In the introduction to Robert Frank’s seminal photographic essay “The Americans,” Jack Kerouac observed: “After seeing these pictures you end up finally not knowing anymore whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin.”
Published in 1958, “The Americans” was Frank’s first great achievement. A gravely beautiful cycle of 83 pictures shot during a two-year ramble around the United States that began in 1955, the work suggested ever so discreetly that all was not well in the land of the free. His camera gravitating repeatedly to the ubiquitous American flag, Frank caught the first glimmering of the death of the American dream in images evoking the empty sound and fury of parades and politicians, and the dead-end existence of people boxed in by class and racial prejudice.
Frank also captured the vast marvel of the land itself, ribboned with an open road that seemed to go on forever, and the somber lyricism of those images underscored the devastating power of the book. Framing and cropping his images with the reckless bravado of an Abstract Expressionist, Frank hammered out a style that resonated with the chaotic poetry of real human experience. “The gray film that caught the actual pink juice of human kind,” is how Kerouac put it, and that sounds about right. Lambasted as anti-American by many when it first appeared, “The Americans” was acknowledged even by its detractors as a formidable document.
Frank’s second great achievement was the way he responded to the acclaim that rained down on him with the publication of the book. He wasn’t kidding about the Populist sympathies that coursed through his pictures, and he made it clear in short order that he had no interest in money, fame or power. Dodging success as if it were a stray bullet, he refused to play the hero or to repeat himself, abandoned photography altogether for several years to make films, and took his work into increasingly difficult and personal terrain.
The subject of a retrospective that opened last week at the Lannan Foundation after traveling to five museums in Europe, Japan and the United States--and of a film series at MOCA through April 10--Frank has amended his longtime policy of not doing interviews on behalf of these events, which seem to mean something to him.
Frank, 71, has been shackled with an inaccurate persona by the press, who invariably depict him as a dour iconoclast who lives like a bum. “I don’t read much of what’s written about me, but I do know that writers like to get into romantic descriptions of me living in a shack,” he says with a laugh during an interview at a Hollywood hotel. In fact, Frank comes across as a kind, curiously elegant man with a good deal of humility and a wry sense of humor. He finds the L.A. lifestyle delightfully appalling, for instance, and describes it as being completely different from his life on the East Coast, where he maintains homes in Manhattan and Nova Scotia with his wife of 21 years, artist June Leaf.
A spirited woman with a strong personality that’s every bit a match for Frank’s, Leaf drifts in and out of the room during the interview, brings a pot of tea and occasionally joins the conversation. They seem to have a remarkably good partnership. “I’m lucky to be with a woman like June, who’s a wonderful artist and gives a lot,” Frank says. “She fights, but she gives a lot too.”
Born in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1924, to a successful businessman, Frank felt constrained by the conventions of bourgeois life from an early age.
“In Switzerland you had to conform to what was expected of you and I realized during the war I didn’t want to live there. My mother was a conservative Hausfrau who forbid me to invite girls over, and when she was 50 she lost her sight and became afraid of everything. Switzerland is an isolated country very close to Germany, and I remember when Hitler would come on the radio and we’d hear that voice,” recalls Frank, who is Jewish. “I didn’t fear for my life--when you’re 16 you don’t have that kind of fear--but my parents wanted to run away. When I saw my parents’ inability to cope with Germany, their fear forced me to believe I could and should do something on my own because I couldn’t count on them. They were just scared old people.
“For my parents, art meant occasionally going to a museum to look at traditional oil paintings, and I remember the first artwork that made an impression on me because it was a very strong event,” he continues. “Right after the war my father took me to Paris where he had a friend who was an art dealer. We sat in a showroom and this man brought out a painting of a clown by [Georges] Rouault, and told my father it would be a good investment. When the man left the room my father turned to me and said, ‘Look at this terrible thing--I wouldn’t pay $10 for a painting like that!’ But I liked something about the painting, and I knew then there was a big gap between my father and I.”
Initially, Frank regarded photography as little more than a ticket out of Switzerland. “I studied photography only to avoid being sucked into my father’s business,” says Frank, who began four years of apprenticing to three Swiss photographers in 1941. It wasn’t until after he emigrated to the United States in March of 1947 and saw the work of British photographer Bill Brandt, that a passion for photography was ignited in him.
“When I saw his pictures, a feeling inside me woke up and reality became mystery,” he recalls. “There was a darkness and a singularity in the way he expressed landscape, and his portraits of people like Dylan Thomas, his nudes--it was all really haunting.”
Two months after arriving in New York, Frank was hired by influential art director Alexey Brodovitch to shoot fashion photography for Harper’s Bazaar. Frank quit this job--which most photographers would’ve killed for--seven months later, and in 1948 departed for a seven-month trip to South America, where he shot pictures in Peru and Bolivia. Returning to the United States in 1949, Frank met Mary Lockspeiser, whom he married the following year, then spent the next five years traveling in Europe shooting pictures of various things that interested him--British bankers, the bullfights in Spain, Welsh miners.
At the time the ranking guru of photography was Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose book of 1952, “The Decisive Moment,” posited the theory that a great photograph is one that’s snapped at precisely the right second.
“For years I said I didn’t believe in the decisive moment, but Cartier-Bresson is an important artist who made a big change in photography,” says Frank, whose work pivots on the idea that meaning is derived from a careful sequencing of images. “But I did and still do reject certain rules he set up in his pictures. The decisive moment has to do with feeling like a hunter when you take pictures and I don’t feel like a hunter.”
Back in the United States in 1953 with two young children in tow, Frank applied the following year for the Guggenheim grant that enabled him to do “The Americans.”
“When I set out to do ‘The Americans’ I’d looked at Walker Evans’ ‘American Photographs’ [an exhibition catalog published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1938], so I had some idea of what I might find out there,” recalls Frank, who had a lifelong friendship with Evans that began in 1953. “When I actually got out there, the thing that surprised me was the bigness, and that’s never stopped surprising me. I was struck by what a huge country it is, how simply people live, and how isolated people are.
“The people who interested me the most were marginalized, so there is a certain bleakness in that,” he continues, alluding to reviews of the book that interpreted it as relentlessly pessimistic. “At the same time, I think life may have been easier when I made those pictures, because people were less in the cities and they still had hope they could get a job and do what they wanted to do. Now there’s less hope.”
Returning to New York in 1957, Frank met Jack Kerouac and asked him to write an introduction for the book, which was first published in France in 1958. At this point Frank became involved with the beat community that revolved around Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and in 1959 he made his first film, “Pull My Daisy,” which featured many of them and is acknowledged as having played a key role in the birth of American avant-garde film.
Asked to share his most vivid memory of Kerouac, Frank recalls, “after we made ‘Pull My Daisy,’ Jack and I were being interviewed by this pompous guy on the radio. This guy kept asking pretentious questions and I could see Kerouac rolling his eyes. Finally he just interrupted the interviewer and asked, ‘Did you clean your [expletive] today?’
“Another thing I remember about Kerouac was his phenomenal memory. The guy could be absolutely drunk, lying on the floor at a party and a week later he’d show up having written something that included things people at the party were saying word for word. He was like a sponge. He sucked it all up and the ability to do that wasn’t something he developed--he just had that. Jack was a good guy but he was difficult and his life was tragic. He was undone by fame, Catholicism and his mother--he just wasn’t equipped to deal with those things.”
After completing work on “The Americans,” the Frank family settled into a Manhattan apartment on Third Street across the courtyard from Willem de Kooning’s studio. This connection led to friendships for Frank with several New York Abstract Expressionists, who he says “influenced me in their style of life. The action painters could live poor in a loft with nothing in it and could exist on a much lower level. In those days most photographers aspired to have slick studios, but I saw that was completely unnecessary.”
Beginning in the ‘60s Frank’s creative focus shifted from the world around him to the internal workings of his own life, and he began to define himself primarily as a filmmaker. He completed six films in that decade, most of which combined fictional passages with autobiographical material, and employed a vocabulary of experimental techniques similar to those used in his photographs.
In 1969 Frank’s marriage ended, and the following year he began to shoot pictures again after he bought a house in Mabou, Nova Scotia, with June Leaf. This was a good period for Frank, who recalls: “I made some joyful pictures in the early ‘70s. There’s one of June lying in the sand at the beach that I took with one of those cheap, plastic cameras you send in and get another camera back--that was happy, easy work to make.”
In 1972 Frank published his second book, “The Lines of My Hand,” a visual autobiography assembled from images already on hand, which was essentially an exercise in editing. The following year, Frank’s friend and collaborator Danny Seymour disappeared and was presumed dead, and in 1974 Frank’s 21-year-old daughter, Andrea, was killed in a plane crash; at this point the tenor of his work underwent a dramatic shift, and both his films and photographs became an expression of grief.
“Making work about Andrea helped me deal with her death,” he says. “There’s always the danger you’ll become pathetic and heavy, but making work--and film in particular--has always helped me get through hard periods.”
Of his son Pablo Frank, who committed suicide in his early 40s last year, Frank says: “Pablo was sick.” Clearly deeply affected by the death, he adds: “He lost his sister, then he had cancer, and after that I don’t know what happened in his head, but it was unmanageable. He was always difficult and you could never tell him much, so he resisted seeing a doctor.”
Pablo Frank is featured in several of his father’s films, which Frank recently looked at for the first time in 10 years.
“In watching them, I realized that in film I gave what I was unable to give in life,” he says. “I explain things, or at least try to. It was painful to see the films because my children have both died, and many friends aren’t around anymore either. The film I liked the most was ‘Life Dances On,’ which is about my son and our life in Mabou, and ‘Pull My Daisy’ is pretty good too. But all my films are uneven--they often have something good followed by something not good, and they tend to be too long.”
Of the notorious documentary he made of the Rolling Stones’ U.S. tour of 1972--a film the Stones immediately took steps to suppress--Frank laughs and says, “The Stones were little English boys who didn’t know anything about America, especially the South. Traveling through the South they needed their black bodyguard to get them into this place where all the blacks were, and they fumbled it when they tried to score hard dope.”
Having been anointed as officially hip by the Stones, then at the peak of their powers as cultural avatars, Frank found himself more famous. He didn’t like it at all, of course, and began maintaining an even lower profile.
“People have approached me on the street for years wanting me to look at their work or something like that, but I can’t have a connection with too many people because I just don’t have that capacity,” explains Frank, who also did the images for the cover of the Stones’ 1972 album, “Exile on Main Street.”
This isn’t to suggest that the fact that people are moved by his work means nothing to Frank. It does. Sort of. “It’s wonderful for an artist to see his work respected, but that’s not why I make the work. The Lannan did a great job installing the show,” he adds, “but this exhibition was put together three years ago so it’s old hat for me now. The newest piece is the movie I made for the show, and that’s the work I like best because it’s still alive for me. It looks especially good at the Lannan--it’s never been installed this well before.”
Curated by Sarah Greenough of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the exhibition is aptly titled “Moving Out,” in that in progressing through the show, one gets a sense of perpetual motion, of a relentless pushing on to the next thing.
“The movement now is mostly between Canada and New York, so it’s no longer about finding new territory,” Frank says. “I often find myself thinking, ‘Gee, it would be good to go to Spain,’ then I think what for? It’s better to accept what you’ve carved out for yourself.
‘I still like being in New York though--it’s a good city and I look forward to walking in the streets there,” he adds. “Life in Mabou is very different. Canada is a dull country, but it’s a wonderful place to go after New York--you see those Canadians and know you’re home safe. In Mabou I work outside and could fill the day with chores. I listen to Van Morrison, blues and lots of Bob Dylan.
“Periods of not working are more frequent now because I don’t have the energy,” continues Frank, who had a heart attack in 1992 that doesn’t seem to have slowed him down much. “As a young artist I was more ambitious and impatient. I was ready to use every minute, to do it and finish it, but now I have to be in a particular mood to make work and the mood doesn’t come that often. Mostly I do it now when people push me to. At the moment, I’m working on a film with two women from Lebanon, but I find it increasingly difficult to make something I can believe in or has some truth to it.”
Asked to describe the vision of America he had as a child in Europe, he laughs and confesses, “My fantasy of America was based on Wallace Beery films--and I wasn’t disappointed when I got here. I saw what a big country it is, that it just goes on and on, and I saw that the attitudes of Switzerland meant nothing here. The Swiss are very polite, so the rudeness and toughness of New York shocked me. The day I arrived a man got me from the boat and took me to Schrafts’ on 34th Street, where the waiter came by and just threw some silverware on the table--I couldn’t believe someone would do this!
“I still notice the rudeness of America. Other countries have tremendous pasts that they carry on their shoulders, and that they pretend or actually do take care of. In America, people go forward and that’s not a gentle sport.”
In parting, he is asked how he feels about seeing his life’s work as the subject of a three-year international homage. He thinks for a moment, then replies: “For a long time I rejected being called an artist because I felt that to paint or to be a musician was the most wonderful thing. The idea of working with a camera, pressing the shutter and all that--I had my doubts and still do. Now they treat me like an artist and maybe I am one, but if I am, the only reason why is because I believed in what I did.
“The drive to create something is a very private thing, and the biggest obstacle I’ve overcome in my life has to do with trying to explain what I’m doing,” he adds. “Now I’m more willing to do it, but for years I refused to even attempt it. It’s very difficult to communicate and to understand a person, to really say what it is you’re fighting with, or to know what someone else’s trouble is. It’s hard to talk about the important things in life because life moves very fast.”
“Robert Frank: Moving Out,” Lannan Foundation, 5401 McConnell Ave., Marina del Rey. Tuesdays to Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Through May 19. Admission is free. (310) 306-1004. Information on the films: (213) 626-6828.