Swans Commentary » swans.com November 30, 2009  



Never On Time: Robert Frank And The Americans


by Peter Byrne





"This is really a free country. There is only one thing you should not do, criticize anything."
—Robert Frank on his arrival in New York, 1947.
"A man who fears that he will never find what his imagination compels him to look for..."
—Robert Frank describing his film Hunter, 1989.


(Swans - November 30, 2009)   Robert Frank's book of photographs The Americans appeared just fifty years ago. (*) Jack Kerouac wrote a glowing introduction. Barney Rosset's Grove Press printed 2,600 copies of which it would sell 1,100 before hastily declaring the volume out of print. (Frank made $817.12.) The New York Times review was nervous and grudging. It was by the same Gilbert Millstein whose praise in 1957 had been enough to propel On The Road to national success. Now in 1960 Millstein wrote that Kerouac's introduction was "fine descriptive reading, but rather too optimistic for Frank's photographs; he sees a different America than Frank does."

Robert Frank was, as he would so often be, out of sync with the clock of mainstream opinion. (Not so Kerouac, who would vote Republican in 1960, and indulge in the red-scare rhetoric and flag-waving.) That opinion took a leap with the execution of the Rosenbergs, fed on Joe McCarthy's accusations and hurried toward the paranoia that marked cold war America.

With an immigrant's curiosity, Frank set out on his American travels to understand "the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere." His approach was not sociological. His response wouldn't come from "looking at" the country, but by "feeling something from it." Nevertheless, Millstein had been right and Frank was no optimist. Poet or not, he was a realist. Born in Zurich in 1924, he had never been sure of his status during WWII. His father, though well-off, was a Jewish refugee from Germany, and there were years when it seemed likely Hitler would swallow up Switzerland. In Europe of the 1940s, personal survival could depend on not missing a trick, on your realism. Windy Whitmanesque generalities on the American landscape were not for Frank. He drove 10,000 miles in twelve months to get the feel of the country and never once closed his eye to what frightened him. He came back with 767 rolls of film and was soon selecting from 27,000 frames to make a thousand working prints.

Only eighty-three photos went into The Americans. In a French edition of a year before, the Parisian editor had inserted quotations by Simone de Beauvoir, John Dos Passos, Richard Wright, and others that were critical of the USA. On the Left Bank the postwar honeymoon had ended and anti-Americanism, with Sartre's circle in the lead, was gearing up. Barney Rosset, probably not wanting to ruffle his public, left the quotes out of the Grove Press edition. But dropping them was also consistent with Frank's rigor. For him a photo needed no words. It wasn't an illustration of ideology or of anything else. It was a poem, and in a book of photographs the essential was to find the sequence that would create the poem's overall meaning in the viewer's mind. Frank intended with The Americans "to produce an authentic contemporary document, the visual impact should be such as will nullify explanation."

But as aware of realpolitik as Frank might be, he was jolted by the violent reaction to The Americans. Millstein's remark on Frank's want of optimism was amplified to an American Legion harangue. He had produced an "utterly misleading degradation of a Nation," "a sad poem for sick people," "a slashing and bitter attack on some U.S. institutions," and "a wart covered picture of America." Frank was "a joyless man who hates the country of his adoption....a liar perversely basking in the kind of world and the kind of misery he is perpetually seeking and persistently creating."

Frank was no chance refugee. He learned his métier in Europe and came to New York in 1947 a highly skilled photographer eager to work. The city had never before or since been such a hotbed of the arts: Charley Parker played alto sax, John Ashberry wrote poetry, Jack Kerouac prose, Richard Avedon did photographs, and Jackson Pollock painted. For a restless innovator like Frank, only the New World would do thereafter. "I wanted to get out of Switzerland. I didn't want to build my future there. The country was too closed, too small for me."

The angry reception of his book underscored his dilemma. Frank wanted to belong to America but he couldn't hide his feelings about what he saw through his camera. It was not unlike his problem with Edward Steichen, who had given Frank help. Steichen, the grand panjandrum of American photography, assembled the epoch-making exhibit of 1955, The Family of Man. It would tour the world and be seen by nine million people. Frank thought it neglected the individual qualities of the 270 photographers it put to work on the uncreative task of illustrating a theme. That theme, moreover, he found sentimental and bogus. World peace would not ensue because you photographed smiling faces from 68 different countries. Frank, who had done pictures of Peruvian Indians, found it naive to assume all humanity shared suburban America's views of democracy and the family. He turned away from Steichen.

The cover of The Americans could have been a poster for the civil rights movement, if in 1959 Frank hadn't been premature. Several years later the subject gripped the nation and political correctness would have protected him from direct criticism. The cover photo shows the side of a New Orleans trolley. Passengers peer out from five windows formed by strong steel frames. Dangerous looking rivets protrude from the side of the trolley. From the first window a white man in a business suit peers at the camera with impatience. He, like the white woman in the second window, won't yield more than a shoulder. Her face is hard, tight with suspicion. In the third window, a white boy in his bow-tie best watches the camera while beside him his toddler sister, also well turned out, cries in discomfort. A shadow hovers behind the child, apparently her black nanny. In the fourth window, a black man, maybe 35, in an open-neck work shirt faces full toward the camera. He looks weary and rests his wrist on the window edge, his hand limp. In the fifth and last window, a black woman gazes not at the camera but toward the horizon. The glint of her eyeglasses suggests the curiosity of a caged bird. The metal prison holds them all, though separated from each other by a strict hierarchy. Without a word, Frank proves that no words are necessary.

Time and time again in The Americans Frank is beforehand or laggard. America was between wars in 1959 and his photo of a soldier and his lady comes too late for the meager protests against the Korean War and too early for the huge antiwar movement of the mid-1960s. This soldier of Savannah, Georgia, has nothing warlike except his glare at the camera. He seems disgruntled over his duties of the day. These -- along with escorting his partner -- seem to include a courtesy visit and the delivery of a gift. He holds it gingerly in his left hand as if he has never in his life carried anything before. His pot belly rises just under the decorated box. His cigar is the only thing arrow-straight about him. He needs trousers a size larger around the waist. His lady rests her hand on his arm for help in balancing on her too narrow new shoes. Her black sheath dress appears to be walking her back the way she has come. It could be that her bobbing earrings and massive necklace impede progress. Her preparations for a day of pleasure have left her wincing with pain.

In a few years taste and history would catch up to Frank's book of photos. It would be seen as pivotal in the history of photography, and young practitioners would rush to emulate him. But Frank, never satisfied and dreading repetition, had moved on. As The Americans gained renown his dislike of the book grew. He also insisted that he was through with still photography and saw his creative future elsewhere. Hadn't he always been alert to the movement within a photograph? And hadn't his books of photographs always striven to suggest movement by the sequences he found for them? Now he would take up the movie camera and deal with motion more directly.

A pattern stood out. A driven young man, Frank had arrived in New York full of ambition. Never aloof or isolated, he continued, as in Europe, to cultivate key figures in the arts. His obtaining a Guggenheim fellowship in 1955 would show just how many influential friends he had made. What other young photographer had won the friendship of Walker Evans? He had soon established a place for himself in commercial photography and knew how to operate there to his advantage. But he wasn't happy and grumbled about his colleagues' thirst for lucre and lack of artistic ambition. He had already given up his sweet, lyrical early style and had been using his camera to record his gut reactions. Now he was ready for something else.

In the New York of the day, as he would later reflect, an artist could always find the people he needed: "You choose them." Frank gravitated with a sure instinct toward the Action Painters. Their way of working had invigorated the international art scene. Frank liked their bohemian ways and disdain for money grubbing. Most of all, he shared their respect for art as a supreme value to which all else took second place. He realized that the painters valued precisely what he had been working toward in his photography. They stood before a blank canvas armed only with a willingness to take risks, and showed no fear of spilling out their innermost feelings.

But Frank was not a painter. His new interest was filmmaking, and this call for narrative. The Beats were the other movement in the arts that enlivened New York at the time. With them lifestyle seemed to have replaced the art object as the supreme value. Frank, without reading On the Road, had asked Kerouac to write the introduction to The Americans. He soon realized that Kerouac's way of writing with its reliance on spontaneity and raw feeling was exactly where his camera work had led him. Like Allen Ginsberg he had come to feel "first idea, best idea."

So Frank, now identifying with the Beats, shied away from his past once more. This time he made his move too late. For as the 1960s got underway a strong current began to run through the country that opposed the mainstream. It was political and social, bolstered by the civil rights and antiwar movements. The Beats either melted into this current (like Ginsberg) or remained outside it (like Kerouac). The position of those who remained outside amounted to unconventional behavior in matters of lifestyle. It was an attitude that may have been admirable in Eisenhower's America. In the face of the life and death issues of an impending atomic war it seemed like a teenage tantrum.

The irony was that the criticism of America, latent in The Americans, had been a seedbed for the new opposition. Frank was again going the wrong way, counterclockwise. This can be seen in his first film, Pull My Daisy (1959). It was based on an unfinished play by Kerouac, who also contributed a self-indulgent voice-over commentary. The writer's intent was to explain the Beat Generation's mindset to a larger public. A bishop and his strait-laced wife are invited to a Beat apartment. The disorder and naughty words of the assembled juveniles shock the visitors. They leave. The story raises a faint echo of surrealist films like Luis Buñuel's L'âge d'or that were an effective slap in the face of the French bourgeoisie. That was in 1930. In 1959 America, beset by other problems than profanity and an upper-class dress code, Pull My Daisy and Frank were irrelevant. Anyone who had been moved by the high public art of The Americans could only blush for the former photographer.

Considering the rest of his career, a question arises. Can artists always be trusted in the evaluation of their own work? An imp of dissatisfaction appeared to inhabit Frank. It urged him recklessly toward new horizons. Admirers of his early work would be foolish to try to silence the little troublemaker within. (Frank is still alive and working.) That could bring Frank's dialogue with the world to a complete stop. However, the public certainly has a right to feel that their man has somewhere taken the wrong turn in the road.

As filmmaker Frank would continue to make short, often experimental films. His first of feature length was Me and My Brother (1965-68). Based on the brother of Peter Orlovsky (Ginsberg's partner), it undertook the serious task of rendering the inner and outer world of a catatonic.

In 1969, Conversations in Vermont turned to Frank's personal life. He would work henceforth mainly in this self-referential vein. The photographer who had taken on the forty-eight states now came full circle to focus on himself. He began once more to do still photography but that too concerned his own person. He made collages and constructed images that he called "visual autobiography." The work made little impact in the art world because, yet again, Frank was out of step with the times. Robert Rauschenberg had become identified with this type of art ten years before and now it was commonplace.

In 1974 Frank's beloved daughter Andrea died in a plane crash. Soon afterward his son Pablo was diagnosed with schizophrenia. The artist became something of a recluse. The work he continued to produce (videos from 1985) remained centered on himself and his loss.

But it's not on this note that we want to leave Robert Frank. Better to recall the first time we opened The Americans. As never before, we saw the faces of the powerful and the powerless, of the led and the leaders. The Stars and Stripes were everywhere, busy wrapping disparate and solitary individuals into some workable uniformity. Religion was on sale as a commodity. Rough humanity stood bemused and uncertain, staring at the great clanging machine that would make consumers of them all.


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*  Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans is an exhibit at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art that closes January 3, 2010. The 374 page catalogue, under the direction of Sarah Greenough, is an excellent source on Robert Frank. It was published in 2009 by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in association with Steidl Press, ISBN-10: 3865218067 and ISBN-13: 978-3865218063, $47.75. As for The Americans, a new edition has come out, Steidl, 2008, ISBN 386521584X, hardbound, 180 pages, $39.95.  (back)


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Published November 30, 2009