Robert Frank, 1924–2019: The Rage and the Benevolence

Robert Frank in 1956, when he was at work on The Americans. Photo: ©Wayne Miller/Magnum Photos

He was the last in a chain of Village bohemian brilliance, a Swiss Jew who threaded through the New York lives of Berenice Abbott, Jack Kerouac, Willem de Kooning, Jonas Mekas, Morton Feldman, Alice Neel, Harry Smith, Patti Smith, Rockets Redglare, Syd Straw, and more. By the time he died on Monday on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, where he kept a summer home, photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank had long embodied a paradox: He was a very well-off artist who did not care about money. He had awesome shoes and no socks and he wore the same pants for days on end.

“I’m famous,” he joked to a friend a long time ago. “Now what?” A big part of his life was working on the answer, and living it out made him a symbol to younger artists struggling to find their way. It may be that, as your doctor says, it isn’t healthy to live your life angry. But Frank lived to be 94, bum heart and all.  He raged, and he was sentimental, too, and the older he got the more the two blended together. So be mad, and risk appearing corny, and don’t wear socks. Definitely don’t be bored.

From Smith’s American Witness: The Art and Life of Robert Frank (Da Capo Press, 2017):

Robert Frank’s favorite image from his most famous work, the photo book The Americans, is a photograph titled San Francisco from 1956. It’s like a punch in the nose. He was shooting in a park above San Francisco and was sneaking up on an African-American couple enjoying the view, and their privacy, when a stranger approaches from behind.

The thing is that Frank wasn’t surprised they turned around; you can pretty much assume he was hoping — even counting — on them turning around. Confrontations got his juices flowing. So maybe he made some noise, maybe not, but when they turned around, the African-American man crouched down in a protective stance, eyes flashing hostility, the woman’s face warily asking What are you doing?, Frank was prepared to pounce. This white guy has entered their space and is taking something they were not offering. A moment of submerged feeling dragged into the daylight.

As the contact sheet shows, Frank very quickly made a gesture of photographing whatever was next to them, pretending he wasn’t really taking their picture. Then he walked away, and nobody got punched.

Frank’s San Francisco, from 1956. Photo: © Robert Frank from The Americans, courtesy Pace/MacGill

Frank has always said that he liked this photograph because of the candor on the couple’s faces and the intensity of their unguarded reaction to a stranger’s approach. He liked it because it is honest, and it is honest because it reveals human feeling, and anger was a feeling that explained the country in which he was traveling in 1956 about as well as any single emotion could. On both sides, quiet reflection had become impossible.

Like that couple on the overlook, Robert Frank has pretty much always wished to go unobserved. There is little he appreciates less than people taking his picture, putting a microphone in his face, asking him questions. When approached, he has responded in a manner similar to the couple in his San Francisco photograph — or worse.

Frank’s Parade, Hoboken, New Jersey, from 1955–1956. Photo: © Robert Frank from The Americans, courtesy Pace/MacGill

It’s a fall day in 2015, and I am running down a long row of stairs while a crowd is walking up. A documentary of Frank’s life had just premiered at the New York Film Festival in Lincoln Center, and the subject was making a rare public appearance. At the end of the movie Frank stood and waved to the sold-out room, and everybody else stood too, clapping for the man whose work they loved and whose life they knew more about than they had 90 minutes before. The documentary’s maker answered a few questions, then everyone headed out.

I was sitting in a back row, the farthest corner from Frank and his wife, June Leaf. I had been working on this book for several years, and he had not responded to various appeals to meet. Neither letters nor the interventions of friends over the previous years had stirred his interest — or disinterest. What he extended was a shrug, a neutral acknowledgment that declared any exchange was beyond reach. I came to New York in hopes of at least looking him in the eye and telling him what I was about.

The room lights went on, and I had to move quickly because he was heading toward a side door that had just opened at the far corner. I raced toward him. A man was coming up the stairs, leaning on a cane, and suddenly I could see tomorrow’s headlines about the legendary filmmaker Jonas Mekas being trampled at Lincoln Center. I stopped running and walked down to where Frank was a moment before — just in time to see him, Leaf, and several others enter an elevator and disappear behind the closing door.

By the time I made it upstairs they were gone.

Some people’s art initiates a conversation with other art; Robert Frank’s work has been engaged in a dialogue with his first important subject — America — for over 50 years. It eventually became the most influential American photo book and a signal American art work of the last hundred years. The Americans has inspired plenty of people beyond the art world as well, far more than museum art usually does. Plenty of artists have described how his work impacted their own, but maybe more telling is that Frank’s work has been so inspiring as to lead some — including Chris Marker and Ed Ruscha — to abandon a career in photography. Others return to The Americans again and again. “I was 24 when I first saw the book,” Bruce Springsteen told an interviewer in 1995. “I think a friend had given me a copy — and the tone of the pictures, how he gave us a look at different kinds of people, got to me in some way. I’ve always wished I could write songs the way he takes pictures. I think I’ve got half a dozen copies of that book stashed around the house.”

Frank’s Trolley — New Orleans, from 1955. Photo: © Robert Frank from The Americans, courtesy Pace/MacGill

On the verge of abandoning his own photographic career, Frank made his first film, Pull My Daisy, with Alfred Leslie in 1959, embodying a countercultural sensibility long before anybody understood what counterculture was. Pull My Daisy was a key film that helped launch a new American independent cinema, and by the time it had, Frank had turned to other styles of filmmaking. He was on his way to becoming, in the words of New York Times critic Manohla Dargis, “One of the most important and influential American independent filmmakers of the last half-century.”

He has influenced MTV videos and generations of photographers who weren’t even born when The Americans was published. And he has, more distantly, helped launch generations of Americans who have set out from home to see their country for themselves. 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. His example shows where following your own path can lead, how honest you need to be, and the cost it will inevitably exact. He’s a pill and selfish and sometimes incredibly sad and one of the freest individuals I can think of. He does not give a fuck about protocol and proprieties, and he has lived long enough to show that he has been right more often than he was wrong. As his friend Miles Forst once said, “There is no peace in him.”

Frank pushes people hard, testing their loyalty and weakness. In the middle of the National Gallery’s assemblage of a major exhibition on Frank’s career, its curators sent him a catalog showing everything they wanted to use. He cut out all but two or three images from The Americans and then sent it back. He didn’t want that work included, curator Sarah Greenough told a Washington audience, “because he was bored with it.” The stubbornness was no fluke. In the middle of editing a book-length overview of Frank’s film and video work, that project’s co-editor was told Frank wouldn’t give her an interview, wouldn’t come to her retrospective of his work, and didn’t have copies of his work to share with her. Then he retracted permission to show his films in the retrospective and ordered her not to publish any of his photographs or film stills in the book. This was tough love — or just tough. Such actions, the editor decided, “wiped away his fear of repeating himself and guaranteed uniqueness … Without realizing it at first, we would be actors under Robert Frank’s direction.” It is through such difficulties, by the things that keep you from taking the established route and force one to improvise, that something new comes into being. That has been his experience, and he offers this understanding to others when he can. Make plans with him at your peril. Events change on the ground.

Early in 2016 a New York University art gallery presented a career overview, and it was announced that the 91-year-old himself would attend the opening and take questions from an audience. It seemed like another chance to make my case. So I went, and after a short question-and-answer session a side door in the room opened onto Mercer Street. He walked past a cloud of photographers and video cameras and headed into Greenwich Village. Frank was walking down the block by himself, cane in hand, motoring along.

I introduced myself, and he smiled. “I’m writing a book about you,” I said.

“You are writing a book?” he said in his Swiss-German accent. He looked amused. “Good luck!”

I explained I was pretty far along, that I had been to Zurich and seen the building he grew up in, the schools he’d attended.

“Say hello to the mountains!” he said heartily.

We talked a little, the smile stayed on his face, and his step picked up as he headed for the van at the end of the block that would drive him back to his building on Bleecker Street. Friends of his have said he sometimes gets confused, and his body is wearing out. But Frank was charging down the street now, his shoulders powerful, his thoughts all in order. He arrived at the van, and I shook his hand.

“You caught him on a good day,” Frank’s friend Jim Jarmusch would say later.

Frank’s 7 Bleecker Street, September, from 1993. Photo: © Robert Frank, courtesy Pace/MacGill

Excerpted from American Witness: The Art and Life of Robert Frank by RJ Smith. Copyright © 2017. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Robert Frank, 1924–2019: The Rage and the Benevolence