TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT Summer 1986

Candid Camera

ROBERT FRANK HAS BECOME an enigma merely by following the dictates of his own work. It’s been thirty years since he took the pictures for The Americans, 1959, the photographic bildungsroman of ’50s America for which he’s still best known. In the years since, as successive generations of photographers have acknowledged the enormous influence his work has had on them, he has increasingly become a figure of rumor and conjecture outside the circle of his immediate acquaintances. Although he still maintains a small studio in New York, fifteen years ago he moved with the painter June Leaf to a farm in rural Nova Scotia, emerging from his isolation only occasionally to work. Soon after the publication of The Americans Frank decided to give up photography, and turned to film. While he has received critical acclaim for his work in that medium, for the most part his reputation continues to rest on the brilliant achievement of The Americans.

“Robert Frank: New York to Nova Scotia,” a retrospective organized by Anne Wilkes Tucker and Philip Brookman for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where it was shown this spring, offers by far the best opportunity we’re likely to get to examine the full scope of Frank’s work to date in both photography and film .1 The exhibition presents not only a wide range of Frank’s work from the years before and during the period in which he photographed The Americans, including a series of one-of-a-kind photographic books he made in those years, but also all of his films; the photographic collages he has made since 1971; and Home Improvements, a diaristic videotape he made last year. What the exhibition reveals most clearly is the degree to which Frank has struggled to use photography and film—media whose mechanical precision offers the tantalizing, ultimately hollow illusion of objectivity and truth—to reflect emotion, intuition, doubt, and desire. In doing so he has faced the paradox at the heart of these media, the relationship between intention and fact, between the events in front of the camera and the person behind it.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of films and photographs that attempt to record society—whether for a documentary or a more personal purpose—is their apparent immediacy, the sense they convey of embodying absolute truth, of not only depicting reality but defining it. But it’s precisely that quality about photography that we might distrust the most—and Frank himself seems to share that distrust. In fact, over and over he appears to be attempting to find a way to make a statement that uses the presumed authority of the camera image, its implicit claim to capture not only the surfaces but the deeper essence of the external world, to articulate an authentic personal response. Such an enterprise is necessarily charged, subversive of epistemological distinctions between the implacable surface of physical reality and the nebulous, literally immeasurable inner life of individuals. Increasingly, Frank’s work has been concerned with his role as both picturemaker and participant in the events he records, and with the responsibilities of each. As he remarks in Home Improvements, “I’m always doing the same images. I’m always looking outside, trying to look inside, trying to tell something that’s true.”

In retrospect, there is an insistent logic to the twisting path Frank’s work has followed. A Swiss Jew who had seen the horrors of Nazi Germany as he grew up, he arrived in New York in 1947, and got a job shooting studio setups of fashion accessories for Harper’s Bazaar. The next year, he traveled to South America for six months at his own expense, photographing the Peruvian Indians and the rugged terrain they live in. On this trip he began to work extensively with a Leica; the small camera allowed him to break out of the rigid pictorial formulas of his studio work. When he returned to New York he continued the magazine work, but with an increasing emphasis on a style of shooting based on immediate, intuitive decisions. In 1954, at the urging of Walker Evans, then an editor at Fortune magazine, Frank applied for, and received, a Guggenheim grant to “photograph freely throughout the United States, using the miniature camera exclusively.” He began the project around New York and Detroit; then he drove through the South to Texas. Mary, his then wife, and their children joined him in Houston, and they drove together across the Southwest to Los Angeles. Frank then continued on alone through Nevada, Utah, Idaho, and Montana, eventually shooting over 800 rolls of film.

The controversy that greeted the publication of this work has faded into the distance. At the time, many people attacked The Americans as pessimistic and dour, while others praised it. Evans remarked on its “irony and detachment”; Jack Kerouac, in his introduction, exulted in “the humor, the sadness, the EVERYTHING-ness and American-ness of these pictures!” It’s not difficult to understand the conflicting reactions. The Americans described the diversity and contradictions of American society—rich and poor, black and white—in a time and medium that favored the reductive certainties of propaganda and advertising. Moreover, The Americans is about Frank as much as it is about the United States; the photographs Frank took in Peru seven years earlier prefigure central themes of the later book—children as witnesses; the everyday heroism of those excluded by the culture; the otherworldly quality of billboards and advertising, to which Pop art was simultaneously responding; the promise (real and false) of the open road; the car as icon.

The formal devices Frank uses in The Americans—setting up rhymes and rhythms within the frame, cropping radically to complicate the relation between foreground and background and thus to open up the parameters of the subject—were pioneered in the 1930s by such European street photographers as Bill Brandt, Brassaï, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Frank borrowed and extended these techniques to reflect his responses to the atmosphere of postwar America. In some cases he steals the masks of official culture and switches them around, putting different faces on them. For example, he depicts the rituals of political power—rallies, parades, conventions—as circuses with the politicians as the clowns. He sees teenagers not only as the clean-cut wholesome youths of, say, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, but as bored, discontented, wary; blacks, the nearly invisible repressed other of the psyche of white America, who were turned into Amos ’n’ Andy cartoons in the Jim Crow ’50s, Frank shows as real people, noble in the face of everyday adversity. He photographed the props of the culture’s fantasy life—drive-in movies, jukeboxes, TV studios and sets, bikers in studded leather jackets—with a romantic pessimism that lends both a gentleness and an ironic distance to his pictures.

When Frank is asked why he quit photography after completing The Americans, he usually replies that he felt he’d reached a dead end in his work. A two-page spread in The Lines of My Hand, 1972, Frank’s pictorial recounting of his life and career, suggests another reason—a sense of disgust with the voyeuristic aspects of photography. On one page are pictures of photographers frantically crowding one another to get a good shot of something we can’t see; facing them is a photograph of an advertising signboard outside a freak show, made up of tiny photographs of human oddities vying for attention. In these two pictures Frank poses a triangular relationship between the photographers’ compulsive desire to see, the posers’ desperate need to be seen, and the viewers’ silent but essential presence. Perhaps it was to break through this sense of the pornographic inevitability of photography that Frank rejected these relations and instead sought a way of working that allowed him to look both outside and in. “It is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph,” he had written shortly after the publication of The Americans.

The Americans expresses Frank’s spiritual kinship with the Beat poets and writers. Like them, he prizes spontaneity and intuition; he shares their rejection of the usual pieties and proprieties, their choice to remain outside the culture’s official life, their yearning for the transfigurative experience lying just beyond the horizon. This kinship was personal as well as spiritual. Frank’s first film, produced shortly after the publication of The Americans, was Pull My Daisy, 1959 (made with the painter Alfred Leslie), a spoofy romp in which Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, and Alice Neel act out Kerouac’s stream-of-consciousness script about a bishop who comes to visit a Beat and his friends.

Frank now prefers not to show his next two films, The Sin of Jesus, 1961, and O.K. End Here, 1963. Both are fairly conventional narratives, with scripts and actors, which reflect the influence of the work of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. It was only with Me and My Brother, 1965–68, that Frank focused on the themes of observer and observed, inside and out, that had been implicit in his earlier work. While working with Ginsberg on a project to base a film on Ginsberg’s poem Kaddish (1961), he began shooting footage of Orlovsky’s brother Julius, described in a letter from a hospital official as “an almost mute, catatonic man,” who had just been released from an institution into Peter’s care. Frank continued to film Julius when he accompanied Ginsberg and Peter on a poetry tour; when Julius disappeared from the tour, the actor/director Joseph Chaikin was hired to play Julius in fictional segments of the film. As a result, Me and My Brother turned explicitly to issues that had been implicit in Frank’s decision to film Julius in the first place—questions of watching and being watched, revelation and concealment, multiple realities and fiction. As the movie goes on Frank makes increasingly clear his identification with Julius. In treating the real Julius as subject matter, actual and symbolic, Frank risks being accused of presumptuous identification and exploitation. But his respect, as well as the obvious care with which he considers his own role as filmmaker, keep Me and My Brother a moving, densely meaningful film.

Frank has made eight films since Me and My Brother, and has worked on a variety of other film projects as well. Some of his own films have been sponsored documentaries; others have been explicitly fictional, allegorical presentations of his own life, while still others have been directly diaristic. In 1972 he was hired to make a film about the Rolling Stones’ American tour that year. (Some of his photographs had been used on the jacket and inner sleeves for Exile on Main Street, the Stones album released earlier in the year.) Made with Danny Seymour, Cocksucker Blues—the title comes from a song Mick Jagger sings during the film—depicts a world of drugs and sex used in an attempt to break through the intense pressures and exhaustion of being on the road. In making the film, Frank was also obviously commenting on the contradictions of rock, a medium in which black culture has been appropriated and made into the basis for commercial stardom. In one scene he interviews a black maintenance worker in spontaneity and intuition; he shares their rejection of the usual pieties and proprieties, their choice to remain outside the culture’s official life, their yearning for the transfigurative experience lying just beyond the horizon. This kinship was personal as well as spiritual. Frank’s first film, produced shortly after the publication of The Americans, was Pull My Daisy, 1959 (made with the painter Alfred Leslie), a spoofy romp in which Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, and Alice Neel act out Kerouac’s stream-of-consciousness script about a bishop who comes to visit a Beat and his friends.

Frank now prefers not to show his next two films, The Sin of Jesus, 1961, and O.K. End Here, 1963. Both are fairly conventional narratives, with scripts and actors, which reflect the influence of the work of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. It was only with Me and My Brother, 1965–68, that Frank focused on the themes of observer and observed, inside and out, that had been implicit in his earlier work. While working with Ginsberg on a project to base a film on Ginsberg’s poem Kaddish (1961), he began shooting footage of Orlovsky’s brother Julius, described in a letter from a hospital official as “an almost mute, catatonic man,” who had just been released from an institution into Peter’s care. Frank continued to film Julius when he accompanied Ginsberg and Peter on a poetry tour; when Julius disappeared from the tour, the actor/director Joseph Chaikin was hired to play Julius in fictional segments of the film. As a result, Me and My Brother turned explicitly to issues that had been implicit in Frank’s decision to film Julius in the first place—questions of watching and being watched, revelation and concealment, multiple realities and fiction. As the movie goes on Frank makes increasingly clear his identification with Julius. In treating the real Julius as subject matter, actual and symbolic, Frank risks being accused of presumptuous identification and exploitation. But his respect, as well as the obvious care with which he considers his own role as filmmaker, keep Me and My Brother a moving, densely meaningful film.

Frank has made eight films since Me and My Brother, and has worked on a variety of other film projects as well. Some of his own films have been sponsored documentaries; others have been explicitly fictional, allegorical presentations of his own life, while still others have been directly diaristic. In 1972 he was hired to make a film about the Rolling Stones’ American tour that year. (Some of his photographs had been used on the jacket and inner sleeves for Exile on Main Street, the Stones album released earlier in the year.) Made with Danny Seymour, Cocksucker Blues—the title comes from a song Mick Jagger sings during the film—depicts a world of drugs and sex used in an attempt to break through the intense pressures and exhaustion of being on the road. In making the film, Frank was also obviously commenting on the contradictions of rock, a medium in which black culture has been appropriated and made into the basis for commercial stardom. In one scene he interviews a black maintenance worker in an auditorium where the Stones are to perform. Later he shows the band and its retinue as they drive through the backwoods South; when they stop at a roadside bar, the blacks inside, a little awed by having pop superstars in their midst, begin to show off. Soon one of the men in the bar pulls out a guitar and begins to play, and the band members join in the mood. Before long, though, the Stones are back in the cars (where Jagger plays around with a super 8 camera), on their way to the next gig; the blacks, of course, are left behind. Because of a legal dispute, Cocksucker Blues was never released; Frank is now allowed to show it only when he is present.

In 1969 Frank bought the land in Mabou, Nova Scotia, where he now spends much of the year. Most of the collages he has produced since moving there refer explicitly to events in his life; many feature the spare landscape of Mabou as a backdrop. Frank’s art and his private life are so closely entwined that it’s difficult to discuss them separately. In recent years his decision to make so much of his work introspective and autobiographical has been given an added urgency, as a series of personal tragedies have affected him. His daughter, Andrea, died in a plane crash in Guatemala in 1974; his son Pablo has been in and out of mental institutions; Seymour, the young filmmaker with whom Frank had worked, disappeared at sea. In Life Dances On . . . , 1980, a film dedicated to Andrea and Seymour, Frank discusses the deep impact their deaths have had on his life and on his work. Two of Frank’s most moving collages are remembrances of Andrea, and lamentations for her loss.

It would be tempting to regard Frank as a kind of perpetual exemplary sufferer. But to do so would be to devalue both his life and his art, reducing him to a textbook example of the Romantic myth of the artist as surrogate victim for society. The depth of Frank’s recent work stems from the fact that he remains so resolutely subjective; its strength lies in the fact that he continues to strive for emotion rather than manipulate sentimentality. (Even Frank’s current film project, based on a script by Rudy Wurlitzer in which a master guitarmaker disappears into the wilds of northeastern Canada, can be seen as an allegory of Frank’s life.) Inherently, a private life that is turned over and over again into public art becomes framed by the (ever more sophisticated) devices of art; the artist has to grow cannier, to sneak up on him- or herself, to remain acutely self-critical, in order to avoid falling into easy platitudes and emotional posing. It seems telling that in the panel of large color Polaroids that Frank made from Home Improvements—a panel that includes shots of Pablo, June Leaf, Mabou, and a New York subway car—Frank himself appears reflected in a mirror, the video camera on his shoulder like a second head. He reminds us that photographs and films must be treated not only as evidence but as confessions.

Charles Hagen writes frequently for Artforum, and is reviews editor of the magazine.

—————————

NOTES

1. “Robert Frank: New York to Nova Scoria” will be shown at the Cleveland Museum of Art from July 22 to August 31. In 1987 it will travel to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the University Art Museum, University of California, Berkeley. (The organizers could find no East Coast institution willing to rake the show.) Many of the derails about Frank’s life in this article are taken from the excellent catalogue that accompanies the exhibition.