Born in 1924 in Zurich, Switzerland, Robert Frank was raised in comfortable, middle-class surroundings. After graduating from high school, he began an apprenticeship in 1941 with a photographer and retoucher who lived in the same apartment building as Frank’s family. The next year, he began to work for the Zurich commercial photographer Michael Wolgensinger who introduced him to Switzerland’s active magazine, newspaper, and book publishing industry.
Frustrated by the constraints of his homeland, Frank left Switzerland in 1947 and immigrated to the United States. Soon after he arrived in New York, he was hired by Alexey Brodovitch, the legendary art director of Harper’s Bazaar.
From 1949 to 1953 Frank wandered restlessly, traveling back and forth between New York and Europe. In each place, he focused on one or two subjects that expressed his understanding of the people and their culture—chairs and flowers in Paris, bankers in London, and miners in Wales. In order to create a stronger impact and address larger ideas, he also endeavored to make sequences of his photographs that he hoped would be published in Life or other magazines. However, although he was hailed as “a poet with a camera” and won important champions, such as Edward Steichen, director of the department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, his photographic sequences were rarely published. With few commercial outlets for his series, Frank continued to make hand-bound books of photographs, including Mary’s Book, 1949, an album of 72 photographs and writings he made for Mary Lockspeiser, an artist and dancer whom he married in 1950, and Black White and Things, 1952, his most accomplished sequence to date.
When Frank returned to New York in 1953, he was frustrated that his photographs had not been more widely published. In the fall of 1954, he applied to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for a fellowship “to photograph freely throughout the United States,” as he wrote in his application, and “make a broad voluminous picture record of things American.” With letters of recommendation from the photographer Walker Evans, as well as Steichen and Brodovitch, he was awarded a fellowship in the spring of 1955 and began to make the photographs that would comprise The Americans. The Americans was published, with an introduction by Jack Kerouac, first in France in 1958 and then in the United States in 1959.
Released at the height of the Cold War, The Americans was initially reviled, even decried as anti-American. Yet during the 1960s, as many of the issues that Frank had addressed erupted into the collective consciousness, the book came to be regarded as both prescient and revolutionary. Yet its rising reputation never sat comfortably on Frank’s shoulders. The same restlessness and risk-taking spirit that inspired it propelled him to abandon photography for filmmaking in the late 1950s. With films such as Pull My Daisy, 1959, made with the painter Alfred Leslie and including Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso and with narration by Kerouac, or Me and My Brother, 1968, Frank established himself as a leading avant-garde filmmaker.