Robert Frank (born 1924) is best known for his iconic project The Americans (1958) which left a lasting influence on documentary photography. In 2015, The New Yorker’s art critic Peter Schjedahl cited it as “one of the basic American masterpieces of any medium.” Frank’s photographs offered a revolutionary perspective of America which expressed the emotions of the inhabitants and would lay the foundation for stylistic developments of the documentary genre for decades to come. He also produced inspiring imagery for Harper’s Bazaar, LIFE, Vogue and Look magazine and later became a filmmaker. His most famous films are Pull my Daisy (1959) and Cocksucker Blues (1972), classic examples of American subculture and visually similar to his earlier photographs.
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Robert Frank was born on 9th of November 1924 in Zurich, Switzerland. Frank began studying photography in 1941, he trained under several photographers and graphic designers before producing his first hand-made book 40 fotos in 1946.
Frank emigrated to New York in 1947 and was soon hired by Alexey Brodivitch, the art director of Harper’s Bazaar. Unlike most fashion photographers, Frank used a 35-mm Leica camera on shoots, more popularly used by photojournalists. Frank soon grew restless with the limitations of fashion photography and left the magazine to travel to South America, England and Wales, developing his very specific approach to documentary photography along the way. During this time Frank worked as a freelance photographer for LIFE magazine, Vogue, and Look.
Frank met many influential photographers early on in his career such as Walker Evans and Edward Steichen. With their encouragement, he applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship which he was granted in 1955. His aim was to travel across the United States photographing every aspect of American society. As well as people, the 28,000 photographs of his road trip depicted iconic symbols of America such as highways, jukeboxes, cars and diners. A selection of these images was compiled into a photobook The Americans, first published in France in 1957 and later in America with accompanying text written by Jack Kerouac.
The Americans challenged the documentary photography that had preceded the era – it made no claim to romanticism, instead Frank’s photographs were strikingly direct representations of 1950s American society. His unusual tilting of the camera and grained exposure embraced movement and imperfection, showing a revolutionary perspective of America which expressed the emotions of the inhabitants and would lay the foundation for stylistic developments of the documentary genre for decades to come.
After the success of The Americans Frank shifted his focus from still images onto moving image and began experimenting as a filmmaker. His most famous films Pull my Daisy (1959) and Cocksucker Blues (1972) are classic examples of American subculture, and retain a visual similarity to his earlier photographs because of their intimate nature and casual framing.
Exhibitions and Awards
The work of Robert Frank has been exhibited globally including solo exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago, Tate Modern, London and Kunsthaus Zürich. In 1996 Frank was awarded the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography in 1996 and the Edward MacDowell Medal in 2002. Frank became a Doctor of Fine Arts at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University in Canada.
Frank currently lives with his family in Switzerland.