Stan Brakhage was born in Kansas City, Missouri on January 14, 1933. He was educated at Dartmouth College in 1951, but dropped out as a freshman. He attended the Institute of Fine Arts in San Francisco in 1953. In 1958 he married Jane Collum, with whom he had five children.
Brakhage began working in 1937 when he trained as a singer and pianist until 1946. He performed as a boy soprano on live radio and for recordings. In 1952 he dropped out of college and began to make films; he was nineteen. He ran a small theater in Central City, Colorado, where he staged Wedekind and Strindberg. He then traveled to San Francisco and met such poets as Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Michael McClure, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley and Louis Zukofsky. These were some of the avant-garde people that would influence him in the next few years. In 1954 Brakhage went to New York where he met the composer John Cage. He then studied informally with another composer, Edgard Varese. In New York he became acquainted with avant-garde filmmakers, including Maya Deren, Marie Menken, Willard Maas, Jonas Mekas and Kenneth Anger. In 1955 he met and shot a film for Joseph Cornell. In 1956 Brakhage worked for Raymond Rohauer in Los Angeles. Brakhage also did his first public lecturing on film in Rohaver's theater. Between 1956 and 1964 Stan Brakhage worked on many commercial film projects, including television commercials and industrial films.
Jane Collum became Brakhage's wife in 1957. She also became the inspiration for the shift in subject matter of Brakhage's films. In this period Brakhage shifted towards domestic family life. In 1958 Brakhage went to the Brussels film festival and viewed the films of Peter Kubelka and Robert Breer. In 1960 Brakhage began presenting his own films in public and also lectured about his own and other people's works.
With the theft of his 16mm equipment in 1964, Brakhage concentrated on 8mm filmmaking until 1969. His major works, The Art of Vision and Dog Star Man, were completed in 1964. At the Colorado University in 1969, Brakhage lectured in film history and aesthetics. He began teaching in 1970 at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. He taught there until 1981. In 1974 Brakhage completed his major abstract film The Text of Light. In 1976 his work shifted to using Super 8mm. In 1981 Brakhage began teaching at the University of Boulder, Colorado. He was later divorced from Jane in 1986. He then moved to Boulder and married Marilyn, his second wife. He resides there now with their two children.
Brakhage is "regarded as the world's foremost living experimental film maker." (Ganguly, Sight & Sound, p20). He was most recently honored by the US Library of Congress, which selected his monumental four part film Dog Star Man (1962-1964) for inclusion into the National film registry. Brakhage has also received the James Ryan Morris award in 1979, the Telluride Film Festival Medallion in 1981, and the prestigious MacDowell Medal, whose previous recipients include Robert Frost, Georgia O'Keeffe and Aaron Copeland. In 1986 Brakhage received the first American Film Institute award for independent film and video artists (the "Maya Deren Award").