Christo­pher Ben­fey

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Christo­pher Ben­fey

Amer­i­can Wit­ness: The Art and Life of Robert Frank by R. J. Smith

Robert Frank: Film Works edited by Laura Is­rael

The Lines of My Hand by Robert Frank

Amer­i­can Wit­ness:

The Art and Life of Robert Frank by R. J. Smith.

Da Capo, 327 pp., $35.00

Robert Frank: Film Works edited by Laura Is­rael.

Steidl, one book, two book­lets, and eight DVDs, $175.00

The Lines of My Hand by Robert Frank.

Steidl, 102 pp., $35.00 (pa­per)

“If I could do it, I’d do no writ­ing at all here,” James Agee re­marked at the start of Let Us Now Praise Fa­mous Men (1941), his land­mark col­lab­o­ra­tive study, with the photographer Walker Evans, of three ten­ant fam­i­lies in De­pres­sion­era Alabama. “It would be pho­to­graphs,” Agee in­sisted; “the rest would be frag­ments of cloth, bits of cot­ton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and ex­cre­ment.” Agee couldn’t re­lin­quish words so eas­ily. When his orig­i­nal plan for a photo-es­say des­tined for For­tune mag­a­zine bal­looned out of con­trol, he ended up writ­ing nearly five hun­dred pages of fever­ish prose to ac­com­pany Evans’s aus­tere, un­cap­tioned pho­to­graphs. Twenty years later, it was Evans him­self who mur­mured the fa­mil­iar mantra of so much pho­to­graphic commentary when he was asked, in 1959, to write an in­tro­duc­tion for the Swiss­born photographer Robert Frank’s epochal book The Amer­i­cans, the ex­tra­or­di­nary visual record of sev­eral road trips that Frank had taken, in 1955 and 1956, to New Or­leans, Los An­ge­les, and other des­ti­na­tions. “For the thou­sandth time,” wrote Evans, “it must be said that pic­tures speak for them­selves, word­lessly, vis­ually, or they fail.”

In his new bi­og­ra­phy of Frank, R. J. Smith, whose pre­vi­ous book was about the singer James Brown, plau­si­bly calls The Amer­i­cans “the most in­flu­en­tial Amer­i­can photo book and a sig­nal Amer­i­can art work of the last hun­dred years.” De­spite his rol­lick­ing en­thu­si­asm—or per­haps be­cause of it, since Frank, now ninety-three, seems con­sti­tu­tion­ally al­ler­gic to hero wor­ship and schwärmerei—Smith failed to se­cure the co­op­er­a­tion of his no­to­ri­ously prickly sub­ject. “Robert Frank and his wife, June Leaf, have not ex­pressed in­ter­est in be­ing in­volved with this project,” as he del­i­cately puts it. Smith tries to turn Frank’s re­sis­tance into a badge of artis­tic in­tegrity, both for Frank and, more im­por­tantly, for him­self. The photographer, he writes, “wants his work to speak for him.” Amer­i­can Wit­ness, pub­lished with none of Frank’s pho­to­graphs and only the barest para­phrases of his let­ters, is yet an­other ar­ti­fact, if an un­in­tended one, of Frank’s fraught en­gage­ment with lan­guage.

For all his vaunted re­sis­tance to in­ter­view­ers and would-be bi­og­ra­phers, Frank has shown a so­phis­ti­cated in­ter­est through­out his twin ca­reers, first as a photographer and then as an avant­garde film­maker, in what place words should have in his work. Many of the pho­to­graphs in The Amer­i­cans, in stark black-and-white, ap­pear to take up the sub­ject of race in Amer­ica, along with

Amer­i­can flags, crosses, and other bla­tant cul­tural mark­ers. Per­haps his most fa­mil­iar im­age, of pas­sen­gers look­ing out of a New Or­leans streetcar, whites in front and black peo­ple in the rear, can be read as a straight­for­ward protest against se­gre­ga­tion. But there is much more go­ing on in this enigmatic im­age, which is struc­tured like a roll of film, with in­di­vid­ual snap­shots of riders star­ing out from their frames. Frank seems to have re­al­ized early on that such richly tex­tured pho­to­graphs “spoke for them­selves” only up to a point, and might ben­e­fit from some kind of ver­bal frame or di­rec­tive to ori­ent view­ers. Frank first ap­proached Wil­liam Faulkner, who ap­par­ently blew off the in­vi­ta­tion to write an in­tro­duc­tion for The Amer­i­cans. Dis­sat­is­fied with a terse and high-minded draft by Evans, who had helped him se­cure a Guggen­heim fel­low­ship, Frank turned to Jack Ker­ouac, who obliged in the ap­prox­i­mate key of his re­cently pub­lished On the Road. “The hu­mor, the sad­ness, the EV­ERY­THING-ness and Amer­i­can-ness of these pic­tures!” Ker­ouac ex­claimed. Smith adopts this na­tion­al­ist per­spec­tive in call­ing his own book Amer­i­can Wit­ness. And yet like so many quintessen­tially Amer­i­can things, The Amer­i­cans was the work of a re­cently ar­rived im­mi­grant—“what one nat­u­ral­ized Amer­i­can,” as Frank put it in his Guggen­heim ap­pli­ca­tion, “finds to see in the United States.”

“Ev­ery­thing not to do I learned from Switzer­land,” Frank, who was born in Zurich in 1924, wrote of his or­derly na­tive coun­try. His fa­ther, Her­mann, an as­sim­i­lated Ger­man Jew who liked to recite long pas­sages of Goethe, was an am­a­teur photographer and wom­an­izer who sup­ported his wife and two sons by sell­ing im­ported ra­dios. “All the con­ver­sa­tion at the din­ner ta­ble was about money,” Frank re­called. His mother, Regina, the Swiss daugh­ter of a wealthy Rus­sian im­mi­grant, who liked to draw, suf­fered from de­pres­sion and de­clin­ing eye­sight. The fam­ily lived in an en­clave known as the Enge, a “nar­row” place near the lake re­served for pros­per­ous Jews.

A mis­fit from the start, Frank quit school at fif­teen and ap­pren­ticed him­self to a com­mer­cial photographer. Later he found a model of in­tegrity in the mod­ernist photographer Jakob Tuggener, whose photo book Fabrik (Fac­tory) ap­pealed to him for its “anti-sen­ti­men­tal point of view.” In 1941, when Hitler stripped Jews liv­ing abroad of their Ger­man cit­i­zen­ship, Her­mann and his two sons found them­selves state­less in Switzer­land. “I re­al­ized what a small, threat­ened coun­try it was, es­pe­cially for a Jew,” Robert wrote. “You were near dis­as­ter, so you wanted to get away.” In New York, where he set­tled in 1947, Frank pur­sued as­sign­ments from glossy mag­a­zines like Harper’s Bazaar and For­tune while try­ing to es­tab­lish him­self as an “art photographer.” He took public­ity pho­to­graphs for the Three Stooges and shot pic­ture-es­says about life on col­lege cam­puses. Edi­tors who strad­dled the di­vide be­tween com­mer­cial work and mu­se­ums were sup­port­ive. The émi­gré Alexey Brodovitch, at Harper’s, prod­ded his pro­tégés to ex­per­i­ment with tech­nique and sub­ject. “Bring me the night!” he in­structed one of them.

Af­ter six months of fash­ion shoots for Brodovitch, Frank abruptly quit. “I like to bite the hand that feeds me,” he ex­plained. Re­fus­ing to suck up to “Hearst’s horsey Gestapo,” as Smith awk­wardly de­scribes the com­mer­cial es­tab­lish­ment, Frank fre­quented bo­hemian cir­cles in Green­wich Vil­lage in­stead, which were “bulging with ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ists and aleatoric com­posers,” ac­cord­ing to Smith. In a Green­wich Vil­lage loft, he met the fif­teen-year-old Mary Lock­speiser, an as­pir­ing dancer and painter; they were mar­ried in 1950 and had their first child, Pablo, a year later.

The idea of a travel book, echo­ing the WPA projects of doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phers like Dorothea Lange and Gor­don Parks, ap­pealed to Frank. For much of 1948, he me­an­dered through Panama, Bo­livia, and Brazil down to Peru. He as­sem­bled a book of blackand-white im­ages from the trip, which re­mained un­pub­lished un­til 2008. “Peru was the end of ex­oti­cism,” Frank pro­claimed, a view en­dorsed by Smith: “The next time he pho­tographed a for­eign cul­ture he would do it from in­side, from a place of un­der­stand­ing those around him.”

The Amer­i­cans re­tains a dis­tinctly ex­otic feel, how­ever, reg­is­ter­ing an out­sider’s shock at his sur­round­ings. It may not re­quire a non­na­tive to no­tice the Amer­i­can ob­ses­sion with the na­tional flag—Jasper Johns took up the same sub­ject at around the same hy­per­pa­tri­otic time. But Frank’s eye tends to rest on some of the louder Amer­i­can sub­jects: po­lit­i­cal ral­lies, cow­boys, big cars, juke­boxes, tele­vi­sion stu­dios. Such sub­ject mat­ter was not ex­actly new to Amer­i­can photography, as John Szarkowski, the long­time cu­ra­tor of photography at MoMA, pointed out long ago. It was the at­ti­tude of the pho­to­graphs, their sense of “dumb amaze­ment” at “the gaudy in­san­i­ties and strangely touch­ing con­tra­dic­tions of Amer­i­can cul­ture,” that seemed like some­thing fresh. Szarkowski traced the amaze­ment back to Frank’s Swiss­ness: “A sim­i­lar shock has been ex­pe­ri­enced by many others who have been sud­denly trans­planted as adults to this ex­otic soil.”

Smith seeks to abol­ish this ironic, ex­oti­ciz­ing dis­tance, find­ing in The Amer­i­cans an ec­static em­brace of the “real” Amer­ica. He adopts the myth, pro­mul­gated by the Beats, that only cul­tural dropouts can dis­cern this true Amer­ica:

The pho­to­graphs hummed with the vi­bra­tions Frank heard—he and an ever-grow­ing over­lap­ping na­tion of shrug­gers and hood­lums and ranters and any­body who es­caped cul­ture to hit the road and see. That’s what [Ker­ouac] loved about this work: its see­ing. And Ker­ouac fuck­ing loves Amer­ica! . . . The words are bare skinned and de­pantsed, fear­lessly, care­lessly vul­ner­a­ble.

What­ever this might mean, it hardly helps us make sense of Frank’s dif­fi­cult and re­fined work. Nor does it do jus­tice to the sub­tlety of some of Ker­ouac’s in­sights: for ex­am­ple, the oc­cult re­la­tion he di­vines be­tween coffins and juke­boxes. The Amer­i­cans, it should be said, is no­tably death-haunted. A pho­to­graph of a car en­shrouded by a pro­tec­tive tarp and shad­owed by palms in Long Beach is fol­lowed by the scene of a car ac­ci­dent—four on­look­ers and a body cov­ered by a

blan­ket—on Route 66 near Flagstaff: two corpses.

Such am­bi­gu­i­ties were at the heart of The Amer­i­cans, in which Frank es­chewed nar­ra­tive or ge­o­graph­i­cal se­quence and grouped his pho­to­graphs in ways that en­cour­aged the viewer to sup­ply link­ages be­tween them. Frank played with visual jokes and dou­bleen­ten­dres. In one of his best-known pho­to­graphs, a man’s head is con­cealed by the bell of his tuba at a po­lit­i­cal rally, while the name “ADLAI” hangs on his chest. It’s a laugh-out-loud joke but also faintly dis­turb­ing, sug­gest­ing how pol­i­tics, even “good” pol­i­tics, can de­hu­man­ize its par­tic­i­pants.

In a shot from an up­per win­dow in Los An­ge­les, a fore­short­ened man walks down the street as though at the di­rec­tion of an enor­mous neon ar­row on a build­ing above him. Frank is alert to the am­bi­gu­ity of words within the pic­tures and to im­per­a­tives in par­tic­u­lar: “ASK ME ABOUT IT” af­fixed to the desk of a Navy re­cruit­ing sta­tion; “Awake!” atop a pam­phlet of­fered by a Je­ho­vah’s Wit­ness; “SAVE” among ghostly gas pumps; “RE­MEM­BER YOUR LOVED ONES” at a florist; even the word “DODGE” on a truck be­hind Frank’s cel­e­brated New York cow­boy. The Amer­i­cans was not an im­me­di­ate suc­cess, crit­i­cally or com­mer­cially. Ed­ward Ste­ichen’s 1955 MoMA ex­hi­bi­tion “The Fam­ily of Man,” with its up­beat mes­sage that be­neath ap­pear­ances the peo­ples of the world are all alike—Frank called it “the tots and tits show”—had cap­tured the mood of the mo­ment. Frank’s pho­to­graphs were not at­tacked for their am­bi­gu­ity but be­cause it was felt they “spoke” too clearly. The photographer Mi­nor White de­plored The Amer­i­cans as a “degra­da­tion of a na­tion!” The com­ple­tion of the book and its re­cep­tion seem to have ex­hausted Frank’s in­ter­est in still photography. In a chronol­ogy of his ca­reer, he wrote: “1960. De­cide to put my cam­era in a closet.”

What fol­lowed was Frank’s strange and still largely unex­am­ined ca­reer as a film­maker. An ex­ten­sive re­cent edi­tion of his films, from the Ger­man publisher Steidl, should fa­cil­i­tate fresh re­sponses to a body of work not read­ily avail­able in the past. Frank’s first film was the twenty-six-minute Pull My Daisy in 1959, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with the artist Al­fred Les­lie.* The set­ting is a ten­e­ment apart­ment on the Lower East Side. The sketchy plot in­volves a rail­road brake­man, his bo­hemian pals, and his long-suf­fer­ing artist wife, played by the one pro­fes­sional ac­tress on the set, Del­phine Seyrig. Pull My Daisy was shot as a silent movie, and Ker­ouac was again en­listed to pro­vide the words, this time with a voice-over nar­ra­tion. Ker­ouac’s per­for­mance, which Dwight Macdonald likened to a par­ody of the Stage Man­ager in Our Town, is the best thing about the film, of­fer­ing an ironic dis­tance on the shenani­gans on­screen. What lingers in the mem­ory is the rec­tan­gu­lar fram­ing and strange still­ness of many of the shots, as though Frank was try­ing to smug­gle still photography into this mo­tion pic­ture.

The other last­ing im­pres­sion is the film’s sex­ism. The male ac­tors in the film—Allen Gins­berg, his lover Peter Orlovsky, Larry Rivers, Gre­gory Corso, and a charming, very young Pablo— have a grand time, drink­ing, chat­ter­ing away, play­ing mu­sic. The women, look­ing mis­er­able and ag­grieved, tend to their ba­bies or clean up af­ter the men; the film ends with a quar­rel be­tween the hus­band, head­ing out to party with the boys, and the wife. The mes­sage is clear: men em­brace joie de vivre; women are killjoys. Seyrig, who would work with Alain Res­nais and Chan­tal Ak­er­man, “con­veys the weight of what her char­ac­ter had to put up with from the men around her—a weight,” Smith notes, “like the one Seyrig (mar­ried to the painter Jack Younger­man), Mary Frank, and the women around Beat cul­ture were car­ry­ing in real life.” One friend, de­scrib­ing the se­rial in­fi­deli­ties that even­tu­ally con­trib­uted to Frank’s di­vorce, noted that he “had been wan­tonly sleep­ing with any model girl he could find.” A kin­dred cal­lous­ness to­ward women re­curs in Cock­sucker Blues, Frank’s rarely seen film about the Rolling Stones’ 1972 con­cert tour. A char­ac­ter in Don DeLillo’s Un­der­world, com­ment­ing on the film, notes, “The men and women did all the same things, dope, sex, pic­ture tak­ing, but the men stay men and the women be­come girls.” Frank’s al­bum cover for Ex­ile on Main Street, with its clut­ter of minia­ture black-and-white pho­to­graphs, may be his most fa­mil­iar work other than The Amer­i­cans. But footage from the film, es­pe­cially the fla­grant scenes of drug use and ca­sual (or per­haps co­erced) sex, alarmed the Stones’ lawyers, and lit­i­ga­tion en­sued. “One of his great­est works, a piece he cared about deeply, would be seen in its proper form by al­most no­body,” Smith re­marks. Fea­ture-length films did not play to Frank’s nat­u­ral in­cli­na­tions, which are es­say­is­tic, po­et­i­cally as­so­cia­tive, and based on the enigmatic frag­ment rather than the ex­tended nar­ra­tive. There is a raw au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal power in some of the shorter films, in which break­downs in lan­guage are a re­cur­rent theme. The com­mu­ni­ca­tion gap be­tween par­ents and chil­dren is the cen­tral sub­ject in Con­ver­sa­tions in Ver­mont, a rough­hewn thirty-minute film about a visit Frank pays to the ex­per­i­men­tal board­ing school where he and Mary have parked their teenaged chil­dren. He brings some of his fam­ily pho­to­graphs along to show Pablo and An­drea, to stim­u­late their mem­o­ries. What they mostly re­mem­ber in­stead is what self­ish and neg­li­gent par­ents they had had. An­drea men­tions that she wished she had had more “nor­mal” par­ents, a sen­ti­ment shared by many chil­dren of im­mi­grants. Dis­tance be­tween par­ents and their kids was hardly un­usual dur­ing the late 1960s. The film gains poignancy from what we know hap­pened later. An­drea died in a plane crash in Gu­atemala when she was twenty-one. Pablo, af­ter years of hos­pi­tal­iza­tion for schizophre­nia and a strug­gle with can­cer, killed him­self at forty-three. An­other film about fam­ily ties and the lim­its of words, Me and My Brother, is nom­i­nally about Peter Orlovsky and his brother, Julius, re­leased from a state men­tal in­sti­tu­tion into his care. “Julius is a cata­tonic, a silent man,” Frank wrote in a head­note to the pub­lished script. “Sounds and im­ages pass him and no re­ac­tion comes from him.” The black-and-white doc­u­men­tary footage of Julius, af­fect­less amid a manic po­etry read­ing by Gins­berg, is riv­et­ing, but Frank added a clunky, film-within-a-film struc­ture, par­tially writ­ten by Sam Shep­ard. The nar­ra­tive frame, in color, feels dated and ex­ploita­tive, as var­i­ous peo­ple, in­clud­ing Christo­pher Walken in his first movie role, try to coax Julius to “say some­thing.” Tellingly, Frank iden­ti­fied him­self with Julius; the ac­tor Joseph

Chaikin “plays Julius and be­comes me at the same time.”

Smith tends to min­i­mize the dam­age Frank’s self-ab­sorp­tion has in­flicted on those around him, his first wife and his two chil­dren in par­tic­u­lar. An­other large sub­ject, Frank’s self­con­scious­ness—and sense of alien­ation—as a Jew, gets only pass­ing at­ten­tion. A friend is sur­prised when Frank, seem­ingly on a whim, en­ters a syn­a­gogue for hol­i­day cel­e­bra­tions. Af­ter the mur­der of Leon Klinghof­fer, he dons a hand­made T-shirt with the words “Jewish sound­ing name.” Other friends are ap­palled when Frank goes into a pro-Is­rael rant and in­sists that “who­ever is not a Jew is an an­tiSemite.” Loss is fi­nally his great sub­ject, both fam­ily losses and cul­tural ones.

Sick of Goodby’s is the ti­tle of a mem­o­rable 1978 pho­to­graphic dip­tych by Frank. A dis­em­bod­ied arm dan­gles a child’s doll in the up­per sec­tion while a mir­ror ap­pears be­low, with the words of the ti­tle slop­pily splashed across the sur­face of both im­ages. The work feels con­fes­sional, sug­gest­ing both nar­cis­sism and re­sult­ing cru­elty. “In my later work I put in words,” Frank ex­plained of his return to photography, around 1975, af­ter he met the artist June Leaf and es­tab­lished a sec­ond life with her in an iso­lated part of Cape Bre­ton. “When the neg­a­tives aren’t quite fixed I scratch in words: soup, strength, blind faith. I try to be hon­est. Some­times it is too sad.”

A vale­dic­tory im­pulse guides the slim books, al­bums re­ally, that Frank has been pub­lish­ing with Steidl dur­ing re­cent years. “I am look­ing back into a world now gone for­ever,” he writes in The Lines of My Hand (1972, reprinted 2017), a har­bin­ger of these ret­ro­spec­tive books. As usual, Frank is spar­ing with words. His terse, Agee-like dic­tum is ap­pended to The Lines of My Hand:

A book of pho­to­graphs is look­ing at me. Twenty-five years of look­ing for the right road. Post cards from ev­ery­where. If there are any an­swers I have lost them. The best would be not writ­ing at all.

His ti­tles tend to be found words, pho­tographed signs like You Would (2013), Par­tida (2014), and Leon of Ju­dah (2017). Among pho­to­graphs of old friends—the Orlovsky broth­ers, Gins­berg—and fam­ily mem­bers, there is a new in­ter­est in jux­ta­posed pho­to­graphs. Nixon’s right arm faces off against a pho­tographed im­age of Kafka. An of­fk­il­ter re­pro­duc­tion of Hop­per’s Rooms by the Sea is paired with two framed im­ages, a couple and a dog, and the cap­tion “A Friend for Life, 1941.” The viewer is in­vited to con­nect the dots. There is a pro­vi­sional, hand­made feel to these books; the dom­i­nant aes­thetic is more a scrap­book found in an at­tic than a luxury item des­tined for the cof­fee ta­ble.

It is high time for both Frank’s ad­mir­ers and his de­trac­tors to sit­u­ate his work af­ter The Amer­i­cans more se­curely in the his­tory of photography and ex­per­i­men­tal film. Amer­i­can Wit­ness is not the de­fin­i­tive book on Frank’s achieve­ment, nor—for all its use­ful in­for­ma­tion on his Swiss ori­gins and his per­sonal and pro­fes­sional net­works—does it give us suf­fi­cient ac­cess to the tex­ture of his life to be a last­ing bi­og­ra­phy. It is prob­a­bly not even the book that Smith him­self had hoped for. He seems to be la­bor­ing to please the mas­ter, ea­ger to com­pen­sate, through sheer bravura, for the great man turn­ing his back on him.

“There’s not an­other liv­ing Amer­i­can artist who has in­spired so many dif­fer­ent kinds of peo­ple—writ­ers, po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists, mu­si­cians, sleep­ers on the beach—to do what they be­lieve in,” Smith writes. But the artists Frank most re­sem­bles are not the Beats (to whom he was grate­ful pri­mar­ily for be­ing so un-Swiss), or his self-styled fol­low­ers among film­mak­ers (Richard Lin­klater and Jim Jar­musch), or mu­si­cians (Patti Smith and Tom Waits). He seems more fully aligned—in the scope of his achieve­ment and in the depth of his brood­ing me­lan­choly—with other wounded sur­vivors of the mid­cen­tury Euro­pean disas­ters, artists like the painter Frank Auer­bach or the conceptual artist Joseph Beuys, re­luc­tant wanderers, like him, in an alien world of fame and com­mer­cial suc­cess.

It is a harsh truth, but Robert Frank has tried for much of his life to avoid ad­mir­ers like R. J. Smith, who cloak his achieve­ment in the thread­bare lan­guage of hero­ism and facile Beat wis­dom. As Frank told an in­ter­viewer in 1988, “When you’re at the end of the road and you have to make up your mind about what you want to do, to not be­come a hero can be hard.”

*Two smart re­cent takes on Frank as a film­maker are Max Nel­son, “NYFF: Robert Frank on Film,” film­com­, Oc­to­ber 9, 2015, and Ni­cholas Daw­id­off, “A Mes­mer­iz­ing Marathon of Robert Frank’s Movies,”, July 12, 2016.

Robert Frank: Sick of Goodby’s, 1978; from The Lines of My Hand

Robert Frank: Paris, 1949; from The Lines of My Hand

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