Robert Frank American, b. Switzerland, 1924-
Robert Louis Frank achieved fame for his controversial book, The Americans, which presented in a series of candid black-and-white photographs his observations of American life in the late 1950s. Born in Zurich, Frank began his photographic career as an apprentice with Hermann Eidenbenz in Basel (1940-41) and Michael Wolgensinger in Zurich (1942). After serving in the military in 1944, he worked for Gloria Films in Zurich as a still photographer and in 1946 moved to Paris to establish himself in commercial work. The following year he immigrated to New York City, where he met and was hired by Alexey Brodovitch, art director for Harper's Bazaar. Frank photographed for Brodovitch until 1951, when he began to work as a freelance photojournalist, taking assignments from magazines such as Life, McCall's, and Fortune. He also began exhibiting his pictures in group shows at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
In 1955 and 1956 Frank received back-to-back fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, which allowed him to travel across America taking photographs. Eighty-three of the images from his road trip appeared in The Americans. On his journey Frank took a subjective documentary approach to record commonplace aspects of American culture: lunch counters, drive-in movies, factories, parades, rodeos, parties. He also captured evidence of poverty, racism, and alienation, challenging the popular perception of a prosperous, harmonious postwar America. The book was first published in France as Les Américains (1958) and the following year appeared in the United States, with an introduction by Beat poet and writer Jack Kerouac.
Frank then turned to filmmaking, collaborating with Kerouac and painter Alfred Leslie on Pull My Daisy (1959). The Sin of Jesus (1961), O.K. End Here (1963), Me and My Brother (1968), and Life-Raft Earth (1969) followed. Since 1969 Frank has lived in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, producing photographs and film with a personal, autobiographical approach. His images have been included in many shows, including a recent one-artist traveling exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (1994). M.M.