Robert Frank - Biography and Legacy
Swiss-American Photographer and Filmmaker
Biography of Robert Frank
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.
Frank later claimed that it was his parents' "negative influence" that lead him to want to "get away" from Zurich altogether and in 1947 he arrived in Queens, New York (following a short spell in Paris) where he was welcomed by an extended family member. Soon thereafter Frank was taken to Times Square where the busy movement and preoccupations of ordinary people going about their daily business formed a striking contrast to the conservative cafe society in which he had grown up. Indeed, Frank cites the visit to Times Square as the catalyst for his observational style of street photography. "Coming to America felt like the door opened - you were free" he declared.
On winning a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship award in April 1955, Frank invested in a five-year-old Ford Business Coupe and embarked on the 10,000-mile cross-country road trip that would eventually yield The Americans. Frank arrived back in New York City a year later; his odyssey having returned some 27,000 images from which just 83 made the finished book. Christened 'The Swiss Mister' by Photo Arts magazine, critics of the book accused Frank of being 'un-American' (Frank was given American citizenship in 1963) and The Americans itself little more than a 'sad poem for sick people'. But Frank did not seek to use his camera as a political weapon - "There is only one thing you should not do, criticize anything" Frank stated in a letter home to his parents - but rather to employ it as a tool for detached observation. As Antony Lane of The New Yorker put it: 'Frank didn't set out to address an issue; he was just looking, and reporting back. That is what realists do. That is what [made] him so clear and incontestable a witness'.
At this time Frank embraced the ideology of the Beat community that sought to communicate their dissatisfaction with American cultural norms through improvised and rhythmic creative statements. Frank later recalled that it had felt "wonderful to fall in with a group like that" while singling out the poet Allen Ginsberg for special praise: "Ginsberg was a real prophet. He saw a different, more accepting America" said Frank.
Frank's subjects were not always restricted to New York City and, in keeping with the 'Beat' vision of the artist as existential wanderer, Frank took his camera into forgotten rural areas too. By the end of the decade his artistic vision had taken him away from America altogether, back to various locations in Europe, and to South America where he took an especial interest in the Peruvian landscape. On his return to New York (in 1950) Frank made the acquaintance of Edward Steichen, the prominent American and Luxembourgish photographer, artist and museum curator. Steichen had already established his credentials as a member of the Photo-Secession group (with colleagues Alfred Stieglitz, Clarence H. White and Gertrude Käsebier) whose collective goal it was was to promote photography as fine art. Steichen became Frank's friend and mentor, and he helped Frank gain full acceptance within the artistic community as part of the group show '51 American Photographers' at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York.
Shortly after the MOMA exhibition, Steichen pushed Frank to become more emotionally engaged with his subjects: "It seems to me that you are ready now to begin probing beyond environment into the soul of man" he advised. Having enjoyed a second short spell in Paris, and while he continued in his role as a freelance commercial photographer for the likes of Vogue and Fortune, Frank also fell under the influence of Walker Evans whose impassive 'Atget-like' approach to his subjects in fact jarred with the poetic visions being endorsed by Steichen. Despite their different outlooks, the two men formed a close bond and Frank learned from Evans to be a little more reflexive when approaching his subject-matter.
Frank believed that great artists should never repeat themselves and he found a new form of expression in movie making. In total, Frank made some thirty underground films of varying length, though his most infamous film, the candidly titled Cocksucker Blues, was a feature-length 'fly-on-the-wall' documentary that followed the Rolling Stones while the British group toured America in 1972. The project had presented Frank with an opportunity to connect with a more mainstream audience, but given that he chose to focus less on concert performance and more on the tedium of touring - the boredom being broken with an orgy on a plane, heroin use, and group in-fighting - Cocksucker Blues came up short as a viable commercial enterprise. Indeed, the film failed to secure a theatrical release because the group's management, especially uncomfortable with the scenes of group sex and drug abuse, feared legal repercussions. In general, however, Frank's films could reveal a more intimate, introspective nature with titles like Me and My Brother representing a cine-meditation on the themes of love, family and mental illness. In offering a digest of his career as a filmmaker, Israel, both an assistant to Frank and an independent filmmaker in her own right, championed his "jagged and elliptical" style that subverted "precepts of genre, story, and technique" and which would often feature "abrupt shifts from documentary to fiction, from color to black and white" (not to mention the technique whereby some of the "same frames [would] appear in more than one movie").
In 1973 Frank established a second home in the barren landscape of Mabou, Nova Scotia ("I fled to Nova Scotia. I just wanted to be left alone" he said following the Cocksucker Blues debacle). Though he continued to move between Mabou and New York, Frank's instinct was to all but retreat from the public eye, claiming that his style of reportage photography was “old” and that there was “no point in it anymore”. However, in later years Frank continued to experiment with the theme of autobiography as he moved between filmmaking and different photographic formats, often creating multiple images with text scratched onto the negative or print. His later films and photographs have featured meanwhile in a number of one man exhibitions – including 'Robert Frank: Moving Out' at the National Gallery of Arts in 1994 and 'Robert Frank Storylines' at Tate Modern in 2004 - and, though generally ambivalent towards honors and awards, Frank travelled to Europe in 2004 to accept the prestigious Roswitha Haftmann Prize for lifetime achievement in 2004, and in 2009 he accepted an honorary degree from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Frank currently lives with his second wife, Leaf, in the Bowery district of New York.
The Legacy of Robert Frank
Though well respected for his commercial work for the likes of Harper's Bazaar, Vogue and Fortune, Frank's legend is built on his reportage photography - The Americans especially - and to a lesser degree his movies. His still photography influenced a number of luminaries working in the field, or related field, of reportage and documentary. Ed Ruscha photographs of desolate gas stations for instance continued a subject explored by Frank in The Americans (and before Frank, even, by Edward Hopper) while Bruce Davidson claimed that he had 'inherited the molecules' of Frank (along with those of Eugene Smith and Henri Cartier-Bresson).
For his part, Garry Winogrand, while in awe of The Americans, and in acknowledging Frank's impact on the developing of his own 'snapshot aesthetic', felt that Frank's book had ignored "the emergence of suburbia" and as such several commentators, including Richard B. Woodward, saw Winogrand's career in part as "a completion" of The Americans; an attempt, in Woodward's words, "to fill in pages of the post-war picture story that Frank's masterpiece had left blank".
Frank's involvement with the Beat Circle, and his subsequent move into underground filmmaking, meanwhile, was to anticipate the emergence of the personal and playful New American Cinema that screamed its opposition to Hollywood, and 'straight' society in general, during the sixties. Indeed, Frank is held in esteem by more contemporary independent directors such as Jim Jarmusch, who admired his films because they did not "satisfy certain narrative conventions”, and Richard Linklater, who spoke of the “tremendous range of a restless, searching artist pushing the boundaries of the documentary, experimental and more traditional narrative forms’’.