Photographer Biography – FRANK, ROBERT

Suiza, 1924


Robert Frank was born in 1924 in Zurich, Switzerland; his parents were Jewish. He was part of a European generation most of whom fought in the Second World War, but Switzerland remained neutral, while across the border Jews were being killed by the million. The German-speaking area of Switzerland was dominated by Nazis and Frank grew up with a constant knowledge of the possibility of persecution, but in Switzerland, freedom of speech and the freedom to create remained. There was even something of a flowering of German culture in Switzerland during the war years.

Frank apparently learnt photography from a photographer who lived in the same block of flats as his family, Hermann Segesser. In 1942, at the age of 18, he was apprenticed to Hermann Eidenbenz(1902 -?) and later worked for Michael Wolgensinger in Zurich. Wolgensinger (1913-90) had learnt photography from Johannes Meiner in Zurich before attending Bauhaus-trained Hans Finsler’s classes at the Zurich School of Commercial Art.

Finsler was a leading Swiss photographer and teacher, and Wolgensimmer became his assistant from 1935-7. Wolgensimmer taught Frank to use large format cameras and controlled lighting in the studio. Following this, Frank worked for a short time for a film company in Zurich, Gloria Films. Wolgensinger also later worked with experimental and commercial film – including ‘Metamorphose ‘ – as well as colour installations.

The young Frank was impressed by Paul Senn’s pictures of Spanish refugees, as well as by the resolutely Swiss pictures of Jakob Tuggener (see the About feature on Swiss Photography – link in box at top right.) Although Tuggener was right wing and conservative in his views, the ‘beatnik’ and bohemian Frank admired both his work and his artistic intransigence. He compares Tuggener to the famous Swiss national hero, William Tell – Tuggener’s work was Switzerland seen totally without sentimentality. Frank was also impressed by the way he used his photographs in sequences – particularly in his book of photographs of factories, ‘Fabrik’, using montage techniques borrowed from the world of film.

By 1946, Frank was prowling the streets of Zurich with a 35mm rangefinder camera, developing his own style. He was learning to use the camera in a fluid and intuitive manner, trying to capture his impressions spontaneously rather than to calculate and impose a composition on them.

As soon as possible, in 1947, Frank left Switzerland and moved to New York. Art director Alexey Brodovitch encouraged Frank to photograph for Harper’s Bazaar and other fashion magazines. Frank soon found fashion restricting and he also began to contribute to magazines and newspapers, including ‘Life’, ‘Look’, Fortune, McCall’s, and The New York Times. He started to travel, photographing in South America for a book including work by by Swiss photographer Werner Bischof(see the Directory of Photographers – box at right) and French photographer Pierre Verger, who devoted more than half of his life to the study, promotion, and practice of Afro-Brazilian culture. In 1951 Frank came back to Europe, and photographed in mining villages in Wales as well as in London and Paris, producing some memorable work.
In London too he was drawn to the stereotype, but rendered it in a personal and interesting fashion; men in bowlers and top hats stroll through the fog of city streets, carrying umbrellas. Magritte could well have used some of these as source material. There are also some odd moments and places – a dog in a foggy street, another levitating in a yard, an angel peering over a wall, mothers (or nannies) struggling with giant wrapped babies and prams in parks, bomb sites …

On a dull rainy day Frank stood beside a black hearse on the pavement of a street of terraced houses, whose doors opened straight onto the pavement. The rear door of the hearse is open wide, its square window producing a frame onto the opposite side of the street, through which we see a street sweeper with a hand-cart. At the end of the empty street a person and a lorry emerge vaguely from the rain, while along the glistening pavement at the left of the picture a young girl and her reflection are caught running. It is a strange and moving picture; clearly we can see it is about life and death, but to say that is only a starting point.

In Paris he photographed a group of four kids perhaps tormenting a tethered hose in a waste land on the edge of town; in the distance through the slight mist we see the tall apartment blocks, probably of some vast public housing scheme. On the right of the frame the horse, wearing a coat against the cold, stands unmoving, facing mutely a small boy who holds his hands up, palms towards him in some kind of challenge, perhaps 10 feet away, while his friends behind him scurry away.

These are some of his photos:








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