Robert Frank is an investigator. An investigator studies, analyzes, experiments: he pushes the medium, tests, confounds, produces findings. Robert Frank has put images, both static and moving, through this treatment throughout his life, from day one. Frank lives between Nova Scotia and Manhattan, on Bleecker Street. He has been married twice and has two children, now deceased. ‘Ordinary’ life happened in the gaps left by photography. The image is the vital compass of the researcher.
In 2008 he visited China for the first time and exhibited The Americans. “To travel the road of possibilities. Turn on a whole new audience,” he said. “I am proud to be here, and I am almost proud to be a photographer”. He was 84.
Robert Frank is a native of Switzerland, and an American by adoption. Photography was a means of escape from a tough childhood tainted by the figure of a father who was unable to lead the life he wanted, and the latent threat of Nazism. As a Jew, he emigrated from Europe like so many others in 1947, and reached the promised land in search of a future. He started working at Harper’s Bazaar and was soon traveling across America. In 1951 he was among the photographers chosen by Edward Steichen for the exhibition 51 American Photographers at the MoMA. “When people look at my photos, I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice,” said Frank during an interview for Life magazine that same year.
Walker Evans was his mentor and the person who helped him to get his first Salomon Guggenheim Fellowship (in 1955) which allowed him to embark on the three trips he needed to take the 28,000 shots from which the 83 photographs that are key to the history of modern photography would emerge: The Americans. Frank showed the photographs to the man who would become an icon of the Beat generation, Jack Kerouac, who had no hesitation in putting his words at the service of the country enshrined in those images. So Robert Frank put aside the initial text written by Walker Evans that was intended to accompany them and opted for Kerouac’s words instead. From that point on he became a lifelong friend of Allen Ginsberg, and to some extent a spokesperson and watchtower of a whole generation that rejected the established values and moved to the rhythm of bebop thanks to his cruel yet honest portraits. He saw what nobody else did, and he extolled it.
The Americans was first published by Robert Delpire in 1958 in Paris, and one year later by Grove Press in the United States. The critics were savage: Popular Photography classified his work as “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness” and the photographer as a “joyless man who hates the country of his adoption”. The America of the Fifties was very self-satisfied, yet Frank related its story in a very different way. America was not interested in this unadulterated focus on solitude and shadows.
But the photographer was already forging ahead, moving away from photography to concentrate on the moving image with films such as Pull My Daisy (1959). Frank has shot more than 20 films during his career, one of the most notable being the documentary portrait of the Rolling Stones, Cocksucker Blues. His films are characterized by experimentation: the researcher in him questions and demands, while at the same time planning every movement in detail to study the results.
In the early 1970s he decided to return to still images and began to explore the medium anew: multiple exposures, the use of his own history through autobiographical elements in his photographs, scratching and distorting the negatives to achieve different results; a portrait of the personal that became universal, once again portraying that America that he denuded and exposed, that would always be the focus of his gaze.
In 1961 he held his first solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, and again the MoMA made him a protagonist of Photographs by Harry Callahan and Robert Frank (1962). In 1972 he was given his first retrospective at the Kunsthaus Zürich, later followed by other exhibitions of both his photographic and cinematographic work. In 1994, the National Gallery of Art in Washington held an in-depth retrospective of his work, Moving Out, and in 1996 he won the Hasselblad Award. In 2001, the exhibition Robert Frank: Hold Still-Keep Going started at the Folkwang Museum (Essen) before traveling to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Madrid) and the Belém Cultural Center (Lisbon). In 2006, the Tate Modern in London organized Robert Frank: Storylines which included a series of his films and then travelled to the MACBA in Barcelona and the Fotomuseum in Winterthur.
His many distinctions include two Guggenheim Fellowships, the American Film Institute Grant> (1971), the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Photographie Erich Salomon Prize (1985) and the International Center of Photography Cornell Capa Infinity Award (2000).
To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of The Americans, his work was exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the SFMOMA, and the Metropolitan Museum of New York. It was then that he traveled to China and revised the edition of this key work, making substantial changes to some of the chosen photographs, taking the full image instead of the cropped versions published in the 1950s.
The last photograph of The Americans> gives an onlooker’s view of a car on the way to Del Río, Texas. In the car are a woman and two children – his first wife, and his son and daughter.
Photography is the only compass.