Remembering Robert Frank - one of the most acclaimed photographers of the 20th century

Hello, photography fans. It’s Martin here from the All About Street Photography channel and today I would like to talk about amazing photographer Robert Frank, who passed away last week at the age of 94. He was a photographer and filmmaker who influenced generations of photographers.

Robert Frank was born in 1924 in Zürich to Jewish family. He decided not to follow his family footsteps in business but rather turned to photography, perhaps as an escape from the life his family lived and he didn’t want to follow. He was trained by a few photographers and designers. At the age of 17 he approached his neighbor, who was actually a retoucher of photographs, and asked him to teach him. He was working as commercial photographer in Switzerland from 1941 until 1947 when he traveled to the United States, and just like many other street photographers who I have talked about previously, worked as a fashion photographer. He started his career in Harper’s Bazaar and New York became his new home. Even though he worked as a fashion photographer, he was using his 35-millimeter Leica which was very unusual for fashion work. However, he soon found fashion photography too restricAve, resigned and focused on journalism and adverAsing as a freelance photographer for magazines such as Vogue and Life.

In his free Ame, he was also focusing on his street photography, which helped him to get into the New York art world. It was actually Walker Evans who advised him to apply for the Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to set out to traverse the USA and produce his most important and famous work: the book “The Americans” which wasn’t actually his first book. In 1946 Frank published “40 photos” which was his first photobook. 40 Photos display Frank’s power to present mulAple photographs in series. What I like about this book is Frank’s use of juxtaposiAon when presenAng the photographs. We usually talk about this when we talk about the law of proximity. The eyes see the connecAon between visual elements and photographer makes use of it when framing the shot. (A deeper explanaAon would probably be enough for another arAcle). Frank, however, did not use it in composiAon of parAcular photographs but in composiAon of the book’s layout. I definitely recommend you to check out the book.

Robert Frank

Robert Frank

Robert Frank  40 Fotos 1946

Robert Frank 40 Fotos 1946

Now, back to the Americans. Thanks to the Guggenheim Fellowship Frank was able to travel across America in 1955 and 1956. The Americans was the first Ame he made a trip across the country. Sometimes he travelled with his wife and children but most of the Ame he was alone. The book is said to be the most revoluAonary in history of photography. Frank’s unique view of America shocked Americans. His original goal was to capture ordinary people as they lived their everyday lives. It was a different viewpoint of the USA. A raw perspecAve of America was not a typical way Americans were used to see themselves during the times after World War 2 a period of great prosperity. What he wanted to point out was the tough country and what a lonely time it can be in America for some.

“I had photographed every day, I had camera with me all the time.” - Robert Frank

Trolley—New Orleans - Robert Frank (1955)

Trolley—New Orleans - Robert Frank (1955)

He higlighlights that feeling in many of his photos by isolation of his subjects. It was also very surprising to him how black people were treated in America. It was very strange to him as he later said to see black women taking care of white women’s children while not being able to sit at the same table. The reaction surprised him since people thought it was an anti-American story. In Frank’s eyes the book was more work of art than propaganda. It actually took more than ten years for the opinions to change He took around 27,000 images during his trip. 83 photographs made it to the book. Even though the book wasn’t accepted that well at first, it was later considered a groundbreaking classic. The Americans is now widely considered one of the most influenAal books in the history of photography.

Aker publishing the book in America in 1959 he abandoned photography for quite some time and turned to film. He said that the commercialism, even though he benefited from that, was the nail in the coffin for photography. It brought much more people in photography and led to mass-producAon as a result.

“Everybody wants a piece of the pie and then it gets diluted and mass-produced and it kills everything and that happened in photography” - Robert Frank

As he didn’t want to do photography anymore he started to make films. The film brought something he didn’t experience in photography, a communication. Among many other films it is definitely worth mentioning -- a short film Pull my Daisy -- which was wriMen and narrated by Jack Kerouac, and also Cocksucker Blues which was a documentary film about Rolling Stones 1972 tour of America. Frank shot total of 19 movies during his life. He returned to still photography in 70s when he published his second photographic book “The Lines of My Hand”. Consisting of personal photographs the book was described as visual autobiography. Later he focused more on collages and experimented with photomontage. He published more than 15 books during his life. But none of his work exceeded the impact that The Americans had.

The book was revolutionary for American photographers and artists. Frank influenced many important photographers like Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander or Joel Meyerowitz. This vision of Robert Frank inspired whole generations of (not only street) photographers.

If you want to find more information here are some sources and interesting pages:

Robert Frank on photographing The Americans

Robert Frank as a young artist

In Unseen Photos, A Clearer Picture of Robert Frank’s America | KQED Arts

Robert Frank :: the Americans

Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank (2005)


Robert Frank on Shooting His Seminal Photo Book, ‘The Americans’

Robert Frank, Legendary Documentary Photographer, Has Died at 94

Streetwise - Robert Frank and The Americans

Robert Frank, revolutionary American photographer, dies aged 94

Robert Frank Dies; Pivotal Documentary Photographer Was 94

ICP Artist: Robert Frank

Robert Frank - The Americans (book)

Views & Reviews Portfolio: 40 Photos 1941/1946 Robert Frank Photography

Laws of Proximity, Uniform Connectedness, and Continuation – Gestalt Principles (2)

40 Fotos

Pull My Daisy


Why Robert Frank’s “The Americans” Matters Today