Frank was born in Switzerland in 1924 before moving to New York at age 23. The crowning achievement of Frank’s career was his photography book The Americans, which was first published in the U.S. in 1959 and featured an intro by Jack Kerouac. The Americans consisted of 83 photographs taken by Frank during cross-country road trips in the mid 1950s—the images challenged the era’s notion of fine art and documentary photography, shifting the focus from celebrity and idealized figures to focus on everyday people and occurrences. During the project, Frank drove over 10,000 miles in a used Ford Business Coupe and took over 27,000 pictures, which he then boiled down to the historic 83. He was jailed at least twice throughout the process, once in Detroit for consorting with African Americans, and once on suspicion of “Communist sympathies” in Little Rock, Arkansas.
His images in The Americans were composed cinematically, with an emphasis on narrative over traditional documentation, and Frank employed film grain as an aesthetic device rather than something to be avoided. The magazine Popular Photography called the images “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons, and general sloppiness,” going on to call Frank “a joyless man who hates the country of his adoption.” At the same time, cultural critic Janet Malcolm referred to him as the “Manet of the new photography.”
Seeing The Americans in a college bookshop was a stunning, ground-trembling experience for me. But I realized this man’s achievement could not be mined or imitated in any way, because he had already done it, sewn it up and gone home. What I was left with was the vapors of his talent. I had to make my own kind of art.
In a 2008 profile of Frank, published in Vanity Fair, writer Charlie LeDuff opened the piece by calling the photographer “the last human being [. . .] to discover anything new behind a viewfinder.” In the piece, LeDuff said of The Americans:
There is undoubtedly no book that has packed a greater punch in modern photography than Frank’s The Americans. It is a morose and gritty document of the American landscape and street corner. [. . .] If you see the photographs today, nothing about them looks scandalous. Rather, everything appears normal. It’s as though Frank predicted the future. A car, a jukebox—they became the symbols of our lives. We were ruled by our machines, Frank seemed to say. A covered car neatly arranged between two palm trees looks like a coffin, and then you turn the page and there is a grainy photo of a dead body covered by a blanket lying beside a highway, and the corpse and the car look the same. [. . .] America was a different place than what the television and magazines were telling us.
Frank, who was Jewish, remained in neutral Switzerland during the Second World War. While there, he studied with graphic designers and photographers in Zurich, Basel, and Geneva. In 1947 he moved to New York and won over Alexey Brodovitch, then director of Harper's Bazaar. Throughout the ensuing decade, Frank worked for Fortune, Life, Look, McCall’s, Vogue, and Ladies Home Journal. From 1949 to 1952, he travelled between London, Wales, and Peru, taking photographs and assembling them into spiral-bound books.
Frank then discovered Walker Evans’s seminal book American Photographs which, although it was published in 1938, was not particularly popular in the 1950s. Evans became a mentor for Frank and wrote Frank’s letter of recommendation when he was applying for the 1955 Guggenheim grant that would go on to fund The Americans.
After The Americans, Frank turned primarily to filmmaking. In 1959 he made the short film Pull My Daisy, which featured such Beat Generation figures as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Larry Rivers. In 1960 he founded the New American Cinema Group along with the late Jonas Mekas and others, and in 1965 he made his first feature length film, titled Me and My Brother. In 1972, Frank followed the Rolling Stones on tour to make the documentary Cocksucker Blues. (Frank later admitted to being so high on cocaine throughout the tour that he lost much of the footage.) Frank also did the cover art for the Rolling Stones album of the same year, Exile on Main Street. He went on to produce more books of photography and more films throughout his storied, atypical career.
Frank ended a long talk with his Vanity Fair interviewer—in which how The Americans had come to define his career along with stories of Frank’s family and personal regrets were all discussed—by saying: “You can capture life, but you can’t control it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Robert Frank’s work was included in the 1967 Museum of Modern Art Show “New Documents.” The exhibit did not include his work, and only featured photographs by Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand.