Monday, May 23, 2011

Robert Frank: Getting Under Your Skin

 Great Artists

Black and white are the colors of photography. To me they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected.
—Robert Frank

I always say that I don't want to be sentimental, that the photographs shouldn't be sentimental, and yet, I am conscious of my sentimentality.
—Robert Frank

There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment. This kind of photography is realism. But realism is not enough —there has to be vision, and the two together can make a good photograph.
—Robert Frank
Robert Frank, a photographer and film-maker, the consummate outsider, takes photos and makes films that show people as they are and as they live. His aim is to be unsentimental, to do with camera, what writers such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs at the time, in the early 1950s were doing with words. His work, in many ways, can be described as an attempt to get under your skin, to reveal what makes people tick.

His photographs of Americans, Les Américains, first published outside the United States in 1958, touched a nerve. They show America and its inhabitants as an only an outsider can show it, as an often bleak and lonely place, full of alienation and despair, quick-paced and moving, but not always with a distinctive moral or ethical purpose. To understand the photographs in this important work of the post-war period in America, it is important to get under the skin of the man, the photographer.

Robert Frank was born in Zürich, Switzerland, on November 9, 1924, to a well-to-do family, Rosa and Hermann Frank. He had an older brother, Manfred. After graduating from high school, he began an extensive apprenticeship in 1941 with Hermann Segesser, a photographer and retoucher who lived in the same apartment building as Frank’s family. After a few years of training, Frank made his first hand-made book of photographs, 40 Fotos, in 1946, celebrating the simplicity of rural Swiss life. It was also the first of four hand-made books of photographs that he would make in the next six years.

Frank Left Switzerland in 1947, finding it too constraining, and arrived in New York City in 1947, aged twenty-two. An immigrant in a foreign nation. He soon was hired as a fashion photographer, by Alexey Brodovitch, with Harper's Bazaar.  But it proved to be a bad choice, Frank later said: “A man there, a real son of a bitch who had been in the air force, told me that the artists there wear black ties. Of course, I wouldn’t wear a black tie. I know where that was heading. I quit after one month and went to Peru." That was in late 1947, and Frank took with him a 2¼ inch camera and a 35-mm Leica camera. He he photographed Peru’s people, because, as he said, he  preferred  “things that move.”

After returning to New York in early 1950, he put together a hand-bound book of his photographs that showed the influence of other photography books by Bill Brandt, André Kertész, and Jakob Tuggener, as well as Alexey Brodovitch. In it, Frank explored non-narrative, non-chronological methods of joining his photographs that would prove indispensable as he edited The Americans.

In 1950, he met Edward Steichen, and participated in the group show 51 American Photographers at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). He also married fellow artist, Mary Lockspeiser (born February 4, 1933), originally from London, England, with whom he had two children, Andrea and Pablo. Frank got her pregnant when she was sixteen. Pablo Frank, named after Picasso, was born February 7, 1951. Andrea Frank was born April 21,1954.

With a Guggenheim grant, secured with the help of Walker Evans, the Frank family, two young children in tow, would travel around the U.S. for two years between 1955 and 1957. During that time, Frank would take 28,000 pictures.It showed America as only a foreigner sees it. Perhaps everyone is a foreigner in America, a young nation, with a short history. That is what makes it both attractive and repulsive to many.

The Americans:  Les Américains was first published in 1958 by Robert Delpire in Paris, and in 1959 by Grove Press in the United States. This is the cover of the sixth edition, 1997.
Source: Wikipedia

Some Familial Regrets

In a Vanity Fair article, written by Charlie LeDuff  (February 2008), titled "Robert Frank's Unsentimental Journey," we get some insight into Frank's  formative years, and the effect that oppression had on a sensitive individual:
Frank’s own father, Henry, was a German Jew who immigrated to Switzerland after World War I and, once there, married the daughter of a wealthy manufacturer. It was a strict, unhappy upbringing. A father who wished to be an interior designer but became a radio salesman, playing out a life with a wife he did not love. This was World War II, and, in his defense, Henry Frank was further burdened with the possibility of the Germans’ storming up the Swiss Alps and carting the family off to the concentration camps.

This gave the boy his understanding of oppression, and the only thing young Robert had to escape these gloomy circumstances was photography, which he apprenticed at in Zurich. When the war was over, he headed for Paris by motorcycle and eventually New York’s Greenwich Village.
The European Jewish values and structures of his upbringing Frank threw aside and replaced with self-absorption. He passed little on to his children, he said. His daughter, Andrea, died at the age of 21 in a small-plane crash in Guatemala. His son, Pablo, lived a life of drug addiction and mental instability before killing himself, in 1994.

“I wish I would have given them something,” Frank said. “Their Jewishness or something.”
It's both a telling and sad statement of pain and regret, often expressed by parents who were once too absorbed with their thoughts and ideas to consider the needs of children. It's also one of the truest statements that anyone can make. The initial euphoria of fame fades, as do the memories of the initial adulation. The real legacy of Robert Frank are the eighty-three photos published in Les Américains (1958), or The Americans, a year later in 1959 in the U.S., when it caused a stir in the world of photography, art and critics, first among Europeans and later Americans who were ready to view another (darker) aspect of themselves.

Its success was real, since it revealed the truth of class and racial differences, covered as they were by the optimism and jingoism of the post-war period of the 1950s. His photos belie the contrived advertiser's view of American culture and wealth, which gave Frank's photographs a clear definition, chiefly unknown at the time. He achieved this with use of unusual focus, low lighting and cropping that deviated from accepted photographic techniques. Even so, the photographs achieved its intended effect.

Trolley, New Orleans, 1955. Les Américains: The contrast between black and white is clear for all to see.
Photo Credit: Robert Frank, 1955.
Source: NYMag

The Film That Was Too Frank

Frank has published a dozen books and made 25 films in his career, many small productions. Some of his films include Sin of Jesus (1961), Me and My Brother (1969), Keep Busy (1975), Candy Mountain (1988), and one of his most well-known works, a documentary on The Rolling Stones, a rock band, Cocksucker Blues (1972). With typical frankness, the documentary went too far for the tastes of the band and its iconic leader, Mick Jagger, Wikipedia says:
The film shows the Stones while on their '72 tour, engaging in heavy drug use and group sex. Perhaps more disturbing to the Stones when they saw the finished product, however, was the degree to which Frank faithfully captured the loneliness and despair of life on the road. Mick Jagger reportedly told Frank, "It's a fucking good film, Robert, but if it shows in America we'll never be allowed in the country again."

The Stones sued to prevent the film's release, and it was disputed whether Frank as the artist or the Stones as those who hired the artist actually owned the copyright. A court order resolved this with Solomonic wisdom by restricting the film to being shown no more than five times per year and only in the presence of Frank. Frank's photography also appeared on the cover of the Rolling Stones' album Exile on Main St..
Frank and Mary divorced in 1969. Frank married June Leaf, a sculptor. In 1971, they moved to a former fisherman's shack on the coast of Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island, to the community of Mabou. But he still maintains a residence in New York City. After the death of his daughter, Andrea, aged twenty-one, in 1974, of a plane crash in Tikal, Guatemala, and the diagnosis and hospitalization of his son, Pablo, due to schizophrenia, much of Frank's work has explored the effects of loss. Pablo Frank died in 1994, aged forty-three. In 1995, Robert Frank founded the Andrea Frank Foundation, which gives grants to artists.

He has acquired a reputation for being a recluse, notably after the death of Andrea, declining most interviews and public appearances. The interview and article in Vanity Fair was an exception.

Even so, his work speaks for him. In 1994, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., showcased the most comprehensive retrospective of Frank's work to date, "Moving Out." Almost forty years after the fact, here's what the gallery said about the The Americans:
[T]he book looked beneath the surface of American life to reveal a profound sense of alienation, angst, and loneliness. With these prophetic photographs, Frank redefined the icons of America, noting that cars, jukeboxes, gas stations, diners, and even the road itself were telling symbols of contemporary life. Frank's style—seemingly loose, casual compositions, with often rough, blurred, out-of-focus foregrounds and tilted horizons—was just as controversial and influential as his subject matter.
U.S. 90, En Route to Del Rio, Texas, 1955. Gelatin silver print; 18 3/4 x 12 1/4 in. (47.6 x 31.1 cm). The photo depicts the Frank car, his wife, Mary, and children sleeping in the car, alongside their belongs, used for the long road-trip discovering America.
Private collection, Courtesy Hamiltons Gallery, London
Photograph © Robert Frank, from The Americans

Gave Himself to Photography

The twenty-eight thousand photos of his two-year road trip, pared down to eighty-three, were and are important for both historical and socio-economic and perhaps political reasons. Robert Frank's work is there for posterity, as long as the public has interest in such things.

In some way I wonder if Robert Frank, for all his hard talk about truth and verisimilitude, himself wonders if he has sacrificed himself, perhaps too much, for the sake of art. When I posed this question to my friend, Sheldon Levy, a photographer of humanity who knows Frank's work, he said that was not the case, and explained his importance to the world. "He struggled, and changed the direction of photography."

Frank did what he loved best, what he knew best. He has received some honors. Frank was awarded the prestigious Hasselblad Award for photography in 1996. His 1997 award exhibition at the Hasselblad Center in Goteborg, Sweden was called "Flamingo," as was the accompanying published catalogue. And in connection with the 50th anniversary of the publication of Robert Frank’s influential book of photographs, in 2009, “The Americans,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York mounted a show of all 83 images in the book. The exhibition was called “Looking In: Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans.

Robert Frank's work matters. He is currently eighty-six.

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