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Spring 2009

Robert Frank (born 1924)

 

1924. Born in Zurich, Switzerland in wealthy Jewish family. Frank's mother, Regina was from  a family of  Swiss industrialists and his father, Hermann a decorator from Frankfurt was German. Robert and his older brother, Manfred obtained Swiss citizenship in 1945. Though Frank and his family remained safe in Switzerland, Frank was well aware through WWII of the threat of Nazism.


1940’s. Frank  turns to photography in part as a means to escape the confines of his bourgeois family, and trained under Swiss photographers and magazine designers (Wolgensinger, Kübler).
1946. Creates his first hand-made book of photographs, 40 Fotos. Travels to Paris, Milan and Brussels, and photographs with his Rolleiflex traces of the recently ended war.

1947.  Emigrates to the United States in order to escape the bourgeois comfort of his background. Is hired to work as fashion photographer for Harper's Bazaar by Alexey Brodovitch.

1948.  Creates second hand-made book of photographs taken on journey to Peru and Bolivia.

1949.  Travels to Europe, meets publisher Robert Delpire.

1950. Meets Edward Steichen and participates in the group show 51 American Photographers at MoMA. Marries artist, Mary Lockspeiser, with whom he will have two children, Andrea and Pablo.

1951-52. Though he was initially optimistic about life in the United States, Frank's perspective quickly changed as he confronted the fast pace of American life and what he saw as an overwhelming obsession with making money. He now saw America as an often bleak and lonely place, a perspective that became evident in his later photography. Frank's own dissatisfaction with the control editors exercised over his work also undoubtedly colored his experience. He continued to travel, moving his family briefly to Paris. Travels also to Spain.

1953. Returns to New York and continues to work as a freelance photojournalist for magazines including McCall's, Vogue, and Fortune. Meets photographer Walker Evans.

1955-56. With the aid of Walker Evans and recommended by Brodovitch, A. Lieberman (art director of Vogue), Meyer Schapiro (Columbia Univ.) and E. Steichen (photography curator MoMA) secured a grant from the Guggenheim  Foundation to travel across the United States and photograph all classes of Americans. He took his family along with him for many of the road trips over the next two years, during which time he took 28,000 shots with his Leica. Only 83 of these were finally selected by him for publication in The Americans. Frank's journey was not without incident. While driving through Arkansas, Frank was arbitrarily thrown in jail after being stopped by the police; elsewhere in the South, he was told by a sheriff that he had "an hour to leave town." On his return to New York he moves into apartment on 3rd Avenue near 10th St. next door to painter Alfred Leslie and across the courtyard from Willem de Kooning.

1957. Frank meets Beat writer Jack Kerouac at a party and shows him the photographs from his travels. Kerouac immediately offers to write a text about the photos which will eventually become the introduction to the U.S. edition of The Americans. Frank also met and became lifelong friends with the Beat poet  Allen Ginsberg. He will become one of the main visual chroniclers of Beat subculture. Frank's photographs of the 1950’s offer a clear contrast to those of most contemporary American photojournalists in their melancholy subject matter, their use of unusual focus, low lighting and sudden cropping that deviated from classic photographic techniques.

1958. His unusual style meant that Frank had difficulty in securing an American publisher for his work. Les Américains was first published by Robert Delpire in Paris. Travels to Florida with Kerouac.

1959. Publication of The Americans by Grove Press in the US to negative reviews. Popular Photography derided his images as "meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness." Though sales were poor at first, Kerouac's introduction helped the book to reach a larger audience though the increasing popularity and notoriety of Beat culture. Over time and through its inspiration of later artists, The Americans became a seminal work in American photography and art history, and is still  the work with which Frank is most strongly identified.

1961. First solo show, Robert Frank: Photographer, at the Art Institute of Chicago.

1962. Exhibits at MoMA.

1959. His first film Pull My Daisy, was co-directed with Alfred Leslie. The script was adapted by Jack Kerouac from the third act of his play, Beat Generation.  Kerouac also provided improvised narration. It starred poets Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso, artists Larry Rivers and Alice Neel, musician David Amram, actors Richard Bellamy and Delphine Seyrig, dancer Sally Gross, and Pablo, Frank's young son. The Beat philosophy emphasized spontaneity, and the film conveyed the quality of having been loosely thrown together or even improvised. Pull My Daisy was accordingly praised for years as an improvisational masterpiece, until Frank's co-director, Alfred Leslie, revealed in a 1968 article in the Village Voice that the film was actually carefully planned, rehearsed, and directed by him and Frank, who shot the film with professional lighting.

1960. Stays with artist George Segal while filming Sin of Jesus with a grant from Walter K. Gutman. Isaac Babel's story was transformed to center on a woman working on a chicken farm in New Jersey.

1969. Separates form his wife Mary.

1971. Remarried to sculptor June Leaf. The couple settle in Mabou, Nova Scotia in Cape Breton Island, in Canada. Begins using Super 8 camera June brings as gift from Japan.

1972. The documentary on the Rolling Stones while on their ‘72 world tour, Cocksucker Blues, is probably his best known film. The Stones infamously engage in heavy drug use and group sex. Perhaps more disturbing to the Stones when they saw the finished product, however, was the degree to which Frank faithfully captured the loneliness and despair of life on the road. Mick Jagger reportedly told Frank, "It's a fucking good film, Robert, but if it shows in America we'll never be allowed in the country again." The Stones sued to prevent the film's release. Franks' photography also appeared on the cover of the Rolling Stones' album Exile on Main St. Other films by Robert Frank include Keep Busy and Candy Mountain which he co-directed with Rudy Wurlitzer.
Publishes his second photographic book, The Lines of My Hand. This work has been described as a "visual autobiography", and consists largely of personal photographs.
In the 1970’s he gives up on  "straight" photography to instead create narratives out of constructed images and collages, incorporating words and multiple frames of images directly scratched and distorted on the negatives.

1974.  Daughter, Andrea killed in a plane crash in Guatemala. His son, Pablo is hospitalised and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Much of Frank's subsequent work has dealt with the impact of the loss of both his daughter and subsequently his son, who died in an Allentown, PA hospital in 1994. In 1995, he founded the Andrea Frank Foundation, which provides grants to artists.
Since his move to Nova Scotia, Canada, Frank has divided his time between his home there in a former fisherman's shack on the coast, and his Bleecker Street loft in New York. He has acquired a reputation for being a recluse (particularly since the death of Andrea), declining most interviews and public appearances. He has continued to accept eclectic assignments, however, such as photographing the 1984 Democratic National Convention, and directing music videos for artists such as New Order (Run), and Patti Smith (Summer Cannibals). Frank continues to produce both films and still images, and has helped organize several retrospectives of his art.

1994. Most comprehensive retrospective of Frank's work to date at the National Gallery of Art in Washington entitled Moving Out.

1996. Awarded the prestigious Hasselblad Award for photography followed by an exhibition at the Hasselblad Center in Goteborg, Sweden entitled Flamingo.

2008.To mark the 50th anniversary of the first publication of The Americans, a new edition was released worldwide on May 30, 2008.A  new edition using modern scanning and the finest tritone printing of The Americans was produced by publisher Gerahrd Steidl in Göttingen, Germany. A new format for the book was worked out and new typography selected. A new cover was designed and Frank chose the book cloth, foil embossing and the endpaper. Most significantly, as he has done for every edition of The Americans, Frank changed the cropping of many of the photographs, usually including more information. Two images were changed completely from the original 1958 and 1959 editions.
A celebratory exhibit of The Americans will be displayed after the Jeu de Paume at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2009.

 


 
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