Robert Frank. Trolley--New Orleans. 1955. Gelatin silver print, 9 1/16 × 13 3/8" (23.1 × 34 cm). The Fellows of Photography Fund, The Family of Man Fund, and Horace W. Goldsmith Fund through Robert B. Menschel. ©️ Andrea Frank Foundation, from The Americans

“I was very free with the camera. I didn’t think of what would be the correct thing to do; I did what I felt good doing.”

Robert Frank

Robert Frank’s restless, gritty, melancholic vision marked him as an astute documentarian of the postwar American landscape. Born into a German-Jewish family in Zurich in 1924, he developed an interest in photography at an early age and apprenticed with several photographers in his teens. In his early twenties his intrepid nature brought him to America, in 1947, where he found work as a commercial photographer, most notably at Harper's Bazaar under Alexey Brodovitch’s highly influential editorial vision. He soon left this relatively stable position for an itinerant life. At one point he served as an assistant to Walker Evans, whose photobook American Photographs (1938) set a precedent for Frank’s subsequent accomplishments. Bill Brandt’s A Night in London (1938) and André Kertész’s Day of Paris (1945) are other key books that helped him formulate his own point of view.

The publication of Frank’s photobook The Americans, first released in France in 1959 and subsequently printed stateside in 1960, caused nothing short of a revolution among photographers and documentarians. Shortly after its release, Popular Photography magazine published editorial reactions. One critic lamented, “Ugliness can be shocking, it can have impact—like a man spitting in your face: but it can also be given beauty by a sensitive photographer. Frank is sensitive, but apparently he is without love. There is no pity in his images. They are images of hate and hopelessness, of desolation and preoccupation with death. They are images of an America seen by a joyless man who hates the country of his adoption.”1 Another editor countered, “The fact is simply that he feels strongly about some of the things he sees in his adopted country, and wants to call them to our attention. He does it superbly.”2

In a country that was not his own, Frank assumed the unique position of an outsider and voyeur who unobtrusively captured the tensions of the geographic, economic, racial, and religious diversity of the US. After receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1954, he made numerous cross-country car trips over a period of 10 months, ultimately logging 10,000 miles. He used a handheld camera to present a picture of the US that was provocatively out of sync with the insistent optimism that often characterized Americans' postwar sense of self. The 83 photographs comprising The Americans record cars, jukeboxes, bureaucracy, leisure, youth culture, high society, crowded urban streets, desolate open plains, politics, race, and religion. Frank captured the nation as a messy corpus, never privileging city or country, black or white, Jew or Christian, rich or poor. In the wake of this achievement, subsequent generations of photographers, beginning with Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand, have paid close attention to his example.

From the late 1950s through the early 1970s, Frank dedicated himself almost exclusively to moving images. His cinematic achievements have been widely heralded since the release, in 1959, of his first film, Pull My Daisy, codirected with Alfred Leslie and adapted by Jack Kerouac from his own play. The film visualizes the energy and syncopation of the Beat Generation by featuring literary figures such as Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso, among many others. Its improvised, freewheeling structure set the tone for Frank’s subsequent films, including Me and My Brother (1965–68), Conversations in Vermont (1969), and Cocksucker Blues (1972).

By 1973, when Frank moved to Mabou, Nova Scotia, he had returned to making photographs, but now they expressed a more personal, filmic sensibility. His work increasingly featured multiple frames in a single image, roughly spliced together with urgent, plaintive, halting words scrawled across them—a cry to connect both text and image in reading this autobiography. These works have no allegiance to any particular process, format, or method; they combine Polaroids, 35mm negatives, collage, photomontage, stenciling, handwriting, scratching, and splicing. The artist’s decision to reveal so much personal history—from the death of his daughter Andrea to his own hospitalization—seems to have required that these difficulties find a physical parallel in the finished objects. At heart, Frank’s work has never been about news or history, but rather the individual human experience.

Note: The opening quote is from Gayford, Martin. “An Intimate Interview with Robert Frank: ‘He Was Just What You Would Expect from a Description by Jack Kerouac.’” ARTnews, September 12, 2019.

Kelly Sidley, Curatorial Assistant, Photography Department, 2016

  1. Bruce Downes, Popular Photography, vol. 46, no. 5 (May 1960): 104. Reprinted in Robert Frank: New York to Nova Scotia, ed. Anne Wilkes Tucker (Houston: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1986), 36.

  2. H. M. Kinzer, ibid., 37.

Wikipedia entry
Robert Frank (November 9, 1924 – September 9, 2019) was a Swiss American photographer and documentary filmmaker. His most notable work, the 1958 book titled The Americans, earned Frank comparisons to a modern-day de Tocqueville for his fresh and nuanced outsider's view of American society. Critic Sean O'Hagan, writing in The Guardian in 2014, said The Americans "changed the nature of photography, what it could say and how it could say it. [ ... ] it remains perhaps the most influential photography book of the 20th century." Frank later expanded into film and video and experimented with manipulating photographs and photomontage.
Information from Wikipedia, made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
Getty record
From 1940 to 1941, Frank worked as an apprentice in a Basel photographic studio and later as a photographer for Gloria Films in Zurich. He emigrated to the United States in 1947 and settled in New York City, contributing photographs to various publications. In 1948 he traveled to Peru and Bolivia, and from 1949 to 1951 he worked in England, Wales, United Kingdom and France. In 1955, Frank travelled across the United States taking photographs for his book 'The Americans.' From 1957 to 1969 he worked as a photographer, filmmaker, and independent producer in New York City, eventually moving to Nova Scotia in 1969 with his wife, artist June Leaf.
American, Swiss
Artist, Documentary Filmmaker, Cinematographer, Collagist, Photographer, Video Artist
Robert Frank, Robert Louis Frank
Information from Getty’s Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN), made available under the ODC Attribution License


298 works online



  • Robert Frank: Trolley—New Orleans Paperback, 48 pages
  • MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art Flexibound, 408 pages
  • MoMA Now: Highlights from The Museum of Modern Art—Ninetieth Anniversary Edition Hardcover, 424 pages
  • Photography at MoMA: 1920 to 1960 Hardcover, 416 pages
  • Photography at MoMA: 1960 to Now Hardcover, 368 pages
  • Abstract Expressionism at The Museum of Modern Art Exhibition catalogue, Hardcover, 128 pages
  • The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today Exhibition catalogue, Hardcover, 256 pages
  • Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West Exhibition catalogue, Hardcover, 168 pages

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