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Frank, Robert


FRANK, ROBERT (1924– ), photographer. Born into a wealthy family in Zurich, Switzerland, Frank was 15 when war broke out across Europe. While his family was unharmed and sat out the war in neutral Switzerland, Frank 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." Frank took up photography as a way of breaking away from his family and Switzerland. At 16 he apprenticed himself to the photographer Hermann Segesser, who lived in the same apartment building as the Franks. He moved to New York in 1947 and soon began traveling the world, taking pictures for publications like Harper's Bazaar and the New York Times. After several years, Frank felt constrained. Encouraged by Walker Evans, he won Guggenheim Fellowships in 1955 and 1956, which allowed him the freedom to travel throughout the United States. He set off in a car loaned to him by Peggy *Guggenheim with his wife, Mary, and their two sons to document a culture that was uniquely American. He returned a year later with 28,000 black-and-white images, 83 of which became the photographs in his monumental and now-famous book called The Americans, first published in 1958. His style was as uninhibited and innovative as Jack Kerouac's and Allen *Ginsberg's, and his images, to many, came to epitomize the Beat Generation. In the book, which had an introduction by Kerouac, Frank's pictures dwelt on the disenfranchised, the lonely, the disconnected, and the insecure. The images that propelled him to prominence were his signature achievement, and the photographs, taken with a small Leica, retained their impact many years later. The images rejected the assumptions of the Eisenhower era, and one critic (Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times) wrote, "Frank discovered for himself a vast nation of empty highways and empty symbols, a country whose most notable rift was not the picturesque Grand Canyon but the one that divided the races." The photographs are considered classics of iconoclasm. They have an irreverence and a dark humor, Kimmelman wrote, whether it was the mysterious gleaming mass of a shrouded car in California or the glow of a jukebox in New York City. At the time, critics condemned his work as dark and depressing, made worse by their grainy, out-of-focus effects. In reality, they redefined street photography for a generation of American photographers.

Frank switched from photography to films in the late 1950s. His first film, the 1959 Beat classic, Pull My Daisy, was made to look improvised, but it was carefully plotted and scripted by Kerouac. His 1985 autobiographical video, Home Improvements, was a melancholy work. He returned to photography in the 1970s, but in a different style, somewhat like sculpture. He made collages combining photographs and words scratched roughly into them. To some, this work shows his grappling with tragedies in his life: the death of his daughter in a plane crash and the mental illness of his son, who eventually committed suicide. In later years, he divided his time between Nova Scotia and New York, where he lived from 1971 with the artist June Leaf after parting from his wife two years earlier. In 1990, Frank donated his vast archive to the National Gallery in Washington; it was the first time the museum ever collected the work of a living photographer.

[Stewart Kampel (2nd ed.)]

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