American Witness

The Art and Life of Robert Frank


By RJ Smith

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From the author of the acclaimed James Brown biography The One comes the first in-depth biography of renowned photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank, best known for his landmark book The Americans.

As well-known as Robert Frank the photographer is, few can say they really know Robert Frank the man. Born and raised in wartime Switzerland, Frank discovered the power and allure of photography at an early age and quickly learned that the art meant significantly more to him than the money, success, or fame. The art was all, and he intended to spend a lifetime pursuing it.

American Witness is the first comprehensive look at the life of a man who’s as mysterious and evasive as he is prolific and gifted. Leaving his rigid Switzerland for the more fluid United States in 1947, Frank found himself at the red-hot social center of bohemian New York in the ’50s and ’60s, becoming friends with everyone from Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky to photographer Walker Evans, actor Zero Mostel, painter Willem de Kooning, filmmaker Jonas Mekas, Bob Dylan, writer Rudy Wirlitzer, jazz musicians Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus, and more. Frank roamed the country with his young family, taking roughly 27,000 photographs and collecting 83 of them into what is still his most famous work: The Americans. His was an America nobody had seen before, and if it was harshly criticized upon publication for its portrait of a divided country, the collection gradually grew to be recognized as a transformative American vision.

And then he turned his back on certain success, giving up photography to reinvent himself as a film and video maker. Frank helped found the American independent cinema of the 1960s and made a legendary film with the Rolling Stones. Today, the nonagenarian is an embodiment of restless creativity and a symbol of what it costs to remain original in America, his life defined by never repeating himself, never being satisfied. American Witness is a portrait of a singular artist and the country that he saw.



ROBERT FRANK'S FAVORITE IMAGE from his most famous work, the photo book The Americans, is a photograph titled San Francisco from 1956. It's like a punch in the nose. He was shooting in a park above San Francisco and was sneaking up on an African American couple enjoying the view, and their privacy, when a stranger approaches from behind.

The thing is that Frank wasn't surprised they turned around; you can pretty much assume he was hoping—even counting—on them turning around. Confrontations got his juices flowing. So maybe he made some noise, maybe not, but when they turned around, the African American man crouched down in a protective stance, eyes flashing hostility, the woman's face warily asking What are you doing?, Frank was prepared to pounce. This white guy has entered their space and is taking something they were not offering. A moment of submerged feeling dragged into the daylight.

As the contact sheet shows, Frank very quickly made a gesture of photographing whatever was next to them, pretending he wasn't really taking their picture. Then he walked away, and nobody got punched.1

Frank has always said that he liked this photograph because of the candor on the couple's faces and the intensity of their unguarded reaction to a stranger's approach. He liked it because it is honest, and it is honest because it reveals human feeling, and anger was a feeling that explained the country in which he was traveling in 1956 about as well as any single emotion could. On both sides quiet reflection had become impossible.

Like that couple on the overlook, Robert Frank has pretty much always wished to go unobserved. There is little he appreciates less than people taking his picture, putting a microphone in his face, asking him questions. When approached, he has responded in a manner similar to the couple in his San Francisco photograph—or worse.

It's a fall day in 2015, and I am running down a long row of stairs while a crowd is walking up. A documentary of Frank's life had just premiered at the New York Film Festival in Lincoln Center, and the subject was making a rare public appearance. At the end of the movie Frank stood and waved to the sold-out room, and everybody else stood too, clapping for the man whose work they loved and whose life they knew more about than they had ninety minutes before. The documentary's maker answered a few questions, then everyone headed out.

I was sitting in a back row, the farthest corner from Frank and his wife, June Leaf. I had been working on this book for several years, and he had not responded to various appeals to meet. Neither letters nor the interventions of friends over the previous years had stirred his interest—or disinterest. What he extended was a shrug, a neutral acknowledgment that declared any exchange was beyond reach. I came to New York in hopes of at least looking him in the eye and telling him what I was about.

The room lights went on, and I had to move quickly because he was heading toward a side door that had just opened at the far corner. I raced toward him. A man was coming up the stairs, leaning on a cane, and suddenly I could see tomorrow's headlines about the legendary filmmaker Jonas Mekas being trampled at Lincoln Center. I stopped running and walked down to where Frank was a moment before—just in time to see him, Leaf, and several others enter an elevator and disappear behind the closing door.

By the time I made it upstairs they were gone.

Some people's art initiates a conversation with other art; Robert Frank's work has been engaged in a dialogue with his first important subject—America—for over fifty years. It eventually became the most influential American photo book and a signal American art work of the last hundred years. The Americans has inspired plenty of people beyond the art world as well, far more than museum art usually does. Plenty of artists have described how his work impacted their own, but maybe more telling is that Frank's work has been so inspiring as to lead some—including Chris Marker and Ed Ruscha—to abandon a career in photography.2 Others return to The Americans again and again. "I was twenty-four when I first saw the book," Bruce Springsteen told an interviewer in 1995. "I think a friend had given me a copy—and the tone of the pictures, how he gave us a look at different kinds of people, got to me in some way. I've always wished I could write songs the way he takes pictures. I think I've got half a dozen copies of that book stashed around the house."3

On the verge of abandoning his own photographic career, Frank made his first film, Pull My Daisy, with Alfred Leslie in 1959, embodying a countercultural sensibility long before anybody understood what counterculture was. Pull My Daisy was a key film that helped launch a new American independent cinema, and by the time it had, Frank had turned to other styles of filmmaking. He was on his way to becoming, in the words of New York Times critic Manohla Dargis, "One of the most important and influential American independent filmmakers of the last half-century."4

He has influenced MTV videos and generations of photographers who weren't even born when The Americans was published. And he has, more distantly, helped launch generations of Americans who have set out from home to see their country for themselves. There's not another living American artist who has inspired so many different kinds of people—writers, political activists, musicians, sleepers on the beach—to do what they believe in. His example shows where following your own path can lead, how honest you need to be, and the cost it will inevitably exact. He's a pill and selfish and sometimes incredibly sad and one of the freest individuals I can think of. He does not give a fuck about protocol and proprieties, and he has lived long enough to show that he has been right more often than he was wrong. As his friend Miles Forst once said, "There is no peace in him."5

FRANK PUSHES PEOPLE HARD, testing their loyalty and weakness. In the middle of the National Gallery's assemblage of a major exhibition on Frank's career, its curators sent him a catalog showing everything they wanted to use. He cut out all but two or three images from The Americans and then sent it back. He didn't want that work included, curator Sarah Greenough told a Washington audience, "because he was bored with it."6 The stubbornness was no fluke. In the middle of editing a book-length overview of Frank's film and video work, that project's coeditor was told Frank wouldn't give her an interview, wouldn't come to her retrospective of his work, and didn't have copies of his work to share with her. Then he retracted permission to show his films in the retrospective and ordered her not to publish any of his photographs or film stills in the book. This was tough love—or just tough.7 Such actions, the editor decided, "wiped away his fear of repeating himself and guaranteed uniqueness.… Without realizing it at first, we would be actors under Robert Frank's direction." It is through such difficulties, by the things that keep you from taking the established route and force one to improvise, that something new comes into being. That has been his experience, and he offers this understanding to others when he can. Make plans with him at your peril. Events change on the ground.

Early in 2016 a New York University art gallery presented a career overview, and it was announced that the ninety-one-year-old himself would attend the opening and take questions from an audience. It seemed like another chance to make my case. So I went, and after a short question-and-answer session a side door in the room opened onto Mercer Street. He walked past a cloud of photographers and video cameras and headed into Greenwich Village. Frank was walking down the block by himself, cane in hand, motoring along.

I introduced myself, and he smiled. "I'm writing a book about you," I said.

"You are writing a book?" he said in his Swiss-German accent. He looked amused. "Good luck!"

I explained I was pretty far along, that I had been to Zurich and seen the building he grew up in, the schools he'd attended.

"Say hello to the mountains!" he said heartily.

We talked a little, the smile stayed on his face, and his step picked up as he headed for the van at the end of the block that would drive him back to his building on Bleecker Street. Friends of his have said he sometimes gets confused, and his body is wearing out. But Frank was charging down the street now, his shoulders powerful, his thoughts all in order. He arrived at the van, and I shook his hand.

"You caught him on a good day," Frank's friend Jim Jarmusch would say later.

AT A PARTY around this time a few bros in their twenties listen as I ramble on about Frank, how he has altered the direction of his life in order to not repeat himself, how much that's cost him. I describe his mistrust of money and explain that he has wriggled out of every definition people like myself have laid on him. The word integrity was used two or three times. And when I catch my breath, one of my friends, with a confused look on his face, earnestly says, "Wow. You know, people my age don't understand that at all. There's nothing about those kinds of values that makes sense to us." Perhaps I flashed the indignation of an aging baby boomer who can't believe the convictions his era honored are anything but eternal. And yet I don't believe that Frank or his ideals are an anathema to this time, and if that were true, I still could not accept it, and one other reason for writing this book is the possibility of sharing his story, his values, and, most of all his work with people to whom they are unfamiliar.

A photographer friend of Frank's, who didn't want her name used and risk falling out of his affection, says, "I come out of this community of people who just really worship him. Worship isn't strong enough of a word. And it's all about the pictures. Because nobody knows Robert." People have had little information, which is how he likes it. And the information they do have is sometimes wrong, contradictory, and gleefully made up by an artist who would be happy if the story got out wrong. "Look," says Frank's buddy, journalist Charlie LeDuff, "people don't fucking know the guy. They just think they know the guy."8

What they have known, for the last fifty-plus years, is the myth of Robert Frank. It can be broken down into pieces.

Part of it is that Frank turned his back on success and found a harder way forward, taking a spider web of backroads to get as far away from a sure thing, the certain life, as he could get. He has disliked the smell of success and fought its material rewards. "If you looked into Lee Friedlander's home in Upstate New York, you'd probably see assistants and neatly stacked prints and a dark room. It's a business," says the photographer friend. "You look at Robert's home, and there's piles of photos and cans of film stacked all around with potted plants on top, no couch. He fucking hates capitalism."

In the piles and canisters and drawers, presumably, are clues to a lifetime's worth of art. Evidence relating to the photographs that came after The Americans: an indelible series shot from New York City buses. And then the secretive years of the seventies, eighties, and nineties, when he remade his photography into something damaged, personal. Clues as well to the filmmaker: Frank has produced a string of unique and meandering films and videos that chase down truth and time and what it means to be an artist in the late twentieth century. And then Cocksucker Blues, the legendary, essentially unseen feature he made on tour with the Rolling Stones in 1972. The film itself was a masterful head-into-the-void essay on celebrity and isolation and the color blue. The fate of the film, criticized and forbidden, introduced Frank to a new audience, as someone unwilling to disfigure a work just to gain viewers.

But the legend is built, of course, on the foundation of The Americans. The photo book, which was published in Paris in 1958 and in the United States in 1959, is the Marcellus Shale of Frank's reputation: bedrock both enormous and hard to see, singular and underground. The straight trail forward from there looked impossible to Frank. And so he found other ways to be, discovered an impulse to stay creative, work in the dark, remain alive. "The irony is that more than anybody ever, he is branded with the curse of the early work," says photographer Ralph Gibson. "You're nobody with it, and nobody without it. He will always be compared to The Americans."9

It was "his failed book," the photographer Danny Lyon gushes, that made the legend. "He had integrity, and that is what was totally lacking in the world of photography. Robert, who was rejected by the Magnum Agency, he said, because he had egg on his shirt—he had integrity. He sucked it up, he lived in poverty, and he didn't do commercial jobs. He was a beacon on the hill of what you could do in America. Who cared if you failed?"10 An artist in America, calling into question what being a winner meant in this place. Who gets to define what a life is worth? He had an answer.

One final aspect of the myth: the person created by the work. It has been said that he stopped doing interviews, pulled back from public scrutiny, and went into hiding after The Americans began to get attention. Frank wants his work to speak for him, and it does—with shrieks and muffled voices. And as much as he has lowered his own voice, his iconic image as an unplugged oracle has grown. "I think it's easier to talk to Bob Dylan today than to Robert Frank," says the photographer John Cohen. "Isn't that strange?"11

TODAY A CULT OF FANS who personally know him envelope Frank in a way that is rare for an art world figure. They get emotional about the man: "He is my friend, my teacher, my roshi," one follower explained (he didn't want to run the risk of offending Frank by using his name). And then there is a professional contingent, a protectorate of dealers, academics, museum figures, and others who have benefited from managing his image and following Frank's personal wishes.

These folks' devotion has been instructive and inspiring to me as I have conducted interviews and research, even as much as their protectiveness has been a challenge. Robert Frank and his wife, June Leaf, have not expressed interest in being involved with this project. Nor have they stood in its path. This is a book written from outside Frank's orbit by someone who thinks his story speaks to others outside that circle. I have thought more than once of a passage in a letter he wrote to Sarah Greenough, senior curator and head of the department of photographs at the National Gallery of Art. I would quote his words to you if I could, but Frank has declined permission.12 He thinks all the time about the people who want to tell his story, and in the letter he wonders who will succeed. He says that he almost always wonders if it will be somebody he doesn't know, a stranger outside the vetted and obedient group, who will eventually do the best job of describing him.

"He's really a very pure, beautiful person, and he is not about planning," the filmmaker Jonas Mekas explains. "There are no machinations. He is not trying to make himself bigger or more important. He's just there, himself, doing his work."13 His longtime film editor Laura Israel told me how she and Frank were heading out on a field trip once when she asked him to wait—she needed to grab a map. He had other ideas. "Don't bring a map," he said. "We're gonna get lost. That's part of the plan."14 That was part of my plan too, working from one interview, one image to the next. I set out in random order, working from the outside in, from sources most distant to ones closer. At times the work led me to a person who knew him, say, in the 1950s, and they would mention a photographer of today I should speak to. A man in Zurich would mention a contemporary exhibition exploring the work of Frank and the Swiss writer Robert Walser in tandem, and suddenly a profound connection was exposed. Maps have limits.

Frank has made the most of his time. He has laid in the cut, hidden among the abstract expressionists, the street photographers, the Beat generation, the founders of American independent cinema, the Rolling Stones. In his own work, as in his life, he has been a master of the all-seeing hang. In one of the great images from The Americans he photographs cowboys at a rugged bar in Gallup, New Mexico. The view is from an exceedingly low angle—almost the floor. It's pretty clear he was holding the camera beneath his table to photograph without notice. "Robert has a great expression: he says, 'I'm like a crow. I visit the piles of garbage, and I pull out the best pieces!'" says the photographer Jerry de Wilde, who knew him in the 1960s and 1970s. "He's the master of being unobtrusive. He can be there and nobody knows he's there. He allows what's happening to happen, and as a result he's a witness to everything."15

This book is the story of the crow, the witness, the pile of stones, the man in the window. In his early nineties at the time of this writing, Frank is still getting around the Village and still traveling outside it too. Associates say that he is prone to long silences, that he picks his moment to engage, and that when he wants to be he is very much present. "He's gotten a lot nicer," his close friend Peter Kasovitz, the owner of K&M Camera in New York, says. "These days his thoughts are on tranquility, serenity."16

A few days after I talked to Frank on the street I entered a coffeehouse in New York's East Village. It was the middle of the afternoon, and as I sat down to write, who should be by the window but Frank and Leaf, sitting at a small café table.

I looked up, and he met my gaze. And then, he did what he did in San Francisco half a century before and many times since: he turned his head quickly and acted like he was looking at something else.

I couldn't tell if he held a camera under the table.



THERE IS A SHOP in Zurich's medieval Old Town with a precisely calibrated display of oddity. From a distance it looks unassuming. The incline is steep leading to the door, and the roads bend like rockers; two blocks away is the Cabaret Voltaire, a bar where a century ago the art movement known as Dada began. In the small storefront a bit of its spirit lives on.

The place is long famous in Zurich for its poetic arrangements of stuff, lovingly tended by the owner. Inside is a stylish, handmade wooden armoire, its door open to reveal a brassiere dangling daintily; an antique bar cart with a stack of plates on it, each one emblazoned with the face of an old-school Hassidic scholar; an old typewriter: and a mask that looks like Heidi, the Swiss Alpine orphan, having a bad hair day. The shop is owned by an elderly woodworker and paradox lover named Massimo Biondi.

Robert Frank was born and grew up in Zurich, and Biondi is one of his oldest friends in town. On a cold December afternoon Biondi is at a worktable in a back room, leaning over a restoration project. The overpowering smell of glue fills the air, enough to make a visitor dizzy. We talk a bit about the city. Having built and sold things in Zurich for decades, Biondi offers his thoughts on the place that is his home. "What do I like about Zurich?" he repeats. "Here I am very free. There is no violence, and the tax is not too high. It is efficient. When you go to the hospital it is—" and here he makes a sound that could be the universal signal for lickety-split. "If you want a train—" a different lickety-split noise. "And if you need a bus—" again. "Here everything is clean and efficient. It is a very good kind of life," he says, brushing his hands on his apron.1

Biondi is a craftsman who found his place within the comfort and security of the Swiss way. Robert Frank was different. The question Frank has been asked most often over the years is: Why did you leave photography behind? It's an inquiry likely to trigger a sharp rebuke. The second-most asked question, Why did you leave Switzerland?, gets a different answer. He had to, he eagerly explains to audiences. That safety, orderliness, the rigid hewing to business and decorum, the methodical predictability, the neatness of the sidewalks, and the knowledge that your block was watched—all are familiar to those who live there. Those qualities, Frank would explain later, sucked the air out of him. Robert Frank has been back to Switzerland many times over the years since he moved away, and perhaps every one of those times he has answered the question on home ground by saying that he had to leave if he was to become an artist. Really, he indicates, if he was to breathe.

When he comes back to Zurich now Frank is a creature of small habits. He still rides the tram running through the Enge District he grew up in. He still buys a sausage from a guy near the main train station, the best in town, he declares. Though he has escaped it, Frank acknowledges he is a product of what he's called "the Swiss mentality." Growing up in Zurich and living in Switzerland until he was twenty-two, Frank was raised in a household that thrived on the illusion of order. His street offered a privileged view of Swiss order, visible from multiple angles.

The street called Schulhausstrasse starts a few blocks from the western shore of Lake Zurich, at the intersection of Lavaterstrasse, named for the Lavater School, a local landmark built in 1897 and the elementary school Frank attended. The closer one lived to the lake, the more formidable were the buildings and the families. Schulhausstrasse runs up and down several hills before ending at the Sihl River. Going up the first hill, with a premium view of the mountain on the other side of Lake Zurich, were the fanciest homes, three and four stories. Going up the next, one sees well-to-do houses and Schule Gabler, Frank's secondary school. Frank grew up in a substantial four-story building at the Sihl end, the more frugal point of a prosperous street in one of the main Jewish neighborhoods of Zurich. Where the Franks lived, as Schulhausstrasse sloped down to the local business district, was an easy walk to the Enge train station and neighborhood shops.2

Robert Louis Frank was born on November 9, 1924. A photograph taken by his father shows a toddler with coarse, wild drifts of curly hair, surrounded by toys, one arm reaching out of the picture.3 Growing up in that house and in the surrounding neighborhood of Enge made possible a secure and comfortable existence. There were plenty of toys and books for Robert and his brother, Manfred, who was two years older. Robert particularly enjoyed German translations of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan series as well as the westerns of Karl May. The Franks had a maid; took family excursions to the mountains, France, and Italy; and Dad liked big American cars. Hermann, their father, was an amateur photographer with a stereo camera and a Leica in the house. He painted and collected art, including landscapes, drawings, and portrait miniatures painted on ivory.4

Hermann came from a Jewish family in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, where he had worked as an interior designer. He fought in World War I and had taken a bullet in the leg. The injury caused him troubles, but not enough to impair the walking he liked to do.5 After the war Hermann traveled to Switzerland, and in Basel he met Regina Zucker, the daughter of a wealthy Russian immigrant who owned a bicycle factory. "He was a very smart guy but my father didn't get along with him," said Robert. "He didn't talk much and he was different."6

They moved to Zurich, where Hermann started a business importing Swedish Luxor radios and record players and selling them from a shop in the Enge. "He also designed horrible furniture—it was all over Zurich-Enge," Robert said.7

After he closed his shop and came home at 6 p.m. Hermann would write letters, dictating correspondence addressed to various newspaper editors through an assistant—and god forbid the secretary made a punctuation mistake, for Hermann did not hold back his anger. After that the house had better be silent—no news, no noise. Time to smoke a cigar. And then, if he could, he would get out of the house and see what was going on in town.

"My father also slept, every day on the couch. He would smoke a cigar and then he would fall asleep," remembered Frank. "Then he went to a café. In a way, he was a bon vivant but he had a business. All the conversation at the dinner table was about money."8 Beyond the dinner table, however, Hermann was a charmer, a very good conversationalist who "could tell jokes like nobody else," says Claude Brunschwig, a cousin who grew up in Zurich with Robert Frank. Hermann had affairs, an open secret in the household. "He wanted to have a good life, but I think he paid too much,"9 said Robert. The children were left with a feeling that Hermann was not particularly interested in them.

Regina's eyesight was failing when Robert was young, and by the time she was fifty she was blind. "My mother was a sad woman. She had a hard life but she was a brave woman," he has said. Like Hermann, Rosa had artistic skills and drew well. According to cousin Claude, Hermann left her at home when he went out on the town, but the onset of Regina's blindness softened him. "Her husband, who was usually not so nice—he went with other women and so on and so forth—when she went blind he was so nice


  • "Sprinkled with subtle touches of poetic discourse and [Smith's] deeply felt passion and admiration for Frank's work, this book is a page-turning emotional delight."—Kirkus
  • "A comprehensive biography...Smith deliver[s] a multidimensional portrait of a man best known for depicting others."

  • "Well-observed."—Esquire
  • "One of [Smith's] most interesting books, by far."—Buffalo News
  • "An absorbing study of an enigmatic but engaging artist who still has much to say."—Library Journal
  • "American Witness anecdotally demonstrates Frank's far reaching influence. Smith's skills as a storyteller make this an engaging journey."—PopMatters
  • "American Witness is a definitive portrait of a singular artist and the country that he saw, making it unreservedly recommended."—Midwest Book Review

On Sale
Nov 7, 2017
Page Count
352 pages
Da Capo Press

American Witness_RJ Smith

RJ Smith

About the Author

RJ Smith has been a senior editor at Los Angeles Magazine, a contributor to Details, a columnist for The Village Voice, a staff writer for Spin, and has written for GQ, New York Times Magazine, Elle, and Men's Vogue. His book The One: The Life and Music of James Brown was among the New York Times' "100 Notable Books of 2012." Smith lives in Cincinnati.

Learn more about this author