Robert Frank was born in Zürich in 1924 to a family of German-Jewish origin. His father sold gramophones and radios, as well as designing furniture, while his mother came from a family of manufactuers. Frank rarely spoke of his childhood, except in a text to accompany a collection of his father’s photographs: “He designed truly awful furniture. It was all over our house, in Zürich Enge, a very bourgeois neighbourhood. The man could get angry pretty quickly; in the evening, at six o’clock, when he came home from work, he started in on his correspondence, usually addressed to his creditors; he dictated his letters to his creditors and got angry at the smallest mistaken comma. After these letters, he didn’t want to hear anything; we turned off the news, he smoked a big cigar, he wanted to go out but my mother wouldn’t let him escape.”
His father had a rather middle-class hobby for the era – photography – which he practised on family holidays. With his stereoscopic double-lens camera, he snapped photos of his two sons and wife, but preferred landscapes. “When he made us pose, it annoyed me. I liked the photos in the stereoscopic machine. It taught me the value of a photo. It was an expensive machine, but my father never talked about how much things cost. His photos expressed his carefree side. I think he was happy to show life’s joys, and to have his family admire them. He was also an excellent storyteller,” Frank later remembered. The idea of becoming a photographer was just beginning to bud in the adolescent boy’s mind, but his father advised him to find another profession, one that could feed a family. “I was 12 during the Spanish Civil War; I saw photos of refugees arriving in France from the Pyrenees, and was really moved. That was when I discovered the power of photography. All the beauty of Switzerland, the joy, and just next door, war,” he recalled.
“After the war, Frank embarked on his first solo assignments, read the existentialists, but also Camus, and discovered some of Europe’s major cities: Strasbourg, Milan, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam.”
Frank started out in the 1940s as an assistant to various professional photographers in Zürich, a city home to numerous magazines. He learned the ropes first with photographer and graphic designer Hermann Segesser, then alongside Michael Wogensinger and later with Victor Bouverat and the Eidenbenz brothers, working between Zürich, Geneva and Basel. But his greatest influences were Gotthard Schuh and Jakob Tuggener. One of the most prestigious of Swiss photojournalists, Schuh was interested in ambiance and subjectivity, turning away from the simple recording of raw information and the formalism of the times in favour of an independent photography in which the artistic will would take precedence over mere mechanical reproduction. Tuggener, until recently rather forgotten, “was like a beacon” to Frank, showing “the Swiss worker, the product of Swiss money, Swiss water, Swiss mountains – from within, but without sentimentality,” as Frank later put it.
After the war, Frank embarked on his first solo assignments, read the existentialists, but also Camus, and discovered some of Europe’s major cities: Strasbourg, Milan, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. Then, in February 1947, he set sail on the S.S. James Bennet Moore to New York. It was just a visit, he told his parents, but he would end up making his home there. Before leaving Switzerland, he put together a portfolio of 40 pictures, a disparate collection that included mountain landscapes, lakes, industrial scenes, a close-up of a flower, portraits of farmers, animals in their cages, a crowd of children, tree-trunks and a brass-band, all bound in a cover featuring a close-up of an eye.