“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 Depression-era 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 Swiss-born 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 avant-garde 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 black-and-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 double-entendres. 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 self-consciousness—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 anti-Semite.” 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 off-kilter 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,” filmcomment.com, October 9, 2015, and Nicholas Dawidoff, “A Mesmerizing Marathon of Robert Frank’s Movies,” newyorker.com, July 12, 2016. ↩