was a Swiss photographer and documentary filmmaker, who became an American binational. His most notable work, the 1958 book titled The Americans
, earned Frank comparisons to a modern-day de Tocqueville
for his fresh and nuanced outsider's view of American society. Critic Sean O'Hagan
, writing in The Guardian
in 2014, said The Americans "changed the nature of photography, what it could say and how it could say it. it remains perhaps the most influential photography book of the 20th century."
Frank later expanded into film and video and experimented with manipulating photographs and photomontage.
I’m always looking outside, trying to look inside. Trying to say something that is true. But maybe nothing is really true. Except what’s out there. And what’s out there is always changing.
-- Robert Frank
Frank was born in Zürich, Switzerland, the son of Rosa (Zucker) and Hermann Frank. His family was Jewish. Robert states in Gerald Fox's 2004 documentary Leaving Home, Coming Home
that his mother, Rosa (other sources state her name as Regina), had a Swiss passport, while his father, Hermann originating from Frankfurt, Germany had become stateless after losing his German citizenship as a Jew. They had to apply for Swiss citizenship for Robert and his older brother, Manfred. Though Frank and his family remained safe in Switzerland during World War II, the threat of Nazism nonetheless affected his understanding of oppression. He turned to photography, in part as a means to escape the confines of his business-oriented family and home, and trained under a few photographers and graphic designers before he created his first hand-made book of photographs, 40 Fotos, in 1946. Frank emigrated to the United States in 1947 and secured a job in New York City as a fashion photographer for Harper's Bazaar
In 1949, the new editor of Camera
magazine, Walter Laubli
(1902-1991), published a substantial portfolio of Jakob Tuggener
pictures made at upper-class entertainments and in factories, alongside the work of the 25-year-old Frank who had just returned to his native Switzerland after two years abroad, with pages including some of his first pictures from New York. The magazine promoted the two as representatives of the 'new photography' of Switzerland.
Tuggener was a role model for the younger artist, first mentioned to him by Frank's boss and mentor, Zurich commercial photographer Michael Wolgensinger
(1913-1990) who understood that Frank was unsuited to the more mercenary application of the medium. Tuggener, as a serious artist who had left the commercial world behind, was the "one Frank really did love, from among all Swiss photographers,"
according to Guido Magnaguagno
, as a photo book, was a model for Frank's Les Américains
('The Americans') published ten years later in Paris by Delpire, in 1958.
He soon left to travel in South America and Europe. He created another hand-made book of photographs that he shot in Peru, and returned to the U.S. in 1950. That year was momentous for Frank, who, after meeting Edward Steichen
, participated in the group show 51 American Photographers at the Museum of Modern Art
(MoMA); he also married fellow artist Mary Frank
née Mary Lockspeiser, with whom he had two children, Andrea and Pablo.
Though he was initially optimistic about the United States' society and culture, Frank's perspective quickly changed as he confronted the fast pace of American life and what he saw as an overemphasis on money. He now saw America as an often bleak and lonely place, a perspective that became evident in his later photography. Frank's own dissatisfaction with the control that editors exercised over his work also undoubtedly colored his experience. He continued to travel, moving his family briefly to Paris. In 1953, he returned to New York and continued to work as a freelance photojournalist for magazines including McCall's
, and Fortune
. Associating with other contemporary photographers such as Saul Leiter
and Diane Arbus
, he helped form what Jane Livingston
has termed The New York School of photographers
(not to be confused with the New York School of art) during the 1940s and 1950s.
In 1955, Frank achieved further recognition with the inclusion by Edward Steichen of seven of his photographs (many more than most other contributors) in the world-touring Museum of Modern Art
exhibition The Family of Man
that was to be seen by 9 million visitors and with a popular catalog that is still in print. Frank's contributions had been taken in Spain (of a woman kissing her swaddled babe-in-arms); of a bowed old woman in Peru; a rheumy-eyed miner in Wales; and the others in England and the US, including two (one atypically soft-focus) of his wife in pregnancy; and one (later to be included in The Americans) of six laughing women in the window of the White Tower Hamburger Stand on Fourteenth Street, New York City.
The truth is somewhere between the documentary and the fictional, and that is what I try to show. What is real one moment has become imaginary the next. You believe what you see now, and the next second you don’t anymore.
-- Robert Frank
Inspired by fellow Swiss Jakob Tuggener's 1943 book Fabrik, Bill Brandt
's The English at Home
(1936), and Walker Evans
's American Photographs
(1938), and on the recommendation of Evans (a previous recipient), Alexey Brodovitch
, Alexander Leiberman
, Edward Steichen
, and Meyer Schapiro
, Frank secured a Guggenheim Fellowship
from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 1955 to travel across the United States and photograph all strata of its society. Cities he visited included Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan; Savannah, Georgia; Miami Beach and St. Petersburg, Florida; New Orleans, Louisiana; Houston, Texas; Los Angeles, California; Reno, Nevada; Salt Lake City, Utah; Butte, Montana; and Chicago, Illinois. He took his family along with him for part of his series of road trips over the next two years, during which time he took 28,000 shots. 83 of these were selected by him for publication in The Americans
Frank's journey was not without incident. He later recalled the anti-Semitism to which he was subject in a small Arkansas town. "I remember the guy [policeman] took me into the police station, and he sat there and put his feet on the table. It came out that I was Jewish because I had a letter from the Guggenheim Foundation. They really were primitive."
He was told by the sheriff, "Well, we have to get somebody who speaks Yiddish." ... "They wanted to make a thing out of it. It was the only time it happened on the trip. They put me in jail. It was scary. Nobody knew where I was."
Elsewhere in the South, he was told by a sheriff that he had "an hour to leave town."
Those incidents may have contributed to the dark view of America found in the work.
Shortly after returning to New York in 1957, Frank met Beat writer Jack Kerouac "at a New York party where poets and Beatniks were,"
and showed him the photographs from his travels. However, according to Joyce Johnson
, Kerouac's lover at the time, she met Frank while waiting for Kerouac to emerge from a conference with his editors, at Viking Press, looked at Frank's portfolio, and introduced them to each other. Kerouac immediately told Frank, "Sure I can write something about these pictures."
He eventually contributed the introduction to the U.S. edition of The Americans
. Frank also became lifelong friends with Allen Ginsberg
, and was one of the main visual artists to document the Beat subculture, which felt an affinity with Frank's interest in documenting the tensions between the optimism of the 1950s and the realities of class and racial differences. The irony that Frank found in the gloss of American culture and wealth over this tension gave his photographs a clear contrast to those of most contemporary American photojournalists, as did his use of unusual focus, low lighting, and cropping that deviated from accepted photographic techniques.
This divergence from contemporary photographic standards gave Frank difficulty at first in securing an American publisher. Les Américains
was first published in 1958 by Robert Delpire in Paris, as part of its Encyclopédie Essentielle series, with texts by Simone de Beauvoir
, Erskine Caldwell
, William Faulkner
, Henry Miller
and John Steinbeck
that Delpire positioned opposite Frank's photographs. It was finally published in 1959 in the United States, without the texts, by Grove Press, where it initially received substantial criticism. Popular Photography, for one, derided his images as "meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness."
Though sales were also poor at first, the fact that the introduction was by the popular Kerouac helped it reach a larger audience. Over time and through the inspiration of later artists, The Americans
became a seminal work in American photography and art history, and is the work with which Frank is most clearly identified. In 1961, Frank received his first individual show, entitled Robert Frank: Photographer, at the Art Institute of Chicago
. He also showed at the Museum of Modern Art
in New York in 1962.
By the time The Americans was published in the United States in 1959, Frank had moved away from photography to concentrate on filmmaking. Among his films was the 1959 Pull My Daisy
, which was written and narrated by Kerouac and starred Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and others from the Beat circle. The Beats emphasized spontaneity, and the film conveyed the quality of having been thrown together or even improvised. Pull My Daisy was accordingly praised for years as an improvisational masterpiece, until Frank's co-director, Alfred Leslie, revealed in a November 28, 1968 article in the Village Voice that the film was actually carefully planned, rehearsed, and directed by him and Frank, who shot the film with professional lighting.
Though Frank continued to be interested in film and video, he returned to still images in the 1970s, publishing his second photographic book, The Lines of My Hand
, in 1972. This work has been described as a "visual autobiography"
, and consists largely of personal photographs. However, he largely gave up "straight" photography to instead create narratives out of constructed images and collages, incorporating words and multiple frames of images that were directly scratched and distorted on the negatives. None of this later work has achieved an impact comparable to that of The Americans. As some critics have pointed out, this is perhaps because Frank began playing with constructed images more than a decade after Robert Rauschenberg
introduced his silkscreen composites—in contrast to The Americans, Frank's later images simply were not beyond the pale of accepted technique and practice by that time.
Frank and Mary separated in 1969. He remarried, to sculptor June Leaf
, and in 1971, moved to the community of Mabou, Nova Scotia in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia in Canada. In 1974, his daughter, Andrea, was killed in a plane crash in Tikal, Guatemala. Also around this time, his son, Pablo, was first hospitalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Much of Frank's subsequent work dealt with the impact of the loss of both his daughter and subsequently his son, who died in an Allentown, Pennsylvania hospital in 1994. In 1995, in memory of his daughter, he founded the Andrea Frank Foundation, which provides grants to artists.
After his move to Nova Scotia, Canada, Frank divided his time between his home there, in a former fisherman's shack on the coast, and his Bleecker Street loft in New York. He acquired a reputation for being a recluse (particularly since the death of Andrea), declining most interviews and public appearances. He continued to accept eclectic assignments, however, such as photographing the 1984 Democratic National Convention and directing music videos for artists such as New Order ("Run"), and Patti Smith ("Summer Cannibals"). Frank produced both films and still images, and helped organize several retrospectives of his art. His work has been represented by Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York since 1984. In 1994, the National Gallery of Art
in Washington, D.C. presented the most comprehensive retrospective of Frank's work to date, entitled Moving Out
Frank died on September 9, 2019, at his home in Nova Scotia.
I have been frequently accused of deliberately twisting subject matter to my point of view. Above all, I know that life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference. Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love. It is important to see what is invisible to others—perhaps the look of hope or the look of sadness. Also it is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph.
-- Robert Frank