Robert Frank (American, born Switzerland, 1924)
Born in 1924 in Zurich, Switzerland, Robert Frank was raised in comfortable, middle-class surroundings. His father, Hermann Frank, of Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, was a successful and well-educated businessman, who was an amateur photographer and interested in art; his mother, Regina, of Basel, was the daughter of a wealthy factory owner. The second of two children, Frank was an athletic youth and joined a boy scout troop and the Swiss Alpine Club. After graduating from high school, he began an apprenticeship in 1941 with Hermann Segesser, a photographer and retoucher who lived in the same apartment building as Frank’s family. The next year, he began to work for the Zurich commercial photographer Michael Wolgensinger who introduced him to Switzerland’s active magazine, newspaper, and book publishing industry. At the end of his extensive training, Frank made 40 Fotos, 1946, a hand-bound volume of photographs that shows the eclectic influences he had absorbed during his early years, including modernism, reportage, and the Heimat (Homeland) style, celebrating the simplicity of rural Swiss life. It was also the first of four hand-made books of photographs that he would make in the next six years.
Frustrated by the constraints of his homeland, Frank left Switzerland in 1947 and immigrated to the United States. Soon after he arrived in New York, he was hired by Alexey Brodovitch, the legendary art director of Harper’s Bazaar. Although he was inspired by Brodovitch’s innovative teachings, Frank quickly found the work and the atmosphere at the magazine stultifying. He quit in late 1947 and traveled to South America, roaming extensively throughout Peru. Using both his 2 ¼ inch camera as well as a newly acquired 35mm Leica camera, he photographed Peru’s people, rather than its monuments and mountains; as he later said, he preferred the present and “things that move.” In early 1949, after returning to New York, he made another hand-bound book of his photographs that shows the influence of other photography books by Bill Brandt, André Kertész, and Jakob Tuggener, as well as Brodovitch. In it, Frank explored non-narrative, non-chronological methods of joining his photographs that would prove indispensable as he edited The Americans.
From 1949 to 1953 Frank wandered restlessly, traveling back and forth between New York and Europe. In each place, he focused on one or two subjects that expressed his understanding of the people and their culture—chairs and flowers in Paris, bankers in London, and miners in Wales. In order to create a stronger impact and address larger ideas, he also endeavored to make sequences of his photographs that he hoped would be published in Life or other magazines. However, although he was hailed as “a poet with a camera” and won important champions, such as Edward Steichen, director of the department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, his photographic sequences were rarely published. With few commercial outlets for his series, Frank continued to make hand-bound books of photographs, including Mary’s Book, 1949, an album of 72 photographs and writings he made for Mary Lockspeiser, an artist and dancer whom he married in 1950, and Black White and Things, 1952, his most accomplished sequence to date. Divided into three sections, Black White and Things is prefaced with a short quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, which summarizes Frank’s approach at this time: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Once again, Frank explored new ways of linking his photographs, conceptually, formally, thematically, and emotionally.
When Frank returned to New York in 1953, he was frustrated that his photographs had not been more widely published. In the fall of 1954, he applied to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for a fellowship “to photograph freely throughout the United States,” as he wrote in his application, and “make a broad voluminous picture record of things American.” With letters of recommendation from the photographer Walker Evans, as well as Steichen and Brodovitch, he was awarded a fellowship in the spring of 1955 and began to make the photographs that would comprise The Americans.
After buying a used Ford, Frank made a few short trips in the summer of 1955 before embarking that fall on a nine-month journey that would cover 10,000 miles and extend across the United States. With no set itinerary, he drove sometimes alone and sometimes with Mary and their two children, Pablo and Andrea. In each place he stopped, he tried to get a sense for the flavor of peoples’ lives by visiting ordinary places—the local Woolworth’s, coffee shops, cemeteries, parks, banks, hotels, and post offices, as well as train and bus stations all provided him with opportunities to observe a range of Americans without drawing too much attention to himself.
After making a few more trips in the summer of 1956—notably to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago—Frank spent almost a year making his book. First, he developed the 767 rolls of film he had shot for the project and made contact sheets of them. Then he reviewed the more than 27,000 frames and made more than a thousand rough 8 by 10 inch work prints of the images that intrigued him. After refining the selection, he sequenced the photographs and asked Jack Kerouac to write an introduction to the book. When The Americans was published, first in France in 1958 and then in the United States in 1959, it was unlike almost any other photography book ever produced.
In 83 provocative but frequently poignant photographs, Frank looked beneath the surface of American life to reveal a people often plagued by racism, ill-served by their politicians, and rendered numb by a rapidly rising culture of consumption. Yet he also found new areas of beauty in overlooked corners of American life and in the process helped redefine the icons of America. In his photographs of diners, cars, and even the road itself, Frank pioneered a seemingly intuitive, immediate, off-kilter style that was as innovative as his subjects. So too was the way he tightly bound his photographs, linking them thematically, conceptually, formally, and linguistically to present a haunting picture of mid-century America. As Kerouac wrote in his introduction: “The humor, the sadness, the EVERYTHING-ness and American-ness of these pictures!”
Released at the height of the Cold War, The Americans, a far cry from the wholesome, simplistic photographs seen in popular magazines of the time, was initially reviled, even decried as anti-American. Yet during the 1960s, as many of the issues that Frank had addressed erupted into the collective consciousness, the book came to be regarded as both prescient and revolutionary. Yet its rising reputation never sat comfortably on Frank’s shoulders. The same restlessness and risk-taking spirit that inspired it propelled him to abandon photography for filmmaking in the late 1950s. With films such as Pull My Daisy, 1959, made with the painter Alfred Leslie and including Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso and with narration by Kerouac, or Me and My Brother, 1968, Frank established himself as a leading avant-garde filmmaker.
In the early 1970s, inspired by his autobiographical book The Lines of My Hand, Frank returned to still photography and in the years since has moved back and forth between still photography and filmmaking, drawing insights from one medium into the other. His later photographs provide moving accounts of his life and are often composed of multiple images, frequently with words scratched into the negatives or written directly on the prints themselves. Both his photographs and films made since 1970 have been featured in several one-person exhibitions in recent years, including the National Gallery of Art’s Robert Frank: Moving Out, 1994, and the Tate Modern’s Robert Frank: Storylines, 2004. Yet until Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” Frank has never allowed an in-depth examination of his seminal publication, despite its soaring acclaim and widespread impact on photography in the last fifty years.
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