Everyone expected Frank to go into business, too. He had other ideas. In his teens, he became a photographer's apprentice and worked in several studios, learning about graphics and publishing as well as photography.
During World War II, the Franks, who were Jewish, maintained a safe, if uneasy, existence in neutral Switzerland. After the war, the restless young man decided to leave a homeland he found small and confining. In 1947 he arrived in New York, a city alive with poets, painters and jazz musicians as well as magazines that championed photography as journalism and art. Frank was hired by Alexey Brodovitch, the celebrated art director of Harper's Bazaar, and spent a short stint on the Bazaar staff before striking out on his own. He traveled extensively in Latin America and Europe, shooting evocative images of people and places that caught his eye.
Frank married artist Mary Lockspeiser in 1950. That same year, he was chosen for a group show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Edward Steichen, Szarkowski's predecessor as director of the museum's photography department, was an early admirer.
Another supporter was photographer Walker Evans, a mentor who helped win the Guggenheim fellowship money that financed the trips for "The Americans."
In 1955 and 1956, Frank drove a used Ford up, down and across the nation. He filled more than 760 rolls of film. "It was hard work," said Greenough, "and he was frequently harassed because he was a stranger taking pictures in places where strangers weren't always welcome."
Back in New York, Frank reviewed thousands of frames and then sequenced his selections, creating what he called a "distinct and intense order" that enhanced their dramatic and thematic impact.
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"Les Americains" was first published in France in 1958 by Frank's friend Robert Delpire. A year later, Grove Press came out with "The Americans," a U.S. edition that had an introduction by Jack Kerouac. "Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film," Kerouac wrote, "taking rank among the tragic poets of the world."
Reviewers were less enthusiastic. While some sounded positive notes, many -- especially those from photography magazines -- lambasted Frank, accusing him of being misguided, mean-spirited and -- perhaps worst of all, given the Cold War climate -- anti-American. Popular Photography decried his prints as "flawed by meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposure, drunken horizons and general sloppiness."
"I do like America," Frank said in a 2004 documentary, noting that "I became an American." (He gained U.S. citizenship in 1963.) His project made him realize how "lonely" and "tough" the country could be, he recalled in "Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank." "Also, I saw for the first time the way blacks were treated. It was surprising to me. But it didn't make me hate America. It made me understand how people can be."
As times changed so did perceptions of Frank. By the end of the 1960s, he was being hailed as a prescient social observer and convention-busting artist who changed the course of modern photography.