Interview with Robert Frank: American Visions – Photographer and Filmmaker
Art in America, March, 1996 by Brian Wallis
Over the past 20 years, photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank has been something of a recluse, a sort of art-world J.D. Salinger, avoiding the public and generally declining requests for interviews. Dividing his time between his old loft on Bleecker Street in Manhattan and a former fisherman’s shack on the coast of Nova Scotia, Frank has deliberately eschewed the trappings of celebrity in recent years despite growing acclaim for his work as a photographer–or perhaps because of it. In 1989 he became so fed up with the commercialization of the photography market that he nailed a stack of his rare vintage photographs to a board, tied it up with baling wire, and called that his art work. Such acts of defiance have only added to the legend of Frank’s irascibility and desire to be left alone.
As a result, Frank’s retrospective of photographs, films and videos, organized by the National Gallery in Washington, recently at the Whitney Museum in New York (and now at the Lannan Foundation in Los Angeles through May 19), has been greeted with more than the normal degree of interest. In a cover story at the time of the Washington opening, the New York Times Magazine proclaimed “A Lost Master Returns.” Ironically, that is just the sort of fawning hyperbole that Frank sought so hard to avoid in the first place. And, as the exhibition clearly demonstrates, Frank never really went away–though the metaphors of travel, flight and questing remain central to his life and work.
After emigrating from Switzerland in 1947, Frank achieved almost immediate success as a commercial photographer in New York. Although he was just 22, Frank garnered prominent assignments from the legendary Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar. But Frank was frustrated with New York, and set out to explore Paris, London, Wales, Spain, Italy and Peru over the next four years. One of the great revelations of the National Gallery exhibition is the large but little-known body of extremely poetic photographs that Frank took during these years, especially the book of tiny photographs of Paris that he made for his future wife, Mary Lockspeiser, in 1949.
Of course, Frank is best known for his book The Americans, which he began compiling in 1954. With encouragement from his mentor, photographer Walker Evans, and a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, Frank traveled by car to several parts of the United States over the next three years, recording average Americans in offices, juke joints and roadside diners. Despite its poignancy and sheer physical sweep, The Americans was deeply disturbing to many viewers when it was published in the U.S. in 1959. No one was quite prepared for Frank’s harsh view of the alienation and ennui of postwar America or for the jagged and grainy style of his black-and-white photographs. The hostile reception of The Americans helped propel Frank away from still photography toward even more subjective filmmaking and video.
Perhaps because The Americans so dominates our conception of Frank’s work, it is sometimes difficult to understand or appreciate his subsequent output. Frank not only turned away from photography but increasingly embraced an intense, searching, even melancholic self-scrutiny couched in the form of fictional or semi-documentary narrative films. After the critical success of his first film, Pull My Daisy (made with Alfred Leslie in 1959, with narration by Jack Kerouac), Frank made five more films in the 1960s, including the feature-length Me and My Brother (1968) and the autobiographical Conversation in Vermont (1969). His record of a Rolling Stones U.S. tour, Cocksucker Blues (1972), achieved some degree of notoriety when the Stones refused to allow its release because of scenes involving orgies and shooting up. (After years of legal hassles, Frank is now allowed to show the film only occasionally and in the context of his other film work.)
Following the death of his 21-year-old daughter, Andrea, in a plane crash in 1974, Frank became increasingly remote. Some of his grief is recorded in the film Life Dances On (1980) and in the bleak Polaroid photographs that he made throughout the 1970s. In returning to photography Frank literally reinvented his work, producing an extraordinarily rich and highly personal body of images that refer to nature, mortality, time and absence. Many of the large color photographs and collages from this period take a more brutal and highly innovative approach to the photograph as an object; they are cut, pasted, taped, or scratched with words. They are less like photographs than art works, and far less controlled than his earlier black-and-white photography.
In the last decade or so, Frank’s production has been fascinatingly eclectic, ranging from a commission to photograph the 1984 Democratic Convention to fashion shoots for Italian designers and shoe manufacturers to a music video for the band New Order. At the same time, Frank became more publicly retrospective, as if tentatively trying to reassess his own life. In 1986 he helped the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston organize the first major survey of his work, and in 1989 he released a revised and expanded version of his classic 1970 book The Lines of My Hand. And while Frank struggled in all these projects to reinvent himself once again, his work has an ever greater effect on each new generation, with Frank-like images turning up throughout the work of younger photographers, in scores of independent films and in every third video on MTV.
In fact, one of the surprises of the current exhibition is discovering the great breadth and contemporaneity of Frank’s work. Oddly, the famous photographs from The Americans do not dominate the show as one might expect. Rather, it is often the subtler, more personal or lesser-known works that prove most memorable, like Frank’s most recent piece, a poignant 16-minute video titled Moving Pictures. An extended self-portrait told in the form of a homemade-looking collage of film and video outtakes, Moving Pictures consists of intimate portraits of people who have influenced Frank: his parents, whose grave he visits; his second wife, artist June Leaf; his daughter, Andrea, and his son, Pablo; his close friend Allen Ginsberg; and sculptor Raoul Hague, whose recent death is recorded in the film. An elegiac meditation on time and mortality, Moving Pictures is also typical of Frank’s constant pursuit of what is to him true and honest. That he finds this truth in comradeship and community is emphasized by a wonderful scene, recorded on old film stock, of friends struggling to build a fire on a windswept beach in Nova Scotia. In this simple vignette, as he does so often in his work, Frank reminds us of the meaning, the joy, the lyricism and the pleasures of everyday life.
Brian Wallis: I want to ask you about your newest video, Moving Pictures…
Robert Frank: That work is the only thing in the current show that matters to me. The other stuff is old, but this–I made this especially for the exhibition. I liked the idea, and I liked the way it came out. But very few people have commented on it. The people who like it–like Claes Oldenburg–are those who understand something about what it is to try to be an artist, who understand where you get your inspiration. That is what that movie is about to me.
BW: My take was completely different. I thought it was more about aging, death and the passage of time. I was also impressed by the personal style of the people that you were focusing on, their gestures, and the way they constructed their habitats…
RF: Well, that’s not so far off. Obviously, I chose these people because they meant something to me. And when somebody means something to you, it means you are really inspired by them. It affects your life. And these people definitely affected what I do in various ways.
BW: I was especially struck by the segment where you were filming Jean-Luc Godard answering questions after a film screening at the Museum of Modern Art. One question from the audience which you highlight in the video is, “What is the role of nature in your work?” And Godard’s answer is something like, “Nature is neither romantic nor tragic.”
RF: Yeah, yeah. Well, these are his answers. I got that from him. But it also applies to my work. I do admire him; I would say he is a hero of mine. If anybody influenced me a lot it would be him, for all the many things he has produced. Yes, he has produced many bad things, and you can barely look at them, but there is always an idea all of a sudden.
BW: I thought that question about nature was interesting in relation to your work, especially your late photography and films which seem so saturated with nature. How would you answer that question: what is the role of nature in your work?
RF: Oh, it has an effect. It makes you introspective. It makes you aware of how powerless you are. There’s big stuff out there–there’s real big space and there’s a peace. For me, to go up to Canada and to have that house there and to love nature means that you accept its force. All of a sudden you are in the company of something very powerful. And that alone has affected my life and made me a better person. It has made me more aware of something elementary. Nature’s cruel. It’s big and it’s romantic. But you can also say it’s tragic.
BW: But Godard is saying that nature is neither romantic nor tragic. Those human emotions are simply mapped onto nature. Nature is just there. It happens, it is elemental, and you can’t add on to it.
RF: Well, obviously, nature is what is in front of you. But certainly in my photographs what I wanted to photograph was not really what was in front of my eyes but what was inside. That was what made me want to pick up a camera. The nature that I became familiar with inspired me and I used it as a background.
BW: In the 18th-century notion of the sublime, there was the idea that nature was too terrifying to contemplate, too overwhelming, and that man was powerless before it. Is that how you feel?
RF: I don’t see myself as a great thinker. I mean, I just happen to live there. You open a window and you look out on the trees growing behind you, the forest, and on the other side is the sea. It’s nothing to contemplate, really. It’s big, and it changes a lot, and it’s very beautiful. I mean, the beauty of it is overwhelming. I don’t get tired of looking at it. Maybe that means contemplating. But when I contemplate, I contemplate my own situation, what has happened to me and what I’m going to do next. That’s more of a struggle.
But the other thing is, up there, you don’t have that much time to contemplate nature in that way. You have to keep the house warm, you have to split the wood, you have to make sure the water is right and that the wind doesn’t get through the cracks. That is what occupies you. It is the drive into the village–which really becomes something else if it’s snowing….It’s just right to be there.
BW: Throughout your work there is a great attention to those kinds of everyday patterns. You look at the way people perform repetitive tasks like taking out the garbage. I think you once called them “repeated banalities.” So you seem to be captivated more by the everyday event and the pattern rather than the heroic or the decisive moment.
RF: Well, in New York, for instance, you’re in a very rapid stream and it goes on all the time, so it takes considerable energy to stay in place and not be swept down into whatever. To stand and watch takes energy here. If I look for the decisive moment here, I look for an anchor to be able to function and to do this work. Whereas that question isn’t there on the Atlantic coast in Canada. It makes you calmer.
As I get older, I have less strength to find the anchor in New York. I have had success and people write about me and talk about the show, but that doesn’t help me particularly. It’s nice to have that–also, economically, it’s okay–but as a whole it doesn’t give you much. It isn’t meaningful. It’s more meaningful for me to be able to live in between, moving from one place to another.
BW: Does the title of this exhibition, “Moving Out,” have something to do with that idea of being “in between”? It seems a little bleak, particularly in connection with the triptych of that title, which shows three abandoned apartments.
RF: Well, I didn’t make the title, Sarah Greenough, one of the curators of the exhibition, made the title. But I think it’s a good one because it can mean many things. I’m not particularly eager to explain what it means to me, but it could mean moving out of the frame or moving between the frames. There’s one frame and then there’s a next one, but what’s in between? It could mean that. I think a lot about the frame.
But that picture, the one called Moving Out, is like a lot of my work: it was done intuitively, there’s not that much thinking about it. I’m not one of those conceptual heads, you know. I’m a visual person, so I see a lot. And it satisfies me, it’s always changing here. The decisive moment is circulating here. It’s always different, the scene changes. Just yesterday, I saw one of those 3-D movies at the Sony theater with the big, big screen–you know, like four stories high. It’s absolutely mindboggling, the size of it. It’s unbelievable. But just before the main feature, they showed this little movie about New York. It’s only in America you can do this.
BW: Why do you say that?
RF: Oh, because it was totally sentimental, about this boy staying on Ellis Island. They had a lot of wonderful old photographs, stereo photographs, and they’re overwhelming, just unbelievable. It is an intimate story, but totally romantic, saccharine sweet, and the music is bad. Still, it’s quite wonderful to see, and children love it. For me, I always like things that are so American. Other countries can’t do that. Americans are not precious about it. To the French, their culture and their language are precious. But for Americans, it doesn’t mean shit, because they’ll just go on to the next thing. It’s quite wonderful to see this film in that way, to see how proud Americans are to show the tap dancers at Radio City.
So, well, I had to become an American. I’m not a European, you know, even though I was born there. I’ve spent the most important part of my life here, or the most important part of my life as an artist.
BW: Yes, but it seems you still look at the United States with total amazement. Like for the first time. Don’t you feel that growing up in a foreign country allowed you to come here with new eyes?
RF: Let’s just say, I tended my old eyes and I didn’t buy glasses here. It’s a different world. You enter a different room. And this city gave me a lot. I was really inspired when I first arrived here, and it suited my temperment. It suited what I was doing–you know, film and photography.
BW: But not everything that you encountered in America was great.
RF: I hope not.
BW: I mean, my impression from The Americans is that you saw the United States as a place full of brutality, violence and sadness. Your friend Louis Faurer had a great quote in the film Fire in the East; he said, “There was so much sadness, we had to laugh about it.”
RF: I see the sadness all around me, and the brutality. But you know, I try to cast a sympathetic eye on it. I don’t want to use it, but if I see it, it goes into my pictures. I don’t want to look down on anybody that way. But there is a lot of sadness. Despair. Maybe I see it more now than I used to see it.
BW: But hope also, right?
RF: For some people there’s not much. I think without hope it’s a sad life. Sadder than sad, no hope. I saw that often when I made that film in Harlem…
BW: Do you mean Last Supper, which you made in 1991?
RF: Yes, I saw it there, and it was quite overwhelming, the feeling of no hope.
BW: And what do you think your work does in relation to that hopelessness?
RF: I don’t think or pretend that my life will change that. The fact that I see it and I record it in its own kind of humane way…I mean, I want to record it with some dignity. But then, as photography has turned into a sort of moneymaking affair, it makes me think–more than when I did it–that it’s not right to sell these pictures taken from people much less fortunate and privileged than you. When I did it, I had no such thought, really. I was moved by what I saw. Now it would be very hard to take those pictures. I don’t want to.
BW: So you think that your earlier photographs, like those in The Americans, were too voyeuristic, too appropriative?
RF: I didn’t feel then as I feel now. I am still affected by that one photograph of the man on the hill in San Francisco, the way he looked back at me. I think that’s why that’s my favorite picture in the book. But it was, you know, forty years ago, a long time ago, a different time. And it’s different, too, if you get involved with the people in some way that can help their situation, like that guy Jim Goldberg who did Raised by Wolves.
BW: But, you know, Emile De Antonio once said that The Americans was a profoundly political book precisely because you didn’t go in there and work with these people to try to change their lives through some sort of local political activism. Rather, you made a book that showed what was happening in a larger context, as evidence.
RF: Well, for him, maybe twenty years later, that was clear, that was his conclusion. Sometimes people’s views become stronger in retrospect. But I remember the reaction when I first showed these pictures. People said, “That’s too sad. We don’t want to look at that.”
BW: They are sad, there is a lot of sadness in that book. But I think also there is a sort of overt political play between the people with power and those without–the shots of the convention and the politicians against those of the waitresses and elevator operators.
RF: Yeah, I saw that, and I moved toward it. I think I always like to move to the extremes; I don’t like to go to the middle. I’ve said that before.
BW: Another thing that you’ve said frequently is that your work is a search for truth. What do you mean by that word, “truth”?
RF: Well…you know, tomorrow I might answer the question differently. But I think it means that I would like to talk or show things that I really know about. It would be more truthful to talk about people that I know very well, for instance. I wouldn’t go to Indonesia and photograph people or whatever. Not today, at least. I would like to know when I photograph someone why I am doing it, why I am there. Then, what I would reveal about them or myself or about photography would be more truthful.
BW: Certainly that helps to explain your rejection of documentary-type photography in the late 1950s and your increasing focus on more subjective or fictional films. But if you’re making a film about yourself, as you have in Conversations from Vermont, how do you identify the “truth” there? Does it mean honesty, does it mean integrity, or does it mean, as you said before, dignity?
RF: I think that truth, once you find it, is slippery like a fish. It’s hard to know, hard to grasp. But there is no other motivation. You really want to express something that reveals the truth as you know it. So, when Mr. Hearst sends me to Kansas City, America, I don’t want to be a journalist, I want to be myself, and express what I feel about things. But the truth, well, that is very hard to find.
BW: Does it have something to do with that line you used when you wrote about Walker Evans in U.S. Camera in 1958, a line from Malraux: “To transform destiny into awareness.” Do you remember that?
BW: I don’t know what that means.
RF: I don’t know either. (Laughs.) At the time I copied it from a book, you know.
BW: Well, what do you think it means? “To transform destiny into awareness.”
RF: I guess I would say it means to come to terms with the long view of yourself and the close-up of yourself, where you stand in this landscape, and also who you are.
BW: So, was that Walker Evans’s influence on you, helping you to understand who you are? What do you think you got from your early relationship with him, like when you assisted him with those photo stories for Fortune in the mid-1950s, before The Americans?
RF: His work certainly influenced me. When you are an artist you are influenced by, you know, by the cars outside, by a painting, by literature, by Walker Evans. He certainly influenced me: looking at his photographs, and knowing him even more so. I was also influenced by a good friend of mine in Switzerland at the time named Gothard Schuh, by looking at Andre Kertesz’s small book about Paris, and by Bill Brandt. Kertesz’s photographs seemed to me very lyrical and very warm, and Walker in a way was almost the opposite, very cold and precise–everything was a jewel.
But on the other side stands what you reject. So that, maybe, is just as important.
BW: And what did you reject?
RF: Well, Life magazine, which I came to hate. And Madison Avenue. The falseness and brutality in America. And, earlier on, in Switzerland, the life that my parents led. You know, different standards.
BW: What was it about your parents’ life that you rejected?
RF: It was a life that revolved around business. It was very important to make enough money and maintain a social level that was as good as the next one or better. I rejected the necessity of money and the attention that was paid to that path. In America, there was another life.
BW: Your move to America, then, was a sort of search for freedom?
RF: Yes. Coming to America was freedom. The freedom that was given to me here doesn’t exist in Europe.
BW: What would you have been expected to do in Switzerland?
RF: I would have been expected to follow in my father’s footsteps. To become a businessman.
BW: But you were allowed to apprentice with a photographer.
RF: Yes. That was allowed, but it was only temporary. You were expected to come back to the business.
BW: So you broke free of that and came to New York.
RF: Yes, I came to New York, and I went out and photographed in America. I made this trip with the Guggenheim. This was a far different situation than when I photographed in Europe, when I made a story on a Welsh miner or on flowers in Paris. I was really looking at a much bigger subject, and it allowed me to say what I felt being in this world. What am I doing, wandering around in this city?
BW: In your application for the Guggenheim you said you were going to make a true documentary archive of the United States. You even said that the whole file would be turned over to the Library of Congress so people could later do research on Americans by subject matter.
RF: Well, you know, this was grant language. So I asked Mr. Grant to help me write the letter, and Mr. Grant had a secretary and he sent the whole fucking grant thing to me! It was like that. You know, you try to write it out so they will give you the grant. You don’t say, “I want to photograph the whores in Times Square.”
BW: But in the grant application it seemed like you were trying to echo the FSA documentary approach.
RF: Well, that may have been the idea. That approach was not so historical then. Roy Stryker was still alive at that time. But I thought his sort of photography was really different from mine. And the point is, I got the grant.
BW: So your approach to documentary is more subjective or personal. Often, in films like Pull My Daisy or Cocksucker Blues–and possibly even in The Americans–scenes were staged. Does that mean you are trying to subvert the documentary tendency of photography by rehearsing things or setting them up?
RF: When you use film it is always a manipulated situation, much more than photography. If you talk about Pull My Daisy, of course, that’s a completely manipulated situation. In photography, on the other hand, the picture is either good or it isn’t. You respond to them, and you don’t ask if it’s manipulated.
BW: Right, but that’s a big issue to a lot of people. If you go and set up a shot and make it look like you just stumbled upon it, then people think that is a false image, the opposite of truth.
RF: It depends. I think all advertising photography contains that falseness. I think a lot of journalistic stories contain that. I don’t mind to do it, but I know that’s what I’m doing. I feel it’s quite all right for me to do it, I get something out of it, this proof that I can do it. In the films, I like the combination of film and video, because one contains more of a truth. Video’s much different from film, where you arrange scenes very carefully and cut it very carefully. You can edit video the same way, but when I use video I try to use it in a more raw and unmanipulated way. You just let it run. And then you select the piece that you want. But you don’t direct people too much. Whereas in films, you know, you just redo the shot.
BW: You once quoted from Ken Kesey about that mixture of fact and fiction. It was something like “better to go from fiction to try to get at truth than the other way around.”
RF: Yeah, yeah, that’s a good saying.
BW: Well, I guess that’s what I’m getting at, what is truth to you? In your photographs and films, you seem to have a very malleable approach to truth. It’s not about facts, accuracy or precision, it’s a more personal or relativistic approach, looking at things from a lot of different sides and approaching truth that way.
RF: Well, yeah. If you look at the work over a long period of time, that description would apply. You see a man trying to photograph this thing, this object, and trying very hard to get at its essence in different ways. And if you look over periods of my work, you see that approach doesn’t change that much. The ideas one has don’t change, you just cast a different light upon them. And what that ultimately means is that the viewer sees that it’s your work and recognizes your personality behind it, in the style or whatever. I mean, it’s my work, it’s called by my name.
BW: But isn’t that what you were trying to get away from, this focus on personal style and the cult of personality? Weren’t you trying to get at more elemental questions? I mean, something so primary as identifying truth is not about style?
RF: If you photograph on film for a long time, if you’re a visual person who looks through a viewfinder, if you look at your contact sheets and you select the pictures and then you change the pictures or alter the pictures or put them together or cut the film together or whatever you do–that’s how you get close to the truth. I mean, I hope!
Of course, today it’s a different craft. Today it’s a much bigger field and the possibilities with images are so enormous that maybe the way I do it sounds very old-fashioned.
BW: Do you think that people think your work is old-fashioned?
RF: Well, I begin to think it myself. When I see this show, I think that about myself.
BW: That’s so curious, because I think one thing that’s so striking about this retrospective is that it shows how you keep reinventing your methods and your images. It’s not about just redoing something in a kind of old-fashioned way.
RF: Well, I am aware of the new technological stuff that you can use with photographs. Photographs don’t depend so much on a darkroom now. Sure, I’m aware of it. I try to keep in step. But I also don’t want to be swept away by it. You want to stay yourself. I would do anything, use any format, if it would serve my purposes–like the music videos I have made. But some of this new equipment is too much for my brain, too much for my eyes. And sometimes it doesn’t go with my heart. You reach that age, or that stage, that I’ve reached–at seventy–and you don’t want to make these contortions anymore.
BW: So having reached that stage, as you say, what is the effect of sorting through your past work?
RF: Well, I didn’t put the show together; that was done by the curators, Sarah Greenough and Philip Brookman. I gave my contact sheets and everything to the National Gallery. So it wasn’t a question of going over these things and pulling them out. I know there are fifteen great pictures in there, but I never looked through to find them.
BW: And what was the effect of seeing the show itself?
RF: The show was wonderful in Washington, very ambitious and beautifully installed. They worked a long time on it, very hard and conscientiously, and to me it was done wonderfully. They couldn’t have presented the work better. I also went to Japan and went to Zurich and went to Holland.
BW: What was it like seeing the show in Zurich, in your hometown?
RF: Oh, they made too big a fuss about it.
BW: What did they do? Give you a tickertape parade or something?
RF: Well, not quite. (Laughs.) But they made a big deal because they think, you know, native son comes home. It was pathetic. I mean, they were nice, but I thought it was too much, too many interviews, too many newspaper articles.
BW: But what was your response to seeing the work all together? Did you want to leave it behind or did you see new things you hadn’t noticed before? Or did you feel inspired to make a new film?
RF: It was more inspiring me toward making another film.
BW: Do you have new works in process?
RF: Not that much. I did a fashion show up in Canada. It’s easier now but I still try to keep busy. Accepting this job to do fashion was part of it. It was a challenge. I always try to do something new. But nowadays I need somebody to push me, to give me a job, instead of waiting for it. If it’s self-generated, I have great doubts. Why should I do one more film, you know, one more photograph? That is a difficulty I face: I have great doubts about the value of what I do. I’m always trying to figure out what to do next.
BW: What’s that “figuring-out” process like?
RF: Slow! (Laughs.) It’s slow. Slow, slow. It’s like a snail trying to cross a highway.
BW: You mean like sitting on a rock looking out at the ocean?
RF: No, like a snail crossing the highway.
BW: You mean you might get run over?
RF: Yeah. (Laughs.)
BOOKS: Robert Frank
* The Americans (2008 Edition)
* Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, Expanded Edition (2009)
* Paris (2008)
* Tal uf Tal Ab (2010)
* Black, White and Things (2010)
* Seven Stories (Bk. 1) (2009)
* London/Wales (2007)
* The Lines of My Hand (1972)
Around the WEB: Robert Frank
* Met Museum: Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans
* Wikipedia: Robert Frank
* Pace/McGill: Robert Frank
* National Gallery of Art: Robert Frank
* NPR: ‘Americans’: The Book That Changed Photography
* Amazon: Robert Frank
* Smithsonian: Robert Frank
* Steidl: Robert Frank
ASX CHANNEL: Robert Frank
For inquiries, please contact American Suburb X at: email@example.com.