No One Saw America as Clearly as Robert Frank
Sept. 12, 2019
Mr. Higgins was a staff photographer at The New York Times.
There are just a few photographers who create a body of work that commands your attention. For me, the legendary Robert Frank was one of them.
Not long after I arrived in New York City in my early 20s, I met Arthur Rothstein, the head of photography at Look , a couple of years before that magazine folded in the early 1970s. One afternoon, Mr. Rothstein sent me to show my work to his friend Cornell Capa, at the time focused on elevating the best of documentary photography as an art form — this was the genesis of the International Center of Photography.
A natural born teacher, Mr. Capa began pulling books off his shelves to introduce me to the works of significant photographers. As soon as I saw Robert Frank’s images in “The Americans,” I sat down. I knew I had to take my time going through these extraordinary images in front of me — slowly, turning one page after another.
Here was a fresh cultural perspective on American society from a man who arrived in the United States at age 23 from Switzerland. Being a humanist and a strong image maker gave the artist the means to fully exploit the visual terrain that made up the United States in the 1950s — without the cultural blinders that corrupted our society and continue to stalk us to this day. His images are strong, yet delicate, and his awareness is unobtrusive.
Having been reared in a visual world where people who looked like me were often demonized and objectified, I appreciated Mr. Frank’s images as intellectually refreshing. My mission, as a photographer of African descent, has been to advance the struggle by visually replacing what many photographers could not see in people of color — qualities of decency, dignity and virtuous character.
I wanted to honor him, to thank him, for having the clearness of heart to make these 1950s images that gave black people like myself the same decency and agency usually reserved for whites. On a January morning this year and with help from his orbit of friends, I was invited to visit Mr. Frank and his wife, the painter June Leaf, at their home on Bleecker Street. This was my chance to thank him personally. When I did, he and his wife looked at me with faces of surprise and pleasure. I surmised that this must have been a first for them to hear this particular expression of gratitude. Mr. Frank saw my people no differently than he saw others. He was content being a penetrating observer without the need to control or intrude on the reality before him. He saw my people no differently than he saw others.
Before I left their apartment that crisp January morning, I asked to make an image of Robert and June. I wanted to capture his dignity and the loving relationship he shared with his wife. Photographing him was my way to pay homage to the photographer and his works that have inspired and influenced me over decades.
At 94, his soul transitioned to the ancestors. If service to others is the price we pay for taking up space on the planet, then Mr. Frank’s bill has been fully paid.
The work of Robert Frank confirms my belief that a photograph never lies about the photographer.