Biography

Robert Frank is a leading figure in the history of twentieth century photography. His 1959 photo-book, The Americans, proved both enormously controversial and vastly influential, and generations of photographers have been drawn to his highly personal approach to documentary. He has also had a significant career as a filmmaker.

Born to a wealthy Jewish family in Switzerland, Frank turned to photography to escape from the background of his upbringing. He created his first book of photographs 40 Fotos, by hand, and in the following year, 1947, he emigrated to the United States and started work as a fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar. By 1951 he had been included in a major survey of American photography at the Museum of Modern Art. Frank was a success, and yet he was uneasy about life in America, and in 1955, funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship that had been supported by Walker Evans, he began to travel across the country to document its fractured society. The subject matter – and Frank’s innovative and expressive treatment - made it hard for Frank to find a publisher in the United States, so Les Américain first appeared in France in 1958. When it was published in America, with an introduction by Jack Kerouac, it provoked controversy. Soon enough, however, Frank’s achievement was recognized, and in 1961 he had his first solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, followed the year after by a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

During the late 1950s Frank embarked on a career as a filmmaker, co-directing the Beat Generation classic, Pull My Daisy, in 1959, and Cocksucker Blues, a documentary about The Rolling Stones, in 1972. He concentrated on films throughout the 1960s, and to date he has made some twenty movies. The following decade saw him beset by personal troubles, yet he continued to take photographs, producing the increasingly autobiographical work that figures in the 1972 photo-book The Lines of My Hand. He has since accepted several prominent commissions and traveled extensively.

Robert Frank lives in Nova Scotia, Canada, and New York. Since his first solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1961, his work has been the subject of several major touring retrospectives, including one at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., in 1994. A new edition of The Americans was published by Steidl in 2008, to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, and this was also accompanied by a major touring retrospective which took in the National Gallery of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Frank is the recipient of several awards, including the Hasselblad Foundation’s International Photography Award (1996), and the Cornell Capa Award, given by the International Center for Photography, New York (2000). He work is represented in major public and private collections throughout the world.