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How acclaimed photographer Robert Frank examined America ‘beneath the surface’

Transcript

Judy Woodruff: Now: celebrating a unique lens to see life.

Amna Nawaz remembers one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, part of our Canvas series.

Amna Nawaz: He was best known for vividly capturing America's quirks and spotlighting the country's social divisions in everyday life.

Robert Frank was born in Switzerland to a wealthy European Jewish family, but he was decidedly an American, one who managed to maintain an outsider's point of view, he himself noted in the 2015 documentary about his career, "Don't Blink."

Robert Frank: I tried not to talk to them, and I didn't want them to talk to me.

Amna Nawaz: Frank emigrated to New York in 1947, and started work at "Harper's Bazaar," but he soon became aware of many of the stark contrasts in American society.

That perspective was a driving force behind his most celebrated work, 1957's "The Americans." Starting in 1955, Frank crisscrossed the country, snapping 28,000 photos in just two years, ultimately culling them down to a collection of just 83.

His work was in sharp contrast to more traditional, optimistic photos of the time. Frank reflected on that work in "Don't Blink."

Robert Frank: When I look at the 83 photographs I chose for the book, I think I really got the essence.

Amna Nawaz: Like this shot of motorcyclists in Indianapolis, a trolley car in New Orleans, and a political rally in Chicago.

Sarah Greenough is the director of photography at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. She knew Frank, and says "The Americans" revealed a country that was plagued by racism and consumerism.

Sarah Greenough: He looked beneath the surface, seeing these ills in American society, but he also photographed novel areas of beauty within the country, subjects that other photographers hadn't previously looked at, such as cars, diners, and even the road itself.

Amna Nawaz: Greenough says the book also made Frank's unique artistic style influential:

Sarah Greenough: Many of them have a sort of fast, seemingly intuitive look, as if he just turned around and captured the image. They're often off-kilter, which gives a great sense of dynamism to them.

The book "The Americans" was initially reviled by the critics, but it very quickly became embraced by a younger generation of photographers and then others.

Amna Nawaz: Frank's work featured other cultural icons of the day. He befriended beat writer Jack Kerouac shortly after compiling "The Americans." And Kerouac later wrote the book's forward.

And Frank's black-and-white photos were featured on the cover of the Rolling Stones' critically acclaimed 1972 album "Exile on Main St."

Later in his career, Frank continued to shoot photos and film, largely focusing his lens on America's least privileged, rather than the powerful.

Robert Frank died Monday in Nova Scotia. He was 94 years old.

Judy Woodruff: And there's more online, where we take a closer look at one of Frank's most enduring images from his book "The Americans."

That's on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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