How Robert Frank created the ‘Americans’

5 Mins read

Robert Frank is one of the most glorified photographers, Hasselblad Award Winner, the important person in the photo history of the 20th century. ‘Americans’ – the main work of Robert Frank – became a cornerstone for the next generations of photography.

Trolley To New Orleans

Trolley To New Orleans

The central subject of the “Americans” book cover is a tram. Six people (two children among them) look out of the windows. You can see that black passengers are occupying seats at the end of the car, and the first places are reserved for white ones. Each character in this photo carries a story, has its voice. These people cannot be forgotten. This stilled moment is the most American, full of music and tension. What do they see? Who are they looking at?

This photo’s name is ‘Trolley to New Orleans’, and it is one of the TOP 100 most influential photos according to the TIME magazine.

Robert Frank

Robert Frank, 1993

How it began

Let’s get back to Robert’s roots. Frank was born in Zurich in November 1924. His father came from a prosperous Jewish family, completely assimilated in Germany. His parents spoken in Swiss-German dialect, an odd mixture of small-town accents, and young Frank wad embarrassed of the fact that relatives spoke differently than other people in their area.

Teenaged Robert Frank showed an interest in art, studied photography and graphics at the Zurich gymnasium, where he enriched his toolbox with a solid theoretical base with numerous practical exercises. He took photography lessons from famous Swiss masters, actively worked on creating his style and vision.

Youth of Cleveland, by Robert Frank

The youth of Cleveland, 1955

The Nazis’ coming to power in Germany forced the photographer’s father to apply for Swiss citizenship. The terrible misfortunes that befell European Jews passed the Franks family.

But, again, Robert’s family was a wealthy one, and Herman Frank had several cameras, and photography occupied an essential place in the life of his son. Later, after leaving school, Frank will get a job as an assistant photographer in a Zurich studio, where he will learn how to handle the camera and chemicals.

Robert Frank will travel a lot across to Europe after WW2. Paris, Milan, Antwerp… During this trip, Frank will realize that Switzerland is too small for his ambitions. He didn’t even want to stay in Europe, as another fine photographer August Sander did. He started emigration talks, calling himself a bird in a cage.

office ladies, NYC, Robert Frank

Office female workers in the diner, NYC, 1954

The American dream begins

This day came in 1947 when large fashion magazine Harpers Bazaar offered a contract to the young but still proven professional photographer. On March 14, 1947, Bennett Moore ship entered the harbor of New York, and Robert Frank set his foot over the land of the free. He recalled then: “I saw a large country. Endless. I noticed that the Swiss lifestyle is not worth a penny. The Swiss are very polite and somewhat slow in communication. New Yorkers shocked me with their tempo and rudeness … “

Frank settles down in the bohemian Greenwich Village. Here he meets his future wife Mary, the dancer’s daughter, a beautiful and independent woman.

Woman in a cab, NYC

Robert Frank ‘Americans’: Woman in a cab, NYC, 1956

There is a simple success formula applied to Frank’s first years in the US: “to be in the right place at the right time.” He spent his time with the famous photographers and mentors Edward Steichen and Walker Evans. He will receive a Guggenheim Foundation scholarship soon and will depart on his long photo trip across the US.

Frank has lived in the States for eight years, and New Jersey and St. Louis were the most distant points of his travels. He wanted to feel how big the country is from ocean to ocean. He was curious and had enough energy to drive his Ford across the whole country: New York – Detroit and New York – Texas – San Francisco – Los Angeles.

Celebrity and her fans. Photo Robert Frank

Robert Frank ‘Americans’: Celebrity and her fans, 1955

Making an American’s profile

The result of these trips is the famous photo book “Americans” that was released in 1958 in France and a year later – in the United States. The author of the text for the American edition was made by the photographer’s friend, writer Jack Kerouac. His novel “On the Road” is in many ways similar to Frank’s attempt to show the unexplored, strange, dangerous world of post-war America.

While driving his Ford, Robert Frank took 28 thousand shots. The book includes eighty-three only. It became the most revolutionary project of the mid-century: “Americans” was both idolized and hated.

family in the car, Robert Frank

Family in the car, 1955

Robert Frank wrote a short letter trying to respond to the criticism and explaining his position. “I tried to show the profile of America. The point of view is personal. Therefore many aspects of American life and society have been ignored by me. Opinion often contains criticism. But criticism is born out of love. It is important for the photographer to see what is hidden to others – maybe this is a look full of hope or sadness.”

Frank’s images followed the social realism of Weegee’s works, sometimes emphasizing the inequality of US society.

man prostitution in NYC

Man prostitution, NYC, 1955

I’ll be back in ten minutes

“The Americans” turned out to be a massive photo monument to harsh times, a brand new format of a documentary. The book was a messenger of a new-born trend in American photography – edgy, showing life without embellishment.

Like Frank used to say, “People that look at my pictures have to feel the same way that I felt when pressing on the shutter… It’s like to read the poem twice”.

Picnic in Cleveland, 1955

Picnic in Cleveland, 1955

Frank’s photos became a how-to manual for the new generation of American photographers. Robert Frank showed them the way of the solely published photobooks, expanding the limitations of cooperation with just magazines and newspapers.

Robert Frank had massive success, and he tried to escape it. He did not want to become a canonical American photographer. He worked in moviemaking, filming The Rolling Stones tour in ‘Cocksucker Blues’ movie. He married for a second time and went through the tragedy of the death of his daughter, who died in an airplane crash.

Cleveland Central Park

Robert Frank ‘Americans’: Cleveland Central Park, 1955

When Robert Frank was leaving his homeplace before the four-year travel to Canada, he put a sign on his doors: “I’ll be back in ten minutes.” As if he was staying somewhere nearby. He never returned to his apartment in NYC and died on September 9, 2019, in Canada, where he had a house at the seaside. But he is still somewhere nearby – in books and photographs, exhibitions and textbooks.

parade in New Jersey

Parade in New Jersey, 1955

Parade in Jersey, Frank Robert

Robert Frank ‘Americans’: ‘Hiding behind the American dream.’

Couple in the streets of LA, 1956

Couple in the streets of LA, 1956

Bikers of the NYC, 1955

Robert Frank ‘Americans’: Bikers of the NYC, 1955

The streetlife of the NY kids

The streetlife of the NY kids, 1955

A cowboy in Miami, Robert Frank photos

A cowboy in Miami, 1955

miners in the line for the salary Robert Frank photos

Miners in the line for the salary, 1956

Men's toilet room

Men’s toilet room, 1956

The kissing couple, LA, 1956

The kissing couple, LA, 1956

A girl in a tiara

Robert Frank ‘Americans’: A girl in a tiara, 1955

'Congressmen' Robert Frank photos

‘The congressmen’. This photo became one of the symbols of the black rights movement.

Twins in Cleveland, Robert Frank photos

Twins in Cleveland, 1955

A cowboy in NYC, Robert Frank 'Americans':

Robert Frank ‘Americans’: A cowboy in the streets of NYC, 1956

Robert Frank 'Americans':

Robert Frank ‘Americans’: ‘Waiting for an American dream.’

Robert Frank 'Americans':

Marilyn is dead newspaper

A boy reading a newspaper with news about Marilyn Monroe death

Black couple on a Harley, 1956

Black couple on a Harley, 1956

American woman

American woman, 1956

black couple, Robert Frank Americans

Black Couple in Ohio, 1956

Behind the Hollywood sign

Behind the Hollywood sign, 1956

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2 years ago

[…] enough to escape the Nazis in the early 30th. Others were the lucky holders of the Swiss passport, like photographer Robert Frank. And for the rest of the sons of Israel (which didn’t exist yet, but), the US seemed to be the […]

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