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Robert Frank

(1924 - 2019)

Robert Frank was born on November 9, 1924, in Zurich, Switzerland. Frank and his family remained safe in Switzerland during World War II despite of the close and real threat of Nazi persecution.

In 1946, he created his first hand-made book of photographs, titled 40 Fotos. In 1947, at the age of 23, Frank immigrated to the United States and obtained a job in New York City as a fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar. Frank was chosen to participate in the 1950 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) – 51 American Photographers. The same year he married fellow artist Mary Frank née Mary Lockspeiser, with whom he had two children, Andrea and Pablo.

Dissatisfied by America’s obsession with money and its often-fast pace, he moved his family briefly to Paris. When Frank returned to the United States in 1953, he began to work as a freelance photojournalist for magazines including McCall’s, Vogue, and Fortune.

In 1955, Frank was awarded a grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to document American society. Traveling around the country, he took some 28,000 photos, from which he chose 83 to publish in 1958. The photographic book, The Americans, became his most famous work reflecting the stark contrast between the optimism of the 1950s and the bitter realities of class and racial differences in American society. The Americans, which included photos that were purposely out of focus, grainy and in poor lighting, was initially criticized for its divergence from contemporary photography and implicit critique of American life.

Philip Kennicott noted, “He was an outsider, and of course no outsider is allowed to criticize this country, a prejudice newly vital and relevant to American political life.” Kennicott added parenthetically that while he was traveling to take photos for the book, “he was arrested and subjected to anti-Semitic abuse, and invited at least once to leave town in a hurry.”

In 1962, photographs from the book were exhibited at MOMA and many of his images subsequently became iconic.

By the end of the 1950s, Frank began to veer away from photography to concentrate on film making, including the critically acclaimed Pull My Daisy (1959). Other films by Frank include Keep Busy and Candy Mountain. His best-known film was a 1972 documentary of the Rolling Stones, “Cocksucker Blues.” According to Marcy Oster, “The Stones sued to prevent the film’s release, with a court ultimately restricting the film to being shown no more than five times per year and only in the presence of Frank.”

Frank and Mary separated in 1969. He married sculptor June Leaf and, in 1971, moved to Nova Scotia.

During the 1970s, Frank returned his attention to still images and photography, publishing his second book, Lines of My Hand, in 1972.

“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,” he said.

Frank’s family life was tragic. His daughter was killed in a plane crash in 1974 and his schizophrenic son died in a hospital in 1994.

In 1994, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. presented a retrospective of Frank's work entitled Moving Out.

In 1995, he founded the Andrea Frank Foundation, which provides grants to artists.

In 1996, Frank was awarded the prestigious Hasselblad Award for photography.

He acquired a reputation for being a recluse after the death of Andrea but continued to accept eclectic assignments such as photographing the 1984 Democratic National Convention. He also directed music videos for artists such as New Order (“Run”), and Patti Smith (“Summer Cannibals”).

Frank died on September 9, 2019, in Inverness, Nova Scotia, at the age of 94.

Kennicott wrote that Frank “reshaped the medium of 20th-century documentary imagery.”

Sources: “Robert Frank (1924 - ),” American Jewish Historical Society, American Jewish Desk Reference, (NY: Random House, 1999) pg. 311;
“Robert Frank,” Wikipedia;

Philip Kennicott, “Robert Frank’s photographs captured the bleak reality we’re still living in today,” Washington Post, (September 10, 2019):
Marcy Oster, “Robert Frank, influential photographer best known for his book ‘The Americans,’ dies at 94,” JTA, (September 10, 2019).