Life through a lens: 10 things to know about Robert Frank
The photographer might be best known for reinvigorating the medium, but his style had many influences
Robert Frank’s 1958 book The Americans had ‘a profound impact on the art of photography [and] changed the course of American photography,’ says Sarah Greenough, Senior Curator and Head of the Department of Photographs at the National Gallery of Art. It featured 83 images drawn from 27,000 negatives, taken on two 10,000-mile road trips across the US that Frank had made in stages starting in 1955.
‘I was tired of romanticism,’ Frank once said. ‘I wanted to present what I saw, pure and simple.’ The work he sought to produce was in direct contrast to the saccharine happiness presented on the glossy pages of magazines in America. On Frank’s death in 2019, Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker that The Americans ‘ranked with Dylan, Warhol and Motown as a revelation something like a celestial visitation and something like being knocked off a cliff…’
Before The Americans, Frank took mostly editorial assignments in New York, travelled widely in Europe and South America, and was even included in the seminal photography exhibition The Family of Man in 1955, organised by Edward Steichen, at the Museum of Modern Art.
But The Americans was something new, and ‘it was not immediately well-received by curators and critics,’ says Rebecca Jones, Christie’s specialist in the Photographs department. ‘Young photographers were the first to recognise its power.’ This generation also embraced the loose, street-wise aesthetic.
‘One of the crucial moments in Frank’s career was meeting Walker Evans,’ says Jones. ‘And he is probably someone who Frank was most informed by in creating this epic poem about America.’ Evans’ landmark 1938 MoMA exhibition and subsequent book, American Photographs, had shifted the needle for the medium already, in using poetic editing and gravitas to portray a country and its vernacular culture through the lens.
Evans worked as picture editor at Fortune magazine, which hired Frank. Evans, Edward Steichen and the legendary Harper’s Bazaar art director, Alexey Brodovitch, recommended him for the Guggenheim Fellowship that funded The Americans.
Frank arrived in New York in 1947 from Switzerland, escaping the darkness of World War II — his Jewish father was stripped of citizenship — and a very orderly, restrained, slightly repressed culture. ‘Being an outsider allowed him to bring a critical eye to America. It also gave his work a different energy — ‘that excitement of being in a totally new place,’ Jones says.
In the catalogue for a 2009 exhibition of Frank’s work at the National Gallery of Art, Greenough writes that Frank’s work laid bare ‘a culture deeply riddled by racism, alienation, and isolation’ and ‘a people emasculated by politicians fatuous and distant at best.’ As a Jewish European, Frank was not immune to hostility either — he was incarcerated twice while shooting The Americans, further adding a layer of empathy to his images.
In the early-50s, Frank was immersed in the artistic scene of the East Village, patronised the hangouts of the Abstract Expressionists such as The Cedar Tavern and had a view of Willem de Kooning’s studio through his apartment window. ‘He made me think to take risks in life,’ Frank told Vanity Fair’s Charlie LeDuff in 2008.
His first wife, Mary, was a sculptor, and the cultural exchange of artists working in New York at that time factored into his work and life. The informal approach to picture-making that Frank pioneered ‘looked as different from the photography of the past as Action Painting did from its predecessors,’ wrote the photography critic Janet Malcolm.
‘He sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film,’ wrote Jack Kerouac in his introduction to Frank’s masterwork, having been asked to write it at a New York party. Frank’s association with such a cultural icon is ‘part of the reason why The Americans has stayed so relevant and so cool,’ Jones says.
But more than that, his friendship with the author of On the Road and his circle was inspiring. ‘I think the fact that he was so close with the beat generation really helped him to sequence the book,’ Jones says, ‘and to think less editorially and more poetically.’ All poetry is about timing and rhythm, adds Jones, ‘and that’s why the images from The Americans sing as a book, where you go through the pages, beat by beat by beat.’
As The Americans found acclaim, Frank changed tack — he began making experimental movies. The best known of many that followed was Pull My Daisy in 1959, a study in bohemianism written by and starring Kerouac, alongside Allen Ginsberg, Larry Rivers and others.
Frank did continue to make personal photographic work, sometimes alongside his films, and frequently exploring repetition and collage, while also taking on commercial assignments — but it was not his sole focus.
Meeting the painter, June Leaf, in 1968, was one of the pivotal moments in Frank’s life, says Jones. When the couple began spending time in Mabou, Nova Scotia from 1970, Frank returned more wholeheartedly to photography, creating work that was ‘intimate, emotional, personal... a pretty major transition’ from The Americans, says Jones. ‘And the work is beautiful.’
In collaged imagery and scrawled texts, he confronted feelings about his family, including the death of both his son and daughter. Leaf was instrumental in encouraging the combination of drawing and writing with photographic images.
The aesthetic might have been a departure from his work in the 1950s, but Frank was still innovating, says Jones. ‘I can’t think of a lot of other photography that uses text and collage and words quite in the way that he was. And actually, it connects to the Beat poetry.’
In 1972, the Rolling Stones commissioned Frank to design the cover of Exile on Main Street, and film the accompanying tour.
That documentary proved too revealing of backstage hedonism, and the band prevented its commercial release, though stills from it do appear in Frank’s sleeve art for the record, combined with other images from The Americans — and shots taken at Hubert’s Museum, the New York City sideshow also infamously visited by Diane Arbus.
Frank donated 5,500 negatives, contact sheets, and prints to the museum in 1990, alongside ephemera including his Guggenheim Fellowship application. It outlines his plan: ‘A small catalog comes to the mind’s eye: a town at night, a parking lot, a supermarket, a highway, the man who owns three cars and the man who owns none, the farmer and his children, a new house and a warped clapboard house, the dictation of taste, the dream of grandeur, advertising, neon lights, the faces of the leaders and the faces of the followers, gas tanks and post offices and backyards…’
The museum drew on its holdings for the 1994-5 retrospective, Robert Frank: Moving Out — and another marking that show’s 50th anniversary in 2009. In reviewing the latter, critic Holland Cotter wrote of The Americans that its ‘political urgencies feel less immediate than they once did, but also prophetic. Its mournful tenderness, without being sentimental, seems deeper than ever.’