Robert Frank is famous maybe for a publication he made in the 1950s, called The Americans (1958). He is a very important figure in American photography, and his pictures gave a fresh and skeptical outsider’s view of American society.
He was born in 1924 in Zürich (Switzerland). When he was young, he came to the United States (1947) to work as a fashion photographer. He began to work as a photojournalist for a magazine called Harper’s Bazaar. He soon left to travel in South America and Europe, coming back to the US in 1950, creating a book of photographs shot in Peru. In the same year, after meeting Edward Steichen (American photographer, painter, art gallery, and museum curator), Frank participated in the group show called 51 American Photographers at the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art).
In the same decade, he became friends with Jack Kerouac (an American writer and poet) who helped him publish his most famous work, “The Americans,” in which there are pictures of American people across the country showcasing their everyday life and activities. The subjects were no longer celebrities or famous people, as he was used to photographing such people during his job, but ordinary people. The result was a great documentary on how life was like during the 50s.
When it was released, The Americans was not very successful. The main feature of this work is that it’s not a book about the author’s work. Most of the time, you can find books about all pictures shot by the same author, but in this case the author decided to put only pictures that had the same meaning and feeling. This happened because the goal was not to celebrate the author, but to describe culture and ordinary life in America. He shot more than 2,000 pictures across the US and only 83 were put into this book. In 2009, there was an exhibition of “The Americans” in the National Gallery of Washington DC, then in San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art and finally in New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
Frank was initially optimistic about United States’ society and this feeling is palpable in the atmosphere of his pictures; then his perspective changed quickly when he realized that American culture was switching to an overemphasis on money. Moreover, his editor started to control his work, increasing his dissatisfaction.
Robert Frank’s photography is not the kind of photography that follows rules (rule of thirds, the golden rule, for example), because his photography is about capturing a feeling, in a specific place and time. I think that this feature is the one that makes Robert Frank one of the major figures of photography in the twentieth century.