Frank was one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, particularly celebrated for his documentarian depictions of modern American life.
From Zürich to New York
Born on 9th November, 1924 in Zürich, Switzerland, Robert Frank grew up in a Jewish family, and emigrated to New York at the age of 23. He secured work with various publications such as Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, though his passion lied elsewhere. Outside of his commerical work, he began building a photographic portfolio made up of stark observations of his new home city; these, along with images from his various travels in the following years, would result in small photographic books Frank assembled himself. As these books gained traction and were passed through the hands of influential figures in the arts scene, he was able to gain funding for a 10,000 mile road trip around the United States, documented, of course, by a series of photographs.
The resulting photographs were published, first in France in 1958 and then in the US in 1959, as The Americans, a black-and-white photo book that displayed a decidedly different America to the one imagined and promoted by Hollywood and advertising giants. For this, it was heavily criticized upon its release, but the project’s distinctive bleakness and banality became the foundation for Frank’s revered reputation. For the decades since its release, The Americans has been seen as Frank’s seminal work— even though he turned his focus to film making after its release—and stands as one of the most important documentations of 20th century life in America.
The book included 83 photographs, out of the 28,000 he took throughout his road trips over two years, and many displayed grim truths about American racial relations and economic lines. They refused to conform to glossy, chirpy photographic aesthetics of the time period, presenting instead simple scenes that appeared at once basic and profound, capturing little but revealing everything. The view of America communicated in Frank’s collection was often dark, painting a bleak picture of a nation powered by widespread commodification, capitalist greed and the value of celebrity, which also reflected some of the feelings the photographer had begun to develop towards his adopted home.
The Americans changed the way people photographed the country, and shifted the mark for accepted narratives of it. The groundbreaking photographer and his complicated, lonely and ultimately human version of Americana will be long remembered.
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