Looking In: The Difficult Career of Robert Frank

New York City, 7 Bleecker Street, 1993
New York City, 7 Bleecker Street, 1993. From the Robert Frank Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Robert Frank hardly needs another obituary. His status is unquestionable, his place in the canon of photography pivotal; we can fairly divide the medium into the periods before and after his influence made itself felt. But like anything else, the operation of such a consensus tends to limit what we might yet be able to say about Frank’s work, especially given the restless, actually quite disconnected trajectory of his career. This is, after all, an artist who abandoned his primary medium at the height of his powers and took up another, following his creative impulses no matter the cost. The established critical understanding of Frank’s work will inevitably shift in the wake of his recent death, but the gravitational pull of the mythology that surrounds him is still profound, and a genuine effort to re-think what we know about Frank requires questioning not only his particular output, but also many of the fundamental assumptions that we take for granted about photography and its history. This is something that Frank himself was surely aware of. Having already made one era-defining masterpiece with his book The Americans, the remainder of his working life finds him locked in a determined, if only intermittently successful struggle to break free from what he had already done. What I want to consider here are some of the ways in which Frank grappled with his own artistic legacy and the limitations of his chosen medium, raising questions that become especially pressing for the later part of his career.

In flight from the staid conformity of his Swiss upbringing and what seemed to him like the dull prospect of a career in commercial photography, Frank sailed for America in 1947. The sense of freedom and overall dynamism that he found in his new home fascinated him. He wrote home to his parents “never have I experienced so much in one week. […] Life here is very different than in Europe. Only the moment counts, nobody seems to care what he’ll do tomorrow.”[i] And aside from the sense of personal liberation that it offered, America also had an inevitable impact on Frank’s nascent picture-making. There is a striking contrast between the careful, studied compositions of his earliest Swiss pictures – admittedly often produced to order, coming from the rigours of his apprentice years – and the new pictures he started to make shortly after his arrival in New York. Frank was obliged to develop his photographic language in response to his new home, almost reinventing it wholesale, in order to adequately reflect how he experienced the shock of American culture. So even at this early stage there is a clear relationship between the social context in which Frank is working and how he pictured it, always grounded in a personal response. But that visual language, characterised by a sense of immediacy untroubled by technical niceties, had a longer evolution than is generally recognised.

Page spread from Peru, 1948, one of two hand-bound books that Frank produced. From the Robert Frank Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Through the work he made in the late 1940s and into the 1950s when he travelled to France, Spain, England and Wales, as well as in South America, Frank systematically refined his vision of what photography could be. A crucial component of this development was his adoption of the 35mm Leica camera, something Alexy Brodovitch, the legendary editor of Harper’s Bazaar, had encouraged him to do. The small camera allowed Frank to enter into what he was depicting to the extent that the pictures seem unmediated transcriptions of all that he saw and experienced on his travels. That feeling of being a part of life as it happened would become central to Frank’s work, practically and also, for want of a better word, conceptually, as time went on, its whole rationale. Brodovitch was influential in other ways too, having made a radical photobook, Ballet, using intentionally ‘bad’ technique to communicate the atmosphere of a ballet performance. The innovative use of sequencing in that book, along with the examples of Bill Brandt and André Kertész, confirmed for Frank the notion that groups of images could be more powerful, more complex than single pictures. In part too this is bound up with his rejection of photojournalistic convention, so dominant at that time, what he called “those god-dammed stories with a beginning and end,”[ii] typified for Frank and for millions of other readers by publications such as Look and Life. But it is also an expression of the idea that photography can be used in ways that are equal to the range of lived experience, which resists being summed up in the language of magazine cliché.

The best early effort in this direction by Frank is his collection Black White and Things, a small book of thirty-four images he made in 1952. It is a sustained attempt to create a narrative sequence of images, where meanings cross back and forth between the pictures, building as the ‘story’ unfolds, but resisting any kind of conclusion, or even the statement of a clear central theme, except perhaps life itself. As Sarah Greenough astutely says: “It demonstrates that there are no decisive moments, no instances when the truth is clarified through the perfect combination of form, gesture, and expression. It is a sequence that reveals the equivocal way we know reality, that creates a place for memory, and ultimately does not clarify its nominal subjects […] but compounds their mystery.”[iii] The fact that this early work was not widely known at the time has contributed to the sense that Frank arrived fully-formed as a photographer, but here is, at the same time, a significant leap between The Americans and everything he had made before. It is a statement by a mature artist, fully in control of his voice and his medium, however technically deficient that seemed in some quarters, having overcome the restrained, but still obvious touches of sentimentality that marked his earlier projects. What remains is the insistent desire that the pictures respond authentically, without premeditation, to the experiences they depict, and the conviction that the work as such resides in the relationship between the pictures, rather than just in a single frame.

The publication of The Americans summarises – and effectively brings to an end – a profound period of exploration and development for Frank, which finds him having achieved an nearly unparalleled mastery of the small camera idiom that his work had, in fact, served to define. The book really is a watershed in the medium; everything would be different after it, and unlike a lot of other major achievements, which can go unrecognised for years, Frank’s innovation was apparent right from the start. Almost any other artist having arrived at this level of creative success would have set about consolidating their accomplishment and tried to build a whole career around it. This is, in fact, the literal opposite of what Frank himself would choose to do. The reasons for this are no doubt complex, but it certainly reflects something about Frank’s own restless creative drive. Perhaps he also felt it would be useless to repeat what he had already done, indeed maybe even considered such an attempt absurd, given his insistence on the artistic primacy of the initial encounter with a subject, something that could hardly be recaptured. The transition to another medium did not happen at once, however. Frank produced a small photography project in the interim that returned to the territory he’d already made his own – the street – and strongly hinted at where he would soon go. Shot from the windows of moving city buses, this brief sequence is constructed in a way that suggests Frank already had his mind on the possibilities of filmic montage.

At the same time, it plainly isn’t the case that he had somehow exhausted the resources of photographic narrative or the medium more generally. Perhaps this frustration with still photography had something to do with how The Americans had been received, the immediacy of his own experiences steadily crystallised into a definitive set of conclusions – both about the subject and his capacities as an artist. Film-making, by contrast, had the potential to be less static, because of how it could encompass multiple, conflicting perspectives and other voices besides his own. Even viewing a film seems more like an experience in itself, often a communal one, compared to encountering an object like a photographic print or book. Frank’s own account of the change is typically laconic, but convincing nonetheless: “In making films I continue to look around me, but I am no longer the solitary observer turning away after the click of the shutter. Instead I’m trying to recapture what I saw, what I heard and what I feel. What I know! There is no decisive moment, it’s got to be created. I’ve got to do everything to make it happen in front of the lens.”[iv] What this meant in practice was that Frank’s films were quite raw, disdaining the familiar conventions of cinematic staging or any kind of formal polish. Again he was well placed, anticipating a wider cultural change toward freer, more experimental modes of film-making. But many of Frank’s films – and the later video pieces especially – are so determinately personal, so inward looking, that it’s hard to imagine them gaining any kind of mainstream influence. Their introspective tone arises from a characteristic need to interrogate his working methods, and himself.

Me and My Brother, 1965–1968
Me and My Brother, 1965–1968. From the Robert Frank Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

The most sustained, if self-lacerating, account of Frank’s own struggle with his identity as an artist is ostensibly about someone else. Me and My Brother, released in 1969, charts the relationship between Peter Orlovsky and his brother Julius, who is suffering with schizophrenia and virtually catatonic.[v] The story, such as it is, has to do with Julius being released from a psychiatric hospital into Peter’s care. He then takes Julius on a poetry reading tour with Allen Ginsburg, Peter’s own long-term partner, while Frank makes a film about the two brothers and their relationship. But the line between reality and fiction become increasingly – and deliberately – blurred as we see the making of the film we are already watching and actors take over the various parts, even of Frank himself, who appears throughout in various guises. At one point the role of ‘Robert Frank’ the director is played by a young Christopher Walken, in his first screen role, with Frank’s own voice dubbed in, just to add to the confusion. As all of this suggests, Me and My Brother is a self-consciously ‘difficult’ film, often appearing sloppy or incoherent. But in watching it, a pattern begins to emerge, forming an ambitious confrontation with the nature of self and the responsibilities of the artist. This last issue must surely have been a pressing one for Frank, both in this film particularly, dealing with a subject – his main character – who often refuses to speak and seems incapable of acting with any volition, and with regard to the legacy of his own burdensome masterpiece, which had proposed to encompass a whole continent.

In Me and My Brother Frank uses formal or structural markers to help guide the viewer, primarily employing colour stock to designate the staged film-within-the-film and monochrome for ‘real’ events – an interesting reversal, and perhaps a commentary on the conventions of the documentary genre. But he blurs even these simple distinctions further, for example by shooting the scenes of people watching the film in colour as well, a staging that becomes just another frame to break. In addition, some of the ‘real’ scenes, keyed as such by being shot in monochrome, recreate or reference events that actually did take place. Hiring an actor to substitute for Julius himself then becomes part of the film, with these scenes shot in colour, so again it is ostensibly fiction. Joseph Chaikin, the actor playing Julius, confronts footage of himself supposedly as the real Julius and treats it as such, reacting to himself in character, while ‘Robert Frank’ in the guise of Christopher Walken directs. This continual slippage of identity, confusing the real and the imaginary, past and present, is at the heart of the film. In keeping with the intellectual milieu in which Frank operated, there is at work here an admittedly somewhat trite idea, suggesting that the ‘mad’ person is really the only normal member of a sick society. But he also attempts to satirise such a view, for example, though the pomposity of statements made by Julius’s doctor, another quasi-fictional character, who even introduces himself by saying “I’m John Coe, I play the psychiatrist.”

At one point, Frank tells Chaikin that scenes need to be staged because Julius won’t to do what he wants, and at any rate had actually gone missing for a time while the film was being made. A similarly callous attitude marks the portrayal of directors and photographers throughout the film, suggesting that Frank had come to regard the act of recording as fundamentally intrusive, almost obscene. The artist’s shaping of reality to their will seems to involve a kind of cruelty that they are unaware of or simply don’t care about. Through the characters and the staging of the film Frank is continually questioning his complicity in distorting what he sees as the truth of a situation merely through his being there to observe it with a camera. In another particularly jarring sequence, a photographer played with unctuous self-assurance by Roscoe Lee Browne is confronted by an ‘actress’ who accuses him of having a secret life he “won’t tell anybody about no matter what they ask you,” which speaks to the photographer’s unwillingness to engage with others on a human level, always the ‘solitary observer, turning away after the click of the shutter,’ as Frank later described himself.  Slipping between personas and visual modes, the film articulates a sense of art-making, and photography in particular, as something that can on one level confront reality, bring us closer to it, but on another also undercut or overwhelm our capacity to authentically experience life. This tension is fuelled by Frank’s own conflicted sense of his responsibility as an artist, trying to reconcile a need for self-expression with what he knows of the limitations and compromises that diminish it in practice.

Perhaps because of this though, Frank’s interest in and sympathy for his subject feels remarkably genuine, especially in the last moments of the film, when he encourages Julius, who has been largely silent up to then, through a halting dialogue. Julius stands outside on a balcony separated by a window from the camera (and Frank) inside. Responding in a hesitant and awkward way to questions directed to him from off-screen, Julius stumbles over the words, yet manages to tentatively claim his own voice despite the barrier of illness. In the context of the film his responses are extremely telling: “The camera,” he says, “seems like a reflection of disapproval or disgust or disappointment or unhelpfulness or unexplainability [sic] to disclose any real, real truth that might possibly exist.” This attitude seems to mirror Frank’s own distrust of his role as a photographer and film-maker. Julius’s position relative to the camera is significant as well – outside and alone on the far side of the glass, while Frank the director is, literally and metaphorically, inside, separate. As they talk, Julius begins to shiver from the cold. Frank asks if he wants to come inside, and as he does the film abruptly ends. Could it be that Julius, a man seemingly with no real identity or will of his own but still groping obscurely for some kind of certainty, represented for Frank a parallel to his own sense of artistic struggle, having abandoned the medium that defined him – a sense of kinship underscored by the final moments of the film?

Coming back to photography Frank gravitated towards very different territory than the one he left behind. The best summation of this journey is his book The Lines of my Hand, which, typically, underwent considerable evolution and revision in the course of its life, with three distinct versions in circulation.[vi] The first was produced as a sumptuous limited edition art publication by Kazuhiko Motomura for his Yugensha imprint in 1972, with an expanded trade edition by Lustrum Press also being released in the same year. It is the subsequent 1989 edition that I would argue is closest to being definitive, however. In 1972 Frank was really only beginning to rediscover photography, the latest phase of what he called his “search for an image that comes close to a truth,”[vii] and many significant pieces are consequently absent from the Lustram edition, which focuses on the early and middle portions of Frank’s career. By contrast, the 1989 edition gives wider scope to his post-film-making output, especially the often despairing work informed by the tragic events of Frank’s personal life, namely the death of his daughter Andrea in a plane crash, and his son Pablo’s mental illness. Indeed, as he grew older Frank’s interests became largely bounded by his own immediate sphere, the day-to-day routines of his life in New York and Nova Scotia, as recorded in the meandering, diaristic video works and images. That sense of inwardness is even more fundamental to the later version of the book, tracing something as uniquely his own as the markings of the title.

New Year's Day Be Happy, 1981
New Year’s Day Be Happy, 1981. From the Robert Frank Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

It would have undoubtedly been easier for Frank to take up photography again more or less at the point he had abandoned it, but this would have seemed a betrayal of the instincts he had always so unswervingly followed. Significantly, it would also have meant disregarding what he had learned in the intervening years, not least because the use of multiple images and of language in these later works actually owes a great deal to the techniques Frank had developed as a film-maker. He had always availed of whatever was needed to communicate an urgent sense of his own experience, whether that was the blur, grain and crooked horizons of The Americans, or collaged Polaroids with their scrawled notions for the later works, enlarging the capacities of the medium to meet his own expressive needs. Perhaps this ‘return’ was a necessary evolution of his own ongoing struggle with the notion of himself as a photographer, and his relationship to the medium, one that was, as we have seen, still conducted through the films, albeit often indirectly through proxy characters or situations. His actual photographs had consistently found their way into the films too, preparing the ground for an inter-media blurring of word and image that reaches its height in the later works, with their unstable, digressive structures revolving around the question of how to actually say – and show – what he felt. Such a critical relationship with the practices of representation is in keeping with questions that emerged in documentary and art cinema more generally at this time, but perhaps in Frank’s case they owe as much to his own relentless self-questioning, his grappling with the past, as to purely formal or intellectual concerns.

Frank had never placed much faith in the power of the single image either, though he also rejected the neat structure of the photo-stories that dominated the popular press. His approach was instead photographic narrative, using a sequence of often very different images to state a theme that builds toward some kind of resolution. The Americans is a classic example of this approach, though Frank was also following a precedent set by Walker Evans’ earlier American Photographs, especially in the layout of one image per spread. By contrast, Frank often deliberately left the ‘mechanics’ of his film works visible, to show that the view they gave of a scene or subject was necessarily a constructed one, formed by the way in which the story is told. A good example of this is Conversations in Vermont, a record of Frank’s visit to the rural boarding school where his children Andrea and Pablo were staying. His intention was to show them pictures, particularly of their early years, and discuss their often quite rootless upbringing. The result is clumsy and at times almost painful to watch, laying bare Frank’s own feeling of guilt about his inadequacies as a parent. But by appearing on camera himself, at times actually directing its movements, he is rupturing the illusion of documentary objectivity, showing how the action is constructed and the formal devices that make it comprehensible as a story. He also allows the voices of his children to enter the work, contradicting his own; Frank’s version of events, both for the family’s past and for the film itself, is not definitive. In this respect, he is purposefully undermining his own authority as creator, a common tactic with all the films he made.

Hold Still-Keep Going, 1989
Hold Still-Keep Going, 1989. From the Robert Frank Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

In the later photography, the classical format of The Americans is similarly broken down into a series of fragmented perspectives – and with the same conviction that no single point of view can be ‘a truth’ in itself. This often seems like a struggle with the capacities and limitations of photography, which then begins to literally break down as he puts increasing pressure on it. The Polaroid image with its unique combination of spontaneity and unpredictability was perfectly suited to this task. There is nothing precious about the material, which is almost throwaway, and Frank further abuses it, blurring the images into illegibility by streaking the processing chemicals, scratching words into the surface of the emulsion. Here he displays an even more profound disregard for ‘good’ photographic technique than he had shown up to then. The larger point of this work, whatever the individual pieces might be about, seems to be the difficulties of communication, of putting a frame around anything at all so that it conveys some kind of meaning. He appears to have lost faith in the process, but carries on with it doggedly nonetheless. There is something reminiscent of Samuel Beckett – both his protagonists and the author himself – in the insistence on the futility of speaking (or witnessing), but still being compelled to do so. This is another reason why the later works mostly confine themselves to Frank’s own increasingly small world, which represents the extent of what he could claim to know.

Frank’s use of language is very distinctive as well, often quite idiomatic, private and rambling, as if he’s talking to himself, but it also echoes his experiences as a self-taught immigrant, mixing the cadences of his native Swiss German with a slangy, informal vocabulary, perhaps inspired by his association with the Beat writers. For the most part he limits himself to simple notations on the images, to emphasise or authenticate their immediacy with regard to what he has observed – and felt.[viii] But he also anchors these works with less descriptive fragments of text, often only obscurely related to the images themselves, which serve like mantras to sustain his own creative pursuit, and maybe even his will to live – look out for hope, he tells himself, somewhat ambiguously. There are times though when the use of material disruption and plaintive language is combined to devastating effect, as with one of the several memorials he made for his daughter Andrea. “She lived,” he says, “in this house and I think of Andrea every day.” The broken and blistered surface of the image, leaving only a few elements legible with the rest obscured or obliterated, suggests that the photographic material itself cannot adequately contain or record a parent’s grief. What does remain – Andrea’s smiling face, a glimpse Frank’s own Nova Scotia home – is all the more valuable because of the surrounding blankness. So, while these late collage pieces can sometimes seem quite aimless, there is often real pathos in them as well, and enough of Frank’s distinctive visual intelligence to make engaging with them seem worth the effort.

Andrea, 1975

At the same time, it is inevitable that The Americans should dominate any account of Frank’s achievements; had he never produced that work and instead went straight to film-making or the collage pieces that characterise his later output then his position in the landscape of modern photography would no doubt be a very different one, perhaps all but marginal. This is not to suggest, however, that his later efforts are merely a footnote, telling their own sad tale of decline and creative burnout, or worse still, the wilful neglect of his considerable photographic talents. Those subsequent works have, I think, a unique – if admittedly lesser – power. This is particularly true of more ambitious films like Me and My Brother, and also of the pieces collected in The Lines of My Hand. They are not easy or always particularly successful works, not masterpieces, but they demonstrate a willingness to push his vision relentlessly forward, courting failure so as to avoid repeating himself. By necessity this meant rethinking how he engaged with photography, approaching it in new ways and with new tools, often radically different than those he had made use of before. In the process, Frank mostly lost the sense of scope that characterises The Americans – the capacity to meaningfully place his experiences in a wider social and historical context; it is largely this that has made the book so lasting as a work of art, and as a statement about the country at that time, whether you happen to agree with his assessment or not.

Like many of his Beat contemporaries, Frank’s vision was steadily turned inward, but focusing so insistently on the small dramas of his own private world was not for him primarily the consequence of a frustration with American society. Rather, the change arose from a desire to follow the truth as he saw it, or at least a truth, wherever that might lead. The seemingly decisive break that defines Frank’s photographic work before and after his efforts in film-making is a reflection of the fact that he no longer presumed to make use of anything besides directly autobiographical themes, and this could seem almost too daunting a task at times; language and even the medium itself appear to fail him. Frank’s films also confront many of the same issues, particularly in coming to terms with the personal and creative legacy of his past artistic achievements. However, abandoning the ‘public’ style of his major work for a more private, introspective one – looking in, rather than out – simply made explicit what had in fact always driven him. This was the desire to communicate the immediacy of his own encounter with the world, the sense of a person living and feeling, now, at this moment. Questioning the terms by which this expression might be achieved led Frank away from the work that had characterised the earlier phase of his career, first into film-making and then to a very different kind of photography. But only the means changed, and not the underlying need.

Recognising this fundamental continuity is a useful way to counter the established narratives that have grown up around Frank. The films and later photographic work are of significance, then, not least because of how they shift our understanding of his output as a whole, highlighting in particular an ambiguous and rather qualified relationship to the documentary tradition that is an undercurrent in all the work. Of course, this isn’t to slight Frank’s profound achievement in photography, just to underscore the fact that he was also operating within a wider historical and cultural framework, informed by a particular conception of what an artist should be, one that was also common currency for those painters and writers of his generation pursuing a deliberately subjective mode of expression. In the context of this latter-day Romanticism, the outer world – the world in which other people actually live – becomes a mirror for the inner existence of the artist, providing the materials to voice that interiority. The Americans, in its embrace of the very qualities Frank would later refute, manages to make something new out of that tendency, while the films and later photographic works are, for better or worse, a fulfilment of it. But Frank’s whole career was sustained by a fundamental insistence on making art from his own personal experience. And it is precisely this that motivated the restless shifts in approach – the work changed as he did, creating a space for growth, for loss, for life itself.

[i] Sarah Greenough & Philip Brookman (eds.), Robert Frank: Moving Out, National Gallery of Art, Washington/ Scalo, 1994, pg. 26.

[ii] Moving Out, pg. 107

[iii] Moving Out, pgs. 108-109

[iv] Robert Frank, The Lines of My Hand, Parkett/ Der Alltag, 1989, unpaginated.

[v] For an enlightening discussion of where Me and My Brother stands in relation to the larger questions concerning the new documentary and art cinema of this period, see George Kouvarous, Awakening the Eye: Robert Frank’s American Cinema, University of Minnesota Press, 2015, pgs. 61-90.

[vi] Given the rarity of the Yugensha edition, its impact is perhaps less than the expanded trade edition published by Lustrum Press in the same year. A useful facsimile edition of this version has recently been published by Steidl. The third edition was published in 1989 by Pantheon in the US and Parkett/ Der Alltag in Europe. This version also adds a distinctive glassine dust-jacket to the already familiar cover featuring a drawing by the artist June Leaf, Frank’s wife.

[vii] Statement from The Lines of My Hand.

[viii] The Polaroid material that Frank used produced a black and white negative along with an instant print.