Robert Frank

From Academic Kids

Robert Frank (b. November 9, 1924, Zürich, Switzerland) is an important figure in American photography and film. His most notable work, the 1958 photographic book titled simply The Americans, was heavily influential in the post-war period, and earned Frank comparisons to a modern-day de Tocqueville for his fresh and skeptical outsider's view of American society. Frank later expanded into film and video and experimented with compositing and manipulating photographs.

Contents

Background and early photography career

Frank was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Switzerland. Frank's mother, Rosa, was Swiss, but his father, Hermann, had become stateless after World War I and had to apply for the Swiss citizenship of Frank and his older brother, Manfred. Though Frank and his family remained safe in Switzerland during World War II, the threat of Nazism nonetheless affected his understanding of oppression. He turned to photography in part as a means to escape the confines of his business-oriented family and home, and trained under a few photographers and graphic designers before he released his first book of photographs, 40 Fotos, in 1946. Frank emigrated to the United States in 1947, and secured a job in New York City as a fashion photographer for Harper's Bazaar. He soon left to travel in South America and Europe. He published two more books of photos he took in Peru, and returned to the U.S. in 1950. That year was momentous for Frank, who after meeting Edward Steichen participarted in the group show 51 American Photographers at the Museum of Modern Art; he also married fellow artist, Mary Lockspeiser, with whom he had two children, Andrea and Pablo.

Though he was initially optimistic about the United States, Frank's perspective quickly changed as he confronted the fast pace of American life and what he saw as an overemphasis on money. He now saw America as an often bleak and lonely place, a perspective that became evident in his later photography. Frank's own dissatisfaction with the control his employers exercised over his work also undoubtedly colored his experience. He continued to travel, moving his family briefly to Paris. In 1953, he returned to New York and quit fashion photography to become a freelance photojournalist for magazines including McCall's, Vogue, and Ladies Home Journal.

The Americans

Missing image
The_Americans.jpg
The Americans, 1997 sixth printing

With the aid of his major artistic influence, the photographer Walker Evans, Frank secured a grant from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in 1955 to travel across the United States and photograph its society at all strata. He took his family along with him for part of his series of road trips over the next two years, during which time he took 28,000 shots. Only 83 of those were finally selected by him for publication in The Americans. Frank's journey was not without incident. While driving through Arkansas, Frank was arbitrarily thrown in jail (http://www.photopermit.org/articles/FrankReport.html) after being stopped by the police; elsewhere in the South, he was told by a sheriff that he had "an hour to leave town."

Shortly after returning to New York in 1957, Frank met Beat writer Jack Kerouac on the sidewalk outside a party and showed him the photographs from his travels. Kerouac immediately told Frank "Sure I can write something about these pictures," and he contributed the introduction to the U.S. edition of The Americans. Frank also became lifelong friends with Allen Ginsberg, and was one of the main visual artists to document the Beat subculture, which felt an affinity with Frank's interest in documenting the tensions between the optimism of the 1950s and the realities of class and racial differences. The irony that Frank found in the gloss of American culture and wealth over this tension gave Frank's photographs a clear contrast to those of most contemporary American photojournalists, as did his use of unusual focus, low lighting and cropping that deviated from accepted photographic techniques.

This divergence from contemporary photographic standards gave Frank difficulty at first in securing an American publisher. Les Americains was first published in 1958 by Robert Delpire in Paris, and finally in 1959 in the United States by Grove Press, where it initially received substantial criticism. Popular Photography, for one, derided his images as "meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness." Though sales were also poor at first, Kerouac's introduction helped it reach a larger audience because of the popularity of the Beat phenomenon. Over time and through its inspiration of later artists, The Americans became considered a seminal work in American photography and art history, and the work with which Frank is most clearly identified. In 1961, Frank received his first individual show, entitled Robert Frank: Photographer, at the Art Institute of Chicago. He also showed at MOMA in New York in 1962.

Films

By that time, however, Frank had moved away from photography to concentrate on making films. Among them was the 1958 Pull My Daisy, which was written and narrated by Kerouac and starred Ginsberg and others from the Beat circle. The Beat philosophy emphasized spontaneity, and the film conveyed the quality of having been thrown together or even improvised. Pull My Daisy was accordingly praised for years as a improvisational masterpiece, until Frank's co-director, Alfred Leslie, revealed in a November 28, 1968 article in the Village Voice that the film was actually carefully planned, rehearsed, and directed by him and Frank, who shot the film on a professionally lit studio set.

His 1972 documentary of the Rolling Stones, Cocksucker Blues, is arguably his best known film. The film shows the Stones while on their '72 tour, engaging in heavy drug use and group sex. Mick Jagger reportedly told Frank, "It's a fucking good film, Robert, but if it shows in America we'll never be allowed in the country again." The Stones sued to prevent the film's release, and it was disputed whether Frank as the artist or the Stones as those who hired the artist actually owned the copyright. A court order resolved this with Solomonic wisdom by restricting the film to being shown annually and only in the presence of Frank.

Return to still images

Flamingo, exhibition catalog for Frank's 1996 Hasselblad Award show
Enlarge
Flamingo, exhibition catalog for Frank's 1996 Hasselblad Award show

Though Frank continued to be interested in film and video, he returned to still images in the 1970s, publishing his second photographic book, Lines of My Hand, in 1972. This work has been described as a "visual autobiography", and consists largely of snapshots. However, he largely gave up "straight" photography to instead create narratives out of constructed images and collages, incorporating words and multiple frames of images that were directly scratched and distorted on the negatives. None of this later work has achieved an impact or notoriety comparable to that which The Americans achieved. As some critics have pointed out, this is perhaps because Frank began playing with constructed images more than a decade after Robert Rauschenberg introduced his silkscreen composites—in contrast to The Americans, Frank's later images simply were not beyond the pale of accepted technique and practice by that time.

Frank and Mary separated in 1969. He remarried to sculptor June Leaf, and in 1971, moved to the community of Mabou in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. He had only recently begun to document his family in his art when tragedy struck: in 1974, his daughter, Andrea, was killed in a plane crash in Tical, Guatemala. Also around this time, his son, Pablo, was first hospitalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Much of Frank's subsequent work has dealt with the impact the loss of his daughter and his son's continuing battle with mental illness has had upon him. In 1995, he founded the Andrea Frank Foundation, which provides grants to artists.

Since his move to Nova Scotia, Frank has divided his time between his home there in a former fisherman's shack on the coast, and his Bleecker Street loft in New York. He has acquired a reputation for being a recluse (particularly since the death of Andrea), declining most interviews and public appearances. He has continued to accept eclectic assignments, however, such as photographing the 1984 Democratic National Convention, and directing music videos for artists such as New Order and Patti Smith. Frank continues to produce both films and still images, and has helped organize several retrospectives of his art. In 1994, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC presented the most comprehensive retrospective of Frank's work to date, entitled Moving Out. Frank was awarded the prestigious Hasselblad Award for photography in 1996. His 1997 award exhibition at the Hasselblad Center in Goteborg, Sweden was entitled Flamingo, as was the accompanying published catalog. He is currently represented by the Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York.

Quotes

"When people look at my pictures, I want them to feel the way they do when they want to reread a line of a poem."

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