Son of actor Francis 'Frank' C. Bangs, Frank Bangs grew up in the theater. After working uncredited in half a dozen 19th-century shows, he emerged as a leading man shortly after 1900. Producer Daniel Frohman featured him in original drama and the occasional revival after 1900, yet in six Broadway billings he failed to become a star. During this same time, he developed an enthusiasm for photography. He settled in San Francisco and set up as an art photographer. The 1906 earthquake drove him back east, where he secured appointment as photographer for the Metropolitan Opera, a position he enjoyed until supplanted by Herman Mishkin. In the late 1910s, his photographic studio became a favorite resort of musicians and theatrical celebrities.
Supremely conscious of the changes in print technology driving Broadway's publicity boom, he experimented with camera techniques that produced prints that would suffer minimal degradation when mass produced. He published the best of his experiments in the pages of the Burr McIntosh Monthly, edited by a fellow actor. His photographs of Gertrude Hoffman's experimental dance company introduced pictorialist technique, modern stage sensibility, and high speed technology to east coast photography.
In the early 1910s, he became involved in the processing of motion picture film, founding Bangs Laboratories with Charles Hite. Besides being CEO of Bangs Laboratory, Hite headed the Thanhouser Film Company, and Bangs may have begun his long career as a still photographer shooting Thanhouser's "Zudora" serial and "King Lear."
Although Hite's death by a traffic accident in 1914 disrupted the operation of Bangs' processing business, during the later 1910s, Charles Frohman convinced Bangs to enter film production as a cinematographer. He worked as Director of Photography for several Empire All Star productions of 1917-1918, including "The Runaway" and every Empire film featuring Ann Murdock. In 1918, Empire's partner company, Mutual Film Corporation contracted Bangs' services for "Her Husband's Honor." In 1919 he worked as still photographer on the Jeane Paige features for Vitagraph. In 1920 at the behest of actor Richard Barthelmess, he went to Hollywood where he worked as chief West Coast photographer for the First National production company until his death on August 30, 1928. His artistry as a still photographer may best be seen in his suite of images for "The Enchanted Garden." David S. Shields/ALS
With Burr Macintosh, Bangs was an actor turned photographer who brought a sense of psychological drama and narrative focus to his portraiture and stage photography. His portraits were among the first to look dramatic yet unposed, making him one of the pioneers of the modern style of pictorial portrayal. His portraits, often in large formats, are well composed and artificially lighted. He had a particular attraction to profile heads, often set against dark backgrounds. His work was the model for much early Hollywood portraiture. He was one of the first, if not first, of the Broadway photographers to be sent to the West Coast in 1920.