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Robert Frank

Swiss-American Photographer and Filmmaker

Robert Frank Photo

Born: November 9, 1924 - Zurich, Switzerland

"Photography can reveal so much. It's the invasion of the privacy of the people."

Summary of Robert Frank

Robert Frank came to artistic eminence following the publication of his seminal book The Americans which is regarded to this day as one of the most influential photography projects of the 20th century. Frank became associated with the so-called 'Beat Circle', a group of poets, writers and artists - beatniks - who exemplified the apolitical, free-form spirit of post-war American existentialism. Having made his living as a commissioned commercial photographer, but left feeling frustrated artistically in that role, Frank took his 35mm camera onto the streets and highways of America where he honed his highly influential style of wandering, observational photography. Frank shunned the principle of balanced compositions in favor of crooked, grainy high contrasts in black and white and his revolutionary approach to his subjects was to prove decisive in the development of a more authentic reportage photography. In later years Frank found critical success as an underground moviemaker and his work generally took on a more personal, even spiritual, dimension. In its 2015 career retrospective article, the New York Times introduced Frank as 'the most influential photographer alive'.

Key Ideas

Before the publication of The Americans, the 'official' photographic art remained the province of a small number of elite American museums. With The Americans Frank had managed to initiate a seismic shift in attitudes towards art photography. To virtuosic effect, Frank used his camera to capture an unvarnished and unguarded cross-section of American society, and in so doing, he brought a new sense of liberation to the photographic medium. Indeed, Frank's pioneering work challenged many of his contemporaries to question the established rules of balanced photogenic composition and to rethink the very possibilities for photography as a socially relevant and dynamic medium.
To Frank's way of thinking, a true artist had to be both intuitive and "somehow enraged" and, as such, his goal was to capture through his lens ways in which his environment has affected him on a personal level. Indeed, for many critics Frank had succeeded where others had failed by representing, not only the ordinary lives of his subjects, but also by revealing something of the soul. As the New York Times art critic Nicholas Dawidoff put it: "Frank's gift was to transcend reportage and tell [the spectator] something about the condition - how oppression felt."
As an adopted member of the New York (Greenwich) Beat community, Frank embraced the ‘hip’ ideology of a self-styled group who were well represented in American literature – through the likes of Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Peter Orlovsky, and William Burroughs – but, just as the creative writers had taken their inspiration from jazz music and Abstract Expessionism so Frank found a way to apply the amorphous freestyle aesthetic to the photographic arts too.
Having forthrightly declared his disdain for sentimentality (and political ideology for that matter) in fine art, Frank's dispassionate wandering topography of his adopted nation had effectively set a brand-new standard in street photography and Frank, by general agreement, assumed the mantle of Father of modern documentary portraiture. Yet The Americans has retained its power because Frank sought a further – higher (one might say) - meditative dimension to his work. He achieved this feat by coupling images of everyday American society with inanimate signs of consumer culture and the modern American architecture and landscapes. The spectator was therefore challenged to look at The Americans, not as social critique (necessarily), but as a whole; that is, to make sense of the collected images through poetic and conceptual relations.
Frank demonstrated his willingness to test his creative range soon after the publication of The Americans when he moved into independent filmmaking. Still driven by the impulse to upset conventions, to challenge norms, and while maintaining his preference to represent the lives of "risky people who walked the edge of the road", Frank made films in a spontaneous, drifting style that was to become a hallmark of the sixties filmic avant-garde. Indeed, Frank's long-time editing assistant, Laura Israel described his "out of sync" films as "near random collages", though according to Israel, Frank himself never achieved total fulfillment through his movies.
Robert Frank Photo

Robert Frank, the younger of two brothers, was born in Zurich in 1924 to a Swiss mother and a German-Jewish father. On the one hand, Switzerland had been spared the physical oppressions of Nazi occupation, and speaking of his adolescence, Frank would happily recall how he had dodged paying fares on the city streetcars "never worried about being caught by inspectors" (because Zurich was "rich enough"). On the other, Frank spoke of being raised in a "sad household": firstly, because radio news bulletins were constantly reporting stories of Hitler "cursing the Jews" (with the result that he just "couldn't turn off the voice" of antisemitism); and secondly, because the young Robert came to feel let-down by avaricious parents for whom making money "became the most important thing in order for them to feel good". However, father Hermann would complement his business acumen with an enthusiasm for amateur photography and his 'Sunday' hobby rubbed off on a seventeen-year-old Frank who took up an apprenticeship with a photographic studio in Zurich.

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