Despite being born in Switzerland, Robert Frank defined and diagnosed America in the ’50s in ways that his contemporaries couldn’t. While his peers were photographing the optimistic and prosperous 50’s post-war United States, Frank’s photography took a stark and much more realistic turn.
Frank’s childhood was difficult – in the 1930s, the fear of Hitler invading was real, and Frank’s father was stateless due to his German citizenship being revoked for being Jewish. “My father married my mother because of money. It became the most important thing in order for them to feel good. If my father had a good day, dinner would end and my father would take out his wallet and give my mother 100 Swiss francs.”
“[The war] certainly convinced me to get out of Switzerland. To get out of Europe. It was mandatory that you would go somewhere and learn English.” Frank moved to the U.S. in 1947, and at first, he felt the optimism of America in the ’50s. “Leaving Switzerland and coming to America, we felt like the door opened. We were free. And I liked it. I liked it a lot. It was another world, where you could move, where you could take the train somewhere. Travel.”
Frank worked as a fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar and then as a freelance photojournalist for McCall’s, Vogue, and Fortune. However, he soon began to notice that there was a difference between the optimism and propaganda about American society versus the reality. He saw a grim and lonely country that was obsessed with money, and perhaps Frank was in-tune to noticing this due to his father’s relationship with wealth. “At that time as a photographer, I searched for very clear and strong pictures. I was attracted by what you call somber events.”
Frank grew a close relationship with Walker Evans and received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1955 with the help of Evans and Edward Steichen, which allowed him to purchase a used Ford and travel across the U.S. He visited Michigan, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, California, Nevada, Utah, Montana, and Illinois. While he took his family on some of these road trips, he traveled alone for most of it, and it was a very lonely and grueling trip. All in all, he took 28,000 shots for a book that would be called The Americans. “I was absolutely free just to turn left or turn right without knowing what I would find.”
His first stop was Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn Michigan. “I went to Detroit to photograph the Ford factories, and then it was clear to me I wanted to do this. It was summer and so loud. So much noise. So much heat. It was hell. So much screaming.”
“In America, I wanted to do it differently. There was no more romanticism really. It was a look at the way a country that I didn’t really know, that I had only lived in for a couple of years, so The Americans was the first time that I made a trip across the country.”
“It was really a hard trip, but I felt often something strong from the people.” “I looked at poor people, how they tried to survive, what a lonely time it can be in America, and what a tough country it is, and also I saw for the first time the way the blacks were treated. It was surprising. But it didn’t make me hate America, it made me understand how people can be. You learn a lot traveling. You learn a lot when you’re a photographer.” “That trip I got to like black people so much more than white people.”
Being a Jewish photographer in the south in the ’50s did not come without its own problems, particularly being a foreigner with cameras at the beginning of the Cold War. People thought he was a spy. “Are you a Commie?” he was asked. In one incident, he was told by a sheriff that he had an hour to leave the town. In another incident in Arkansas, he recalled, “I remember the [policeman] took me into the police station, and he sat there and put his feet on the table. It came out that I was Jewish because I had a letter from the Guggenheim Foundation. They really were primitive.” The sheriff said, “Well, we have to get somebody who speaks Yiddish. They wanted to make a thing out of it. It was the only time it happened on the trip. They put me in jail. It was scary. Nobody knew where I was.”
The Americans was a stark change from the polished, safe, and optimistic photographs of America at the time. Many of his subjects were on the fringe of society – outsiders in a way, as he was, yet entirely American. He stayed in cheap hotels and photographed in department stores, diners, sidewalks, parks, and rallies. While there were some sentimental photographs, he was attracted to the imperfect and the ordinary. He caught people in normal moments, showing loneliness, boredom, and stress.
However, when he returned, Frank found it difficult to find a publisher for The Americans. His images were so different at the time that people did not appreciate them – they did not know what to make of them. His photographs covered the tensions of the time, and he contrasted them with the optimistic pillars of American society – Frank was particularly attracted to the the jukebox, the flag, and the car.
Frank finally found a publisher in Paris in 1958, but it was his introduction to the Beats and Jack Kerouac that would help him reach a larger audience. “Kerouac personified what I hoped I’d find here in America. He was interested in outsiders. He wasn’t interested in walking the middle of the road.” Kerouac said, “Robert Frank…he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.”
The book was published in the U.S. in 1959 to much criticism. “Meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness,” wrote Popular Photography. “The Museum of Modern Art wouldn’t even sell the book,” Frank said, “But the younger people caught on.” Over time, the book would be recognized as the most significant book in American photography. Frank received his first individual show in 1961 and showed at MoMA in 1962.
After The Americans, Frank abruptly left photography and turned to filmmaking, releasing Pull My Daisy in 1959 starring Allen Ginsberg. He would release 31 films, the most notable being Cocksucker Blues, which showed the Rolling Stones on tour and included lots of drugs and sex. “It was great to watch them — the excitement. But my job was after the show. What I was photographing was a kind of boredom. It’s so difficult being famous. It’s a horrendous life. Everyone wants to get something from you.’’ Frank would himself shun the spotlight and fame as much as possible, and while the Stones enjoyed the film, they thought it would hurt their chances to tour and they sued. A court order allowed the film to only be shown five times a year and only as long as Frank was present.
Frank returned to photography in the 70s, publishing his second book, The Lines of My Hand in 1972, a visual autobiography of personal photographs. He began to work more with constructed images, collages, words, and scratched or distorted negatives. “I don’t get an idea.. every year. I get an idea maybe… I had the last idea in 1960, 1970.”
Robert Frank Quotes
“I leave it up to you… They don’t have an end or a beginning. They’re a piece of the middle.” – Robert Frank.
“Those are the difficult moments every photographer has to get over and get away with it and not be discouraged. Because if one is sensitive, it has an effect on you. So maybe it’s better not to be sensitive as a photographer and just go on. Many photographers today have that but I never had that. I think it’s nice to be sensitive as a photographer and maybe it’s harder.” – Robert Frank.
“Intuition is a very important part of my brain. I never really had a concept of something. It was always following the intuition before I saw it.” – Robert Frank.
“I think people like the book because it shows what people think about but don’t discuss. It shows what’s on the edge of their mind.” – Robert Frank.
“Something I really like is a big flag. Here, people are so proud of it. In other countries, you don’t feel they’re so proud of their flag.” – Robert Frank.
“The reaction surprised me because people thought it was an anti-American story… but I do like America. I became an American.” – Robert Frank.
“I always liked to turn around the corner because there’s always something around the corner. As long as you’re curious about it. That’s when life is interesting – if you’re curious.” – Robert Frank.
“The eye should learn to listen before it looks.” ― Robert Frank.
“When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.” – Robert Frank.
“I have been frequently accused of deliberately twisting subject matter to my point of view. Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love.” – Robert Frank.
“My photographs are not planned or composed in advance, and I do not anticipate that the onlooker will share my viewpoint. However, I feel that if my photograph leaves an image on his mind, something has been accomplished.” – Robert Frank.
“There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment. This kind of photography is realism. But realism is not enough – there has to be vision, and the two together can make a good photograph.” – Robert Frank.