History of Photography.

ROBERT FRANK. 'the eye should learn to listen before it looks'


Robert FrankIconic American Photographer. His most notable work - The Americans. A 1958 photographic book intimately capturing the tensions of american society during the mid 1950's. Generally reviled on publication, this book is now widely revered as a masterpiece, making Frank one of the most influential figures in the history of photography.


Born in 1924 to a wealthy Jewish family in Zurich. Frank spent his formative years during World War II in Switzerland, relatively safe but always under the Nazi threat of oppression. After the war, turning to photography as a means to escape his business orientated family, Frank took on several apprenticeship positions with photographers and graphic artists before creating his first book of photographs - 40 fotos.

In 1947 he emigrated to the United States and landed a job with Harpers Bazaar as a roving fashion photographer. Finding the work rather limiting, Frank travelled to Europe and South America, creating another hand made book shot in Peru. Having returned to the USA in 1950, he had a fortuitous meeting with Edward Steichen and participated in a group show, 51 American Photographers in the Museum of Modern Art. During this momentous year he married Mary Lockspeiser, later having two children, Andrea and Pablo.

Becoming disillusioned with the fast pace of the American way of life, especially the over emphasis on wealth, Frank's pictures increasingly reflected the desolation of American society. In 1953 he worked as a freelance photojournalist for McCalls, Vogue, and Fortune magazines. Meeting other photographers at the time, such as Saul Leiter and Dianne Arbus, with whom Frank helped form The New York School of photographers.


1955 saw Frank traveling again. Having secured a grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, he photographed all strata of american society across the US, recording the realities of class and racial tensions of the 1950s. Not without incident, being thrown into jail in a small Arkansas town because of his Jewish faith. These experiences and reputedly 28,000 images shot during this time became the foundation of his major publication, The Americans. 83 images finally being selected for this work, with a forward by Beat writer Jack Kerouac.

It has to be said that Frank's pioneering style of photography, his unusual use of crop, focus and subdued lighting was a complete contrast to the accepted photographic standards of the time, making it difficult for him to find a publisher in the USA. In fact 'Les Americains' was first published in Paris in 1958 by Robert Delpire. A year later, Grove press published the book in the United States, to a chorus of disdain. Popular Photography for one dismissed it as 'meaningless blur' with 'drunken horizons and general sloppiness" and criticising his "contempt for any standards of quality". Needless to say, sales were slow to start with but it was the introduction by the popular Kerouac which finally made an impression with a much wider audience.

Over the years The Americans has come to be regarded as a seminal work in American Photography, widely celebrated as the most important photography book since World War II, influencing many artists. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first publication, a new edition was released in 2008 in which Frank changed the cropping of many of the original images.


After the Americans, Robert Frank moved away from photography to take up film making, producing some 20 or so films. The most famous of these was Pull my Daisy (1959) and Cocksucker Blues, a film about the Rolling Stones 1972 American Tour. Not without controversy, this film was restricted by a court order to be shown no more than 5 times per year and only in the presence of Frank himself. It captured the loneliness and despair of life on the road. Mick Jagger reputably saying "if it shows in America we will never be allowed in the country again"

A controversial quote from photographer Elliot Erwitt about Robert Frank.

"Quality doesn't mean deep blacks and whatever tonal range. That's not quality, that's a kind of quality. The pictures of Robert Frank might strike someone as being sloppy – the tone range isn't right and things like that – but they're far superior to the pictures of Ansel Adams with regard to quality, because the quality of Ansel Adams, if I may say so, is essentially the quality of a postcard. But the quality of Robert Frank is a quality that has something to do with what he's doing, what his mind is. It's not balancing out the sky to the sand and so forth. It's got to do with intention."

Article researched and written November 2012.

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