Robert Frank, American Artist

On Film / The Daily — Sep 11, 2019
Laura Israel’s Don’t Blink - Robert Frank (2015)

In a profile that ran in the New York Times Magazine in 2015, Robert Frank, the profoundly influential photographer and filmmaker who passed away on Monday at the age of ninety-four, tried to convey to Nicholas Dawidoff what it was about America that had enthralled him when he arrived from Europe in 1947. “In Paris, you’d see African people on the subway, and they were African,” he said. “Here in America, they are Americans. There is no other place like this.” This sense of being invited from the very moment one has set foot on American soil to take part in a grand, ongoing experiment is captured in a letter Frank sent to his family back in Switzerland during his first year in New York. “Only the moment counts, nobody seems to care about what he’ll do tomorrow,” he wrote. “Whether you’ve been here for eight days or eight years, you are always treated like an American! There is only one thing you should never do, criticize anything.”

Frank felt the sting of blowback against what was taken as criticism of his adopted country when his landmark collection of photographs, The Americans, came out in the States in 1959. In the world of photography, the book’s creation is legendary. Before Les Américains was published in France the previous year in an edition that included short texts by Simone de Beauvoir, William Faulkner, and Richard Wright, among many others, Frank had worked as a photojournalist and movie stills photographer in Europe and the U.S. His work appeared in Life, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Fortune, and so on, but more significantly, Edward Steichen included several of his photos in two crucial exhibitions at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, 51 American Photographers in 1950 and The Family of Man in 1955. That year, Frank scored a Guggenheim Fellowship that would finance a series of road trips crisscrossing the country over the next two years.

Roaming from state to state, Frank shot around 27,000 black and white images on 767 rolls of film and selected eighty-three for The Americans. “Intimating the loneliness inherent in American notions of freedom,” wrote J. Hoberman in the Village Voice in 2009, “Frank’s photographs reveled in empty two-lane blacktops, seedy bus depots, solitary lunch counters, and all-night diners inhabited by a restless tribe of waitresses, truckers, and midnight cowboys. The Americans suggested an alternate America of dissident subcultures—the black Brandos on their motorcycles, the Native American hitchhikers photographed driving the photographer’s Ford, the New York teenagers clustered around yet another outsize jukebox.” Frank told Dawidoff that he “photographed people who were held back, who never could step over a certain line. My mother asked me, ‘Why do you always take pictures of poor people?’ It wasn’t true, but my sympathies were with people who struggled. There was also my mistrust of people who made the rules.”

In the New York Times, Philip Gefter notes that these “pictures were initially considered warped, smudgy, bitter. Popular Photography magazine complained about their ‘meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons, and general sloppiness.’” The magazine went so far as to accuse Frank of hating America. Twenty years later, though, as Gefter points out, Gene Thornton, writing in the NYT, “said the book ranked ‘with Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Henry James’s The American Scene as one of the definitive statements of what this country is about.’”

Reflecting on Frank’s work in 2004 in a piece for Tate Etc., photographer Mary Ellen Mark called him “a narrative photographer. Looking at his pictures is like watching a part of film; you can imagine what is happening around the frame.” By the time The Americans was published in the States, Frank was, in fact, already working on his first movie. In lieu of the texts in the French edition that were considered too foreign for the American one, an introduction was needed, and Frank asked Jack Kerouac to write it. And he most certainly did: “Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.”

Working with the painter and filmmaker Alfred Leslie, Frank adapted a few scenes from Kerouac’s play Beat Generation—probably written in 1957, rejected by theaters, and forgotten until it was rediscovered in 2005—as Pull My Daisy (1959). A couple played by artist Larry Rivers and, in her first movie role, Delphine Seyrig invites a bishop, his sister, and his mother (painter Alice Neel) to dinner, a party that will be crashed by Beat poets Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky. In his Village Voice column “Movie Journal,” the late Jonas Mekas argued that Pull My Daisy “clearly point[s] toward new directions, new ways out of the frozen officialdom and midcentury senility of our arts, toward new themes, a new sensibility.” The following year, Frank joined Mekas, Peter Bogdanovich, and other filmmakers to found the New American Cinema Group. Mekas’s Lost, Lost, Lost (1976) includes footage of Frank shooting The Sin of Jesus (1960), based on a story by Isaac Babel.

In the mid-1960s, Frank began cowriting Me and My Brother (1968) with Sam Shepard. The film began as a documentary about Peter Orlovsky as he headed out on a tour with his partner, Allen Ginsberg, and his brother, Julius, who struggled with mental illness. Over time, Frank began incorporating re-enactments in which actors stand in for the main players. Christopher Walken, for example, makes his screen debut playing Frank himself. “Me and My Brother, which Frank re-edited in the late ’90s, is the weightiest item in his oeuvre,” wrote J. Hoberman in the Voice in 2008, “but, for my money, he came into his own as a filmmaker with the first-person Conversations in Vermont (1969), which concerns his ambivalent confrontation with his adolescent children.”

In 1950, Frank married Mary Lockspeiser, who would become known to the art world as Mary Frank. They had two children, Andrea and Pablo, and in Conversations in Vermont, they speak openly with Frank about feeling neglected and more or less raising themselves. There’s a poignancy in Conversations now, given that Frank outlived both of them. In 1974, Andrea died in a plane crash. She was twenty. And twenty years later, Pablo killed himself. In a piece on Frank’s work for the Voice in 2016, Melissa Anderson observed that “inextricably tied to that talent for looking outward has been an abiding interest in turning inward. He has laid bare, without a shred of sentimentality, the glories, cruelties, and incongruities of both a nation and himself.”


In 1969, Frank made Life-Raft Earth (1969), shot during a “starve-in” organized by Wavy Gravy and Stewart Brand, and followed up with About Me: A Musical (1971), “which mutated from traditional music doc to startlingly manic self-presentation,” as Hoberman wrote in 2008. Both films “are steeped in the pungent clutter of late-’60s hippie boho life.” By this point in his life, he was splitting his time with his new wife, the sculptor June Leaf, between New York and a quiet community in Nova Scotia. And then in 1972, Frank made his most notorious film.

The Rolling Stones hadn’t toured the U.S. since the tragic 1969 free concert at the Altamont Speedway in California during which an eighteen-year-old was stabbed and beaten to death by Hells Angels. But the band had a new record to promote, Exile on Main St., a big, statement-making double album embracing nearly every musical style that had influenced their sound over the years. They asked Frank to design the cover, and he obliged with the complete package, inner sleeves and all. The Stones agreed to allow him to accompany them on their return to the States, and the result is Cocksucker Blues (1972).

Interspersed with the rehearsal and concert footage are scenes of the sort of debauchery anyone would expect from one of the world’s biggest bands in the early 1970s. Sex, drugs, the works. “Cocksucker Blues poses the Orphic question of just how far an artist can go too far,” wrote the New Yorker’s Richard Brody in 2016. The film is so explicit that Mick Jagger is said to have worried that if it were to ever screen in public, the Stones would never again be allowed to enter the United States. Long story short, a court ruled that the film can be shown five times a year and that Frank must be present at each screening. The New York TimesA. O. Scott calls Cocksucker Blues “one of the strangest and toughest artifacts of its era, by turns haunting, horrifying, and beautiful.”

In 1988, Frank and novelist Rudy Wurlitzer codirected a cast that includes Tom Waits, Bulle Ogier, Laurie Metcalf, Joe Strummer, Arto Lindsay, and Leon Redbone in Candy Mountain, a rock ’n’ road movie and an outlier in that it’s probably Frank’s most overt stab at commercial success, however modest. Two years later, he made C’est Vrai! One Hour, a record of a trek through a few blocks in Manhattan in real time. “How much of Frank’s apparently random drift is precisely plotted, how many seeming chance encounters are staged and intricately coordinated, and how much of what we see and hear is extemporaneous?” wondered Jonathan Rosenbaum in 2003. “The volatile, unstable mixtures of chance and control can never be entirely sorted out. In short, how much this is a tossed-off home movie about Frank’s neighborhood and how much it’s a contrived board game spread out over several city blocks ultimately becomes a metaphysical question.”


In 2016, a year after that NYT Magazine profile, Nicholas Dawidoff wrote another for the New Yorker. The occasion was a retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and a new documentary, Laura Israel’s Don’t Blink - Robert Frank. Israel had been working as an editor for the likes of Gus Van Sant, John Lurie, and Laurie Simmons, and she was making music videos with such artists as Lou Reed, David Byrne, and Keith Richards when Frank called on her to help him out with a video for New Order. She settled in, becoming not only Frank’s editor but his archivist as well. And she spent ten years coaxing Frank to give her what she needed for Don’t Blink.

In the New Yorker piece, Dawidoff openly admits to Israel that he can’t quite wrap his head around Frank’s filmography as a whole, and so, they decide to watch all thirty-odd films together. The project takes days to work through, and toward the end of it, a sort of grand theory of Robert Frank begins to take shape in Dawidoff’s mind. “As with The Americans,” he writes, “he was out to convey complexities of human feeling and sensation, but in an increasingly intimate milieu. He had left Switzerland; he had lost his children; he had known many great artists, and many troubled men and women, and lived frequently among outsiders; and he seemed to have spent fifty years looking through a viewfinder, attempting to understand his own ever-shifting attitude toward loss.”

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