Looking back with Robert Frank, the most influential photographer alive.
By: Nicholas Dawidoff
Last May, Robert Frank, the world’s pre-eminent living photographer, returned to Zurich, the orderly Swiss banking city, cosseted by lake and mountain, where he grew up. When an artist who made his reputation by leaving returns home, mixed feelings are inevitable, and that was especially true for Frank, whose iconic American pictures are notable for their deep understanding of human complication. ‘‘I know this town, but I certainly feel like a stranger here,’’ he said.
Frank has always been a picture-maker unconcerned with his own appearance, and sitting quietly beside the streetcar window, he wore the usual faded work shirt, frayed pants and one too many mornings of stubble. A sturdy man who never uses socks, a winter hat or gloves, Frank is now 90, and in the cool Swiss air, he had on a new blue down coat. His melancholy eyes rarely betray anything, but as he gazed out at the city of his youth, there was the sense of a man wary, defended, skeptical, yet willing to be engaged. In his pocket he carried an Olympus camera.
Frank had come to Switzerland to receive the Roswitha Haftmann Prize for lifetime achievement, Europe’s most lucrative fine-arts award, though he doesn’t need the money. His photographs command steep prices, and nothing about his current way of living is much different from his days as a young man, when, he says, ‘‘I decided if I swore off socks, I had more money for books.’’ Several years ago, Frank sold the paintings given to him in the 1940s by an impoverished friend, Sanyu, who became a renowned modern Chinese painter. Frank received millions of dollars, but wealth so discomfited him he used it to create a foundation and gave it away.
Acclaim was likewise anathema. By the 1960s, just as his work was gaining a following, Frank abruptly moved on from still photography to become an underground filmmaker. Ten years later, with all the glories of the art world calling to him, Frank fled New York, moving to a barren hillside far in the Canadian north. Over the years, when museums asked to exhibit his work, when universities like Yale sought to award him honorary degrees, he would think, Let someone else have it, and decline. ‘‘He never crossed over into celebrity,’’ says the photographer Nan Goldin. ‘‘He’s famous because he made a mark. He collected the world.’’