Robert Frank(1924) nowadays is more relevant than ever. Through out his book The Americans, he praised the diversity in human nature and provided the counterweight to the constant swagger of racial discrimination in the postwar America .
He was born in 1924 in Switzerland. His father lost his citizenship and became stateless because he was Jewish during the rise of Nazis in Germany. Thus, he and his family were forced to take refuge in Switzerland. Although Robert Frank grew up in Zurich’s safety, the atrocities of war made him understand the meaning of oppression.
He turned to photography to escape family oriented business while in 1947, he moved to New York, where Alexey Brodovich hired him immediately in Harper’s Bazaar. In New York he also met Edward Steichen and he participated in the group show 51 American Photographers at MoMa.
Frank started his journey in the United States as an optimistic young man admiring the culture and society of the new world but soon he realised and confronted the pace of American life and what he considered to be a money-driven society. On top, he was dissatisfied on the fact that the editors had control over his work.
In 1955 after a trip to Paris he secured his first Guggenheim fellowship and embarked on a two-year trip around the US, during which he took 28,000 photos, out of which he finally chose only 83 in order to include on the pages of The Americans. During his US road-trip he ALSO became a subject of anti-Semitism in a small town of Arkansas, where he was thrown in jail for three days.
Frank’s photos have a feeling of affinity to the Beat subculture: they seem to portray Beat Generation’s interest in documenting the tension between post-war optimism and the harsh reality of class inequality and racial prejudice.
His photographs describe the ordinary man as an entity, they highlight and celebrate multi-diversity. They show us the human being with a disarming honesty, oppressed by social conventions, vulnerable before death, without any exaggeration, thus emphasising the greatness of man’s simplicity and his ability to ultimately survive harsh reality. Essentially, his book The Americans created a complicated portrait of the human nature and presented it in all its glory with an unusual way and that alone was a punch in the stomach for the conservative America that was not yet ready to accept such a work of art.
That is why The Americans firstly got published in Paris by Robert Delpire in 1958 and next year in the US without any texts. Popular Photography described the book as “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness” while also the book was considered as too un-American.
When he met Jack Kerouac on the sidewalk outside a party and showed him the photographs from his travels, Kerouac immediately told Frank “Sure I can write something about these pictures,” and he contributed to a state-of-the-art introduction of the U.S. edition of the book.
Robert Frank dis-valued the elitism that exuded from Bresson’s Decisive Moment and praised the everyday moment. This was Frank’s huge success and from another point of view it was and still is, an inspiration for dozens of new photographers who want to go out there and express themselves in different forms than the usual.
After The Americans, Frank started working on films and made exceptional arthouse films like “Pull my Daisy” as well as the most controversial Rolling Stones documentary that was ever released, which can be screened only with Frank’s presence and four times in a year.
You can watch here the Gerald Fox’s strongly recommended documentary on Robert Frank: