Robert Frank, one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, whose visually raw and personally expressive style was pivotal in changing the course of documentary photography, died on Monday in Inverness, Nova Scotia. He was 94.
His death was confirmed by Peter MacGill of Pace/MacGill Gallery in Manhattan.
Mr. Frank, who was born in Switzerland, came to New York at the age of 23 as an artistic refugee from what he considered to be the small-minded values of his own country. He was best known for his groundbreaking book, “The Americans,” a masterwork of black and white photographs drawn from his cross-country road trips in the mid-1950s and published in 1959.
“The Americans” challenged the presiding midcentury formula for photojournalism, defined by sharp, well-lighted, classically composed pictures, whether of the battlefront, the homespun American heartland or movie stars at leisure. Mr. Frank’s photographs — of lone individuals, teenage couples, groups at funerals and odd spoors of cultural life — were cinematic, immediate, off-kilter and grainy, like early television transmissions of the period. They would secure his place in photography’s pantheon. The cultural critic Janet Malcolm called him the “Manet of the new photography.”
But recognition was by no means immediate. The pictures were initially considered warped, smudgy, bitter. Popular Photography magazine complained about their “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons, and general sloppiness.” Mr. Frank, the magazine said, was “a joyless man who hates the country of his adoption.”
Mr. Frank had come to detest the American drive for conformity, and the book was thought to be an indictment of American society, stripping away the picture-perfect vision of the country and its veneer of breezy optimism put forward in magazines and movies and on television. Yet at the core of his social criticism was a romantic idea about finding and honoring what was true and good about the United States.