Masters of Photography – Robert Frank

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Robert Frank was born in Zürich, Switzerland, and emigrated to the United States in 1947. Before he moved to the United States, he turned to photography, in part, as a means to escape the confines of his business-oriented family and home, and trained under a number of photographers and graphic designers before he created his first hand-made book of photographs in 1946.

After he arrived in the US, he secured a job in New York City as a fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar. Frank was initially optimistic about United States society and culture, but his perspective changed as he began to understand the fast pace of American life and its love affair with money. He began to see America as a bleak and lonely place, an outlook that influenced his photography in time.

In 1955 he received a Guggenheim grant to travel across the U.S. and photograph the American society at all levels. For this work he visited included Savannah, Georgia; Miami Beach and St. Petersburg, Florida; Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan; Houston, Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Los Angeles, California; Reno, Nevada; Salt Lake City, Utah; Butte, Montana; and Chicago, Illinois. Of the 28,000 shots he took during his travels, only 83 of those were finally selected by him for publication in his seminal work, The Americans.

His divergence from contemporary photographic standards gave Frank difficulty at first in securing an American publisher. “Les Américains” was first published in 1958 in Paris by Robert Delpire. It wasn’t until 1959 that Grove Press published the book in the United States. The book initially received substantial criticism and “Popular Photography” called his images “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness.”

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. As a result of this meeting Kerouac 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.

For those that aren’t familiar with the term Beat, Beat Culture and Beatnik it was, in short, a counter culture movement formed by a group of post-World War II writers. Much of the Beat counter culture Thoughts were incorporated into the hippie movement of the mid to late 60’s.

The irony that Frank found in the gloss of American culture and wealth over this tension gave his 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.

Elliott Erwitt, an advertising and documentary photographer originally from Russia said about Frank’s work,

“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.”

Whether or not you agree with Erwitt is mostly a matter of personal taste. However, there is no doubt that Frank put his stamp and influence on modern photography and clearly is one of the masters of photography.

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  • Anonymous

    The second image — the one of the girl with the candy cigarette — is not by Robert Frank. It’s a 1989 photograph by Sally Mann. (See:

  • Steve Russell

    Thanks for the correction.  It was attributed to Robert Frank in Flickr Commons.  I try to confirm them because Flickr Commons is such a mess with even people who post public domain photos claiming copyright protection because they apparently don’t know how to change the settings.  I’ll delete the photo from this article.

    Thanks for the catch and the “heads-up”