Once upon a time in a long-forgotten place, I fell in love. This was a life-changing, head-over-heels-kind-of-love, and the subject of my swoon was Robert Frank’s seminal book of black and white photographs, The Americans.
At the time, I was an aspiring photographer, and Frank’s pictures blew the top off my head and showed me what photography could be. The Americans had the same effect on tens of thousands of other photographers at all skill levels, and it reverberated among artists, writers and other observers of the American scene. Such is its power that 50 years later we are still talking about and showing the Americans.
Frank’s pictures were idiosyncratic, brutally honest, dark, foreboding and furtive. Those pictures absolutely killed. Robert Frank’s take on America was almost exactly the opposite of the country’s prevailing vision of itself – more Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac than Eisenhower. It was a beat generation document but a whole lot more. The Americans upset a lot of people of course, given the less than rose colored tint it portrayed. “A sad poem for sick people” was one comment.
In the recent New Yorker write-up on the Frank show at the Met, Anthony Lane remarks on how Frank shot over 760 rolls of film on three trips around the U.S. on a Guggenheim grant. He developed his film, made his contact sheets, and set about printing a group of selected images. He printed one thousand work prints (a work print refers to a quickly made image that a photographer will consider over time and then later print to exacting specifications) of this place called America. That a Swiss born Jew in 1955 would conceive of somehow capturing the soul of these United States in a group of photographs is quite an astonishing proposition, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Here is what’s amazing. Robert Frank shot thousands upon thousands of photographs – 27,000+ in all. It’s not unusual for a documentary, street-shooting, photo-journalist type of photographer to shoot vast amounts of film – it’s the nature of the beast.
What’s incredible is the discipline and vision it took for Robert Frank to cull through his work and edit it down to only 83 (!) pictures. In the shooting, he collected the raw data. But like the filmmaker that he would soon become, it was in the editing room where the miracle occurred.
Through careful (and brutal) editing, and his sequencing, he told his unique story, changed the course of contemporary photography, influenced legions of photographers who followed him, and, reflected back to us an image of ourselves wholly unexpected, uncomfortable, unsettling, true.
So any of us who write for a living, (or do other kinds of creative work) one of the lessons of Frank’s achievement is this: Great work involves culling, murdering your darlings – letting go of all your favorite, nifty little phrases and word choices and give the reader the heart and soul of the story.
Murder your darlings, if you have not yet heard the phrase, is attributed to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who taught writing at Oxford.
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