Posts Tagged ‘Paul Senn’

Robert Frank – the Early Years

Friday, September 13th, 2019

My essay on Robert Frank started as my rather briefer teaching notes which I used with A Level and BTEC students in the 1980s and 90s which I later extended for publication in a photographer’s newsletter and then for a photography web site. Behind the first part of the essay was an attempt to show something of the sources of Frank’s inspiration in his photographic apprenticeship in Switzerland.

It amused me somewhat that many, particularly Americans seemed to treat Frank as an essentially American photographer, while to me it seemed to me that the strength of his vision came from the fact that he saw the country as a foreigner. Even though he had had longed to escape his native Switzerlandto find a new home in the States, his thinking was still from a European tradition – if one of which most Americans were unaware. So I began with an introduction about his early years and some of the influences on him.


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; it was also a time when Jews across the border were being killed by the million. Although the German-speaking area of Switzerland was dominated by Nazis, freedom of speech and the freedom to create remained.

Frank 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 and later worked for Michael Wolgensinger in Zurich. Wolgensinger (1913-90) had learnt photography from Johannes Meiner in Zurich before attending Hans Finsler’s classes at the Zurich School of Commercial Art and becoming Finsler’s assistant from 1935-7. Both 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 later also worked with experimental and commercial film – including ‘Metamorphose ‘ – and colour installations.

The young Frank was impressed by Paul Senn’s pictures of Spanish refugees, as well as by the resolutely Swiss pictures of Jacob Tuggener. Although Tuggener was right wing and conservative in his views, the ‘beatnik’ 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 factory photographs, ‘Fabrik‘, creating something like a film.

Montage was a term and technique developed particularly by the great early Russian film directors, Eisenstein – in ‘Strike’, ‘The General Line’ and ‘The Battleship Potemkin’ – and Pudovkin in ‘The End of St Petersburg’ and elsewhere. Pudovkin tried to analyse its use in his book ‘Film Technique’ where he states that montage is the foundation of film art. He set out five techniques of montage:

  • contrast – where for example the plight of a starving man is heightened by following it with a scene of a feast;
  • parallelism – which extends contrast by inter-cutting the scenes;
  • similarity – which makes use of similar content – as when Eisenstein cuts from strikers being shot to an ox being slaughtered in an abbatoir in the finale of ‘Strike’;
  • synchronism – which involves cutting between events happening at the same time – will the hero rescue the helpless female from the track before she is hit by the fast–approaching locomotive;
  • recurrent theme (Leitmotiv) – a recurring image or scene.

Although this schema was extended greatly by Timoshenko and usefully extended and clarified by Rudolf Arnheim in his ‘Film as Art‘ – still a useful resource for both the study of film and for photographers – it has the merit of simplicity.

Tuggener was not of course the first to sequence photographs with some care. One of the strengths of the great editors of the illustrated magazines of the 1920s and 30s such as Stefan Lorant was their skill in photographic layout. However in general this was largely a matter of linking photographs to a narrative line, often corresponding to a temporal sequence. Lorant also often worked with pairs of pictures as a contrast, often humorous, seen at its most obvious in the magazine ‘Liliput‘. Bill Brandt, the great British photographer of the 1930s-50s, was also adept at sequencing, for example in his book ‘A Night in London‘ (1938), where a temporal structure is used.

Tuggener’s approach in ‘Fabrik’ and other projects was more radical in its use of montage, making use in particular of contrast, similarity and leitmotiv. It represented a decisive move away from viewing the single photograph as the photographic work to seeing it in terms of the whole series of pictures.

By 1946, Frank was photographing on 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.


More of my essay on Frank in a later post.