Frank Recollections

By Gerald M Fox

robert-frank.jpgFrom left to right: From the Bus 1958; Mabou - Sick of Goodby's 1998; Los Angeles - February 4th - I wake up turn on the TV, 1979 (c) Robert Frank, Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

The legendary american photographer and film-maker Robert Frank has never agreed to a documentary about his life and work, until now

The omens were not good as I leafed through a number of books on the legendary Swiss-American photographer Robert Frank before meeting with Vicente Todolí, Director of Tate Modern and the curator of a then upcoming retrospective. Almost every one mentioned the fact that he does not give interviews and is adamantly opposed to explaining his work. He appeared to be a hermit living his life solitarily in remote Nova Scotia. But Todolí was convinced he could persuade him to collaborate on a first ever documentary about his life’s work. And what a life it has been…

Frank is the photographer who created The Americans, a look at the dispossessed soul of the nation in the mid-fifties, still considered to be the most influential single book of photography of the last fifty years. He is the director of Pull my Daisy (1959), the jazzy, avant-garde film that epitomised the Beat spirit and defined the new American independent cinema movement emerging at the time. He also made the controversial, now legendary Cocksucker Blues, about the Rolling Stones’ infamous 1972 tour of America that was never granted a release by the Stones due to its explicit images of shooting up backstage and naked frolicking with groupies. And that’s not to mention his 25 other films and a lifetime of unrivalled photographic inspiration.

After several phone calls in which a frail but humorously self-deprecating Robert Frank informed me that his health was in dire shape indeed, that he was no intellectual by any stretch of the imagination and that he spent his days simply waking up, lighting a fire and staring out the window of his coastal shack… but that I could give it a go if I really wanted to, I finally found my way to his New York studio, a photogenic, ramshackle old bohemian building on Bleeker Street, off the fabled Bowery downtown. It was to here he returned, from time to time, with his partner, the artist June Leaf. Filled with quirky old postcards, memorabilia, and hordes of dusty photographs, it represented a lifetime of image making and collecting. Unshaven, scruffy, sleepy, wearing dirty baggy trousers, a creased blue shirt and a green baseball cap, Frank hobbled downstairs to meet us, epitomising the ageing American artist who cares nothing for the conventions of normal society.

He seemed friendly enough, if a little circumspect, and filming began well. He spoke movingly about growing up in Switzerland as a Jew under the constant threat of Nazi invasion, his decision to “get out” and leave a tired, broken Europe, head off to New York and “become an American.” He got a job with Harpers Bazaar as a photographer shooting pens and shoes for the back pages, but soon realised fashion was not for him and so began a succession of journeys travelling around the South America and Europe on his own or with his first wife Mary and newborn son Pablo, taking the photographs that would later make him famous – sad-looking Peruvian Indians, vibrant Parisian flower sellers, snooty City bankers in London that studiously ignored him – “nowadays they would just tell you to fuck off” – and heroic Welsh miners with whom he went down the mines. This all set the stage for his path-breaking work, travelling around America in a car with a Guggenheim grant, a little Leica camera, and “some brain and some feeling for people.”

The hundreds of photographs he took on this journey, an extended road trip which saw him arrested simply for looking suspicious in the south, led to a growing sympathy for black communities and the way they were treated, with Frank preferring to “observe how elegant they can be compared to the fat white people.” These photographs, characterised by their extreme truthfulness, were eventually published as a provocatively titled book, The Americans. Jack Kerouac, who had recently become a friend, wrote the introduction, claiming that Frank had sucked “a sad poem right out of America onto film.”

Moving onto celluloid, Frank found Kerouac to be a “genius with words”, who successfully narrated Pull My Daisy virtually off the cuff, “and you don’t find that very often”. Later, travelling with Allen Ginsberg, his lover Peter Orlovsky and Orlovsky’s catatonic brother Julius around the States made him realise that the Beat spirit put some optimism into the air: “nowadays there is no more dreaming really.” Indeed, sitting on a broken television set in front of the traffic on the edge of the Bowery, he opened up about his son Pablo, who had committed suicide after a long battle against mental illness in 1994; and elsewhere he spoke movingly about his daughter Andrea, who had lived with him in Mabou, Nova Scotia, before dying aged 20 in a Guatemalan plane crash. Frank has made some wonderfully poignant works, photographic and filmic, celebrating both their lives. It was also around this time that he began to use writing in his photographs, scratched on the negative or scribbled inside the printed image itself. The famous photograph Sick of Goodby’s comments in the most beautiful way on the pain of losing those closest to you. And Robert Frank knows what this is like more than most.

Gerald M Fox is a documentary film-maker and made Leaving Home, Coming Home: a Portrait of Robert Frank for the South Bank Show. Robert Frank: Storylines, the impressively comprehensive overview catalogue of Frank’s life and work accompanying the recent Tate Modern retrospective, is available from Tate Publishing (£19.99).