Robert Frank was born in Switzerland with a Swiss mother and German father in 1924. His family was Jewish, but they were safe in Switzerland during the war. The war still impacted Frank though; this can be seen throughout his work.
He had no education in photography; he initially started it as a way to express himself and to get away from the pressures of his business-oriented family. In 1941, he became an apprentice for Hermann Segesser. The next year, he started working with Michael Wolgensinger and trained as a commercial studio photographer. Wolgensinger introduced Frank to Switzerland's magazine, newspaper, and book publishing industry.
After his training, Frank released a hand-bound volume of his photographs called 40 Fotos (1946) that showed the extensive influences he had learned during his early years including: modernism, reportage, and the Heimat - the love and attachment to one's homeland - style, celebrating the simplicity of rural Swiss life.
Frank grew frustrated with the limitations of Switzerland and emigrated to the United States. In New York, he was quickly hired by Alexey Brodovitch - the art director of Harper's Bazaar. While he was inspired by Brodovitch, fashion photography grew boring for Frank and he became worn down by the deadlines and rules of the paper.
So in 1947, he quit Harper's Bazaar and traveled South America, mostly Peru. Frank says that he prefers "the present and 'things that move'", which is why the majority of his photographs are of people. In 1949, he moved back to New York and made another hand-bound book. His favorite way to showcase his photos is in a non narrative, non chronological order.
Between 1949 through 1953, Frank was restless, he traveled back and forth between New York and Europe. He liked to focus on one or two subjects with each place he visited (seen with bankers in London, chairs in Paris and the miners in Wales); these focuses expressed Frank's understanding of the people and their cultures. Despite being called "a poet with a camera", Frank was rarely published and he didn't win many awards.
Frank published two more hand-bound books. In 1954, Frank applied to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for a fellowship. He wrote in the application that he wanted “to photograph freely throughout the United States,” and “make a broad voluminous picture record of things American.” Frank received letters of recommendation from the photographer Walker Evans, as well as Edward Steichen and Alexey Brodovitch; he was awarded a fellowship in 1955 and began to take the photographs that would become The Americans.
Frank bought a used Ford, and started a 9-month journey that would cover 10,000 miles across the continental United States. Sometimes he was alone, but sometimes his family would join him. In each place he stopped, he tried to get a touch of the normal people's lives and he stopped in ordinary places; Frank tried his hardest to not have attention drawn to him. At the end of his trips, Frank had taken 27,000 frames, he printed over 1,000 that he liked.
In 1959 ('58 in France), Frank published "The Americans" with an introduction by Jack Kerouac. The book only had 83 photos in it and was completely different from any other photography book ever produced.