* “Master Profiles” is a series profiling all the great photographers of uncontrolled life. Unlike the rest of the blog, I’m doing these in a straight profile format to make it easy for quick access to facts, quotes and knowledge on all the masters. I’ll also group them together here every time I add a new one.
Robert Frank (1924-present)
Swiss photographer whose 1958 book titled The Americans is regarded as one of the most influential works in photography history. An outsider’s view of America that contrasted the nature of photojournalism in every way at the time. Critic Sean O’Hagan said The Americans “changed the nature of photography, what it could say and how it could say it… it remains perhaps the most influential photography book of the 20th century.”
Born: November 9, 1924 in Zürich, Switzerland
Frank’s mother was Swiss while his father was German, but became stateless after losing his German citizenship as a Jew. While safe in Switzerland during World War II, Frank trained under photographers and graphic designers before creating his first hand-made photo book titled 40 Fotos in 1946.
He emigrated to the United States in 1947 and worked in New York City as a fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar.
After leaving to travel in South America and Europe as a freelance photojournalist, Frank moved back to New York City and photographed with other contemporary photographers, including and Diane Arbus and Saul Leiter. Together, they helped form what some called The New York School of photographers.
With the help of his biggest artistic influence, Walker Evans, Frank received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1955 to travel across the United States photographing society. Two years of road trips and 28,000 shots later he took his work and selected 83 of those shots for publication in The Americans.
Frank found irony in the picture perfect image of American culture and wealth. He expressed this by giving his photos tension and contrast to the contemporary American photojournalism of the time. His use of low light, off focus, and cropping also added to this contrast.
Many of the images in The American conveyed feelings of emptiness and darkness. He exposed themes of racism, inequality, and power while using jukeboxes, bars, urinals, trolleys, graves, crosses and more to symbolize America. The photos violated all the rules of photography and created an uncomfortable and unsettling, but powerful feeling that had never been seen before.
The Americans wasn’t well received at first so Frank moved away from photography and concentrated on filmmaking where he made multiple documentaries over time, including a film on the Rolling Stones 1972 tour.
Also, in 1972, he published his second photographic book, The Lines of My Hand, while shooting still images on the side. His photographic vision had changed by then, though, and his work never achieved an impact like The Americans again.
In recent years, Frank has become known as a recluse and moved to Nova Scotia, Canada, while still dividing his time in New York.
While The Americans was highly criticized and didn’t sell well at it’s release, Jack Kerouac’s introduction helped it reach a larger audience because of the popularity of the Beat phenomenon. Now it’s known as a masterpiece that redefined what photography could be.
- Fusion of photojournalism and street photography
- Personal expression over technical quality
- Unusual focus, low lighting and cropping
- Visual purist, only what the photo shows and says matters
Leica III with 35mm, 50mm and 90mm lenses
This screw-mount rangefinder and lenses were his primary tools of choice. His Zeiss Sonnar 50mm lens was his most used lens and it was known to be in such bad shape that it exposed the sides of the image around the film’s sprocket holes.
He started out using a Rollieflex TLR, but switched to the Leica for it’s smaller size and unobtrusiveness for documentary styled photography.
Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, Saul Leiter, and Jack Kerouac
“The eye should learn to listen before it looks.”
“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.”
“Black and white are the colors of photography. To me they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected.”
“It is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph.”
“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.”
Frank’s documentary of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 tour was never released to the public because the band sued to prevent it. After watching it, they decided it would be way to embarrassing and incriminating to the American public due to the heavy drug use, group sex and despair on the road that the film captured. The court ended up ruling it could only be shown 5 times per year and only in the presence of Frank.
I can’t think of one book of work that has influenced the genres of Street Photography and Documentary/Photojournalism as much The Americans. So tell me what you all think about Frank in the comments below! Do you have any favorite shots? Does his work impact you as much as others?