Born into a Jewish family in Zurich in 1924, Robert Frank was fifteen when war broke out across Europe. While his family was unharmed in Switzerland, he later said that "being Jewish and living with the threat of Hitler must have been a very big part of my understanding of people that were put down or who were held back." Near the end of the war, Frank took up photography as a way of breaking away from the restrictions of his wealthy family and of Switzerland. In 1947 he moved to New York City for a year. Subsequently, he began traveling the world and taking photographs for magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, McCall’s, and the New York Times.
Frank’s first impression of America was one of delight. He stated that "when I got to America I saw right away that everything was open, that you could do anything. And how you were accepted just depended on what you did with it." This optimistic opinion of America would change. Over the next seven years, he became disillusioned with the controls the magazines had over his work. In addition, as he experienced the fast pace of life in America and observed the importance Americans placed on money, he saw a country of great wealth, but little joy.
After winning a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship in 1955, Frank, his wife Mary, and their two children set off in their car on a series of cross-country trips. Frank’s intent was to document a culture that was uniquely American. The result was the now-famous book of Frank’s photographs called The Americans, which was first published in 1958. Frank’s style of photography and the images he made for The Americans were not widely accepted at first, perhaps because the America that Frank photographed wasn’t the America that those born and raised here saw or wanted to see. Americans viewed his photographs as a harsh criticism of his adopted country. His intention, however, was not to censure America, but to capture the complex American experience. Other artists were among the first to recognize that Frank’s style expressed, in a very personal way, his feelings about this country. What better way to record a distressed society than with odd views, glaring light, and different degrees of focus? Perfection did not have a place in Frank’s troubled and complex vision of America. His approach to photography was not what Americans were used to seeing in pictures. This kind of experimentation broke existing rules in photography and resulted in images that seemed, to some, to lack craft and refinement.
The Americans went on to become a major influence for artists during the 1960s because they also identified with Frank’s modern approach to interpreting the world in which they lived. Today, Frank divides his time between New York and Nova Scotia.
READING THE PHOTGRAPH
U.S. 91, Hitchhikers Leaving Blackfoot, Idaho
This photograph is of two young men who rode for awhile with Robert Frank and his family on one of their journeys.
To guide your students in a discussion, ask questions like: