, and Phaidon Press will publish a book about her work next year.

Robert Frank
Gelatin silver print

END