Robert Frank was always the cat who walked by himself.
Frank, who died on Monday Sept. 9 at the age of 94, was a Swiss immigrant whose photographs captured America in a way never seen before. He was a photographer most famous for a book—a book of photographs, sure, but few photographers are associated so closely, not to say exclusively, with particular collections of their work. He made a documentary film about the Rolling Stones that is famous because almost no one has ever seen it. And he was a photographer who, in mid-career, having cemented a reputation as one of the premier street photographers of the 20th century, turned his back on that and took up filmmaking and then in late life a sort of photo collage wherein handwritten text was scrawled across the images.
Scrawled only faintly approximates his method. Carved is a better word, as in the way you’d carve your initials into a tree—immortality and defacement, a twofer. Because in those late images, an ornery spirit presides, daring you to find anything pristine, much less perfect. It’s almost a punk esthetic, in the same way a much younger Frank shared some of the Beat esthetic (both movements opposed perceived norms, and their proponents were outsiders, although Frank never identified himself as a member of either group—he was not a joiner). More than that, though, the built-in crudeness of his method signals hope, energy, restlessness. Especially restlessness. Because the career of Robert Frank (and I’d bet a week’s salary that he never, not once, thought of what he did as a career) is the story of a man on the run. The chances are that by the time you were falling in love with any particular stage of his work, he was long gone, bored by his achievement, and onto some other frolic all his own.
Trajectory, however, in art as in ballistics, is only one piece of the equation. Impact matters, too. For that we have to back up to Frank’s opening salvo, The Americans. Love it or hate it—indifference is not an option—you can’t deny that it was one of the most disruptive works of art of the last century. It is photography’s Rite of Spring, Ulysses, and Citizen Kane. It changed everything. But it was no instant classic. When The Americans was first published, first in France, in 1958, and a year later in the U.S., Popular Photography derided the images in it as "meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness."
More perceptive critics found similarities between what Frank was trying to do in The Americans and abstract expressionist painters: the improvisation in the moment, the distaste for over-refinement, the sense, in both photograph and painting, that someone is taking a photograph and someone is painting—the last thing these artists wanted to do was disappear.
Always the mordant joker, Frank once said, “I love to bite the hand that feeds me.” So it was with The Americans, which is not exactly a mash note to the photographer’s adopted country. Beginning in June 1955, with the support of a Guggenheim grant, he motored back and forth across pre-interstate America in his 1950 black Ford Business Coupe for the better part of two years, sometimes traveling with his wife and two kids, sometimes going it alone. He went to big cities and small towns in every region of the lower 48 states. He shot individuals and crowds, cars, buses, motorcycles, American flags, jukeboxes, old people, kids, couples, men in hats, more men in hats. By the time he was done, he had shot 767 rolls of film and produced around 27,000 black and white images. Then he began winnowing, until he had the 83 photographs in the book.
There are very few smiles in those pictures, and there is nothing warm about them. Even when you feel like you’re close enough to smell the subjects in the photographs, there is distance. It is, rather, as if a Martian came to earth and photographed its inhabits. I say Martian, because while there are indeed photographs in The Americans that can be called critical—of racism, the pretensions of power, the insular self-absorption of the rich—there are many more where Frank seems neither charmed nor repelled but just baffled by America. Baffled, not repulsed. It’s a big country, he seems to say, and there’s a lot I don’t understand, but damn, it’s never boring. Where he makes his strongest connection with his subjects is where he locates a sense of unease on both sides of the camera. (In this regard, it is worth noting the irony that Frank’s reputation as the high priest of visual melancholy is hilariously undercut by the fact that curator Edward Steichen chose seven Frank photographs—a high number for any photographer included—for the touchy feely Museum of Modern Art exhibition and subsequent book The Family of Man, including at least one image that would reappear in The Americans.)
The title provides a clue before you even open the book. Frank could have called it Americans, or My America, or even Some Americans. But instead he let his French publisher have the final word on titling, although he was surely complicit: if Frank didn’t like something, particularly when it concerned his work, he let you know about it. So: The Americans, implying distance and maybe a little dismissiveness, the way we say, oh, that’s just the Chinese, or, you know how the English are.
In Frank’s defense, you could say that he was also biting the hand that slapped him first, because he did not always get a warm welcome in the towns he passed through, especially in the South, where he was once jailed overnight, and on another occasion ordered by the local law to get out of town before one o’clock. Traveling while Jewish, with a foreign accent, in red-scare America was not a recipe for easy acceptance.
Shot when the nation was still in the clutches of its Eisenhower complacency, Frank’s photographs can certainly be seen as a rebuke of feel-good, celebratory exceptionalism. And while the pictures are nowhere as crude or clumsy as that Popular Photography reviewer suggested, they defiantly reject the painterly qualities with which art photography was then associated. On a spectrum, Ansel Adams would be at one end, Frank at the other, and it was a matter of choice: Frank did not want to be Adams, he was not aiming for any kind of hermetic, snow-globe perfection. Rather, he was tracking the same improvisational joy that animated a Lenny Bruce routine or a John Coltrane solo. What he seems to have been after, and certainly what he wound up with, were photographs that have the hallucinatory, indelible precision of dreams. You couldn’t forget them if you wanted to, maybe especially if you wanted to.
Frank did not teach photographers how to shoot on the street, on the fly, on the run. People had been doing those things since small, hand-held cameras became widely available. What he did teach subsequent generations was that stubborn allegiance to one’s own vision just might produce something unforgettable.
“Seeing The Americans in a college bookshop was a stunning, ground-trembling experience for me,” said the artist Ed Ruscha. “But I realized this man’s achievement could not be mined or imitated in any way, because he had already done it, sewn it up, and gone home. What I was left with was the vapors of his talent. I had to make my own kind of art.”
Photographer Tod Papageorge called Frank “the photographic equivalent of Rimbaud—an anarchic poet who sings one brutal song, and then, in despair and exaltation, or whatever joy is found in conjunction with the creation of something incomparable, denies his gift by rejecting it.”
There would be no The Americans II or III. Frank wasn’t interested in repeating himself. Almost nothing he did for the rest of his very long life resembles those ’50s photographs. Indeed, on at least one occasion, he actually parodied the sanctified place the book had come to occupy in the history of American art.
In 1972, the Rolling Stones were finishing up work on what would be Exile on Main Street, and they asked Frank to shoot the cover (Andy Warhol had designed the cover for their last album, Sticky Fingers). Frank gave them more than a photo: he gave them the concept for the whole album design, front and back, inside the fold-out cover, and even the sleeves that held the album’s two records. The pictures of the Stones were stills taken from Frank’s Super 8 film of the band. The hand-lettered liner notes and Scotch-taped mock-up look anticipated a photographic approach Frank himself would use for years thereafter. And the cover image was an old photo of his entitled “Tattoo Parlor, 8th Avenue.”
As R.J. Smith points out in his biography of Frank, the cover image looks like a collage of images of carnival denizens and freaks, but it’s actually Frank’s photo of a wall of such images. And it’s not a tattoo parlor. It’s a picture he took in Hubert’s Museum on 42nd Street in New York City, a combination flea circus and freak hangout patronized by lowlife chroniclers like Joseph Mitchell and Diane Arbus. One of the photos in that wall collage photographed by Frank is by Arbus.
But the best in-joke of all is that several photographs from The Americans are scattered throughout the art included in Exile’s album imagery. “By inserting himself in the array,” Smith writes, “Frank was entering the circus tent with the Rolling Stones and the contortionists, and saying something about the role of artists in America. He wrenched The Americans out of the sanctified place it had settled into, mocking his own fame while reclaiming ownership of work that his fans felt belonged to them.”
Frank's images and concept for the Exile artwork set the tone for that masterpiece before you’ve heard a single note. Weirdly, the Exile images might be the most famous photographs Frank ever took, simply because more people saw them, although probably not one in a thousand Stones fans has a clue who took those pictures. As someone who bought the album practically the day it came out, I know without doubt that this was the first time in my life that I saw a photograph by Robert Frank, even though I had no idea what I was looking at. I’m reasonably sure Frank, with his get-off-my-lawn attitude about the cult of the artist, would have absolutely loved that.
The Stones and Frank hit it off, and he accepted their invitation to accompany them on their 1972 tour of the states and to film the tour however he chose. The resulting documentary, Cocksucker Blues, is surely the most famous least seen movie ever. Shot during the Stones’ 1972 U.S. tour, it forgos the performances for the backstage stuff.
“It was great to watch them—the excitement,” Frank said of the experience. “But my job was after the show. What I was photographing was a kind of boredom. It's so difficult being famous. It's a horrendous life. Everyone wants to get something from you.”
The film purportedly has a lot of shots of drug use and group sex. Mick Jagger is said to have 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 in the court proceedings, it came down to whether Frank as the artist or the Stones as those who hired the artist owned the copyright. A court order restricted the film to being shown no more than five times per year and only if Frank were present.
He never stopped fooling around with film and photographs, but Frank never again completely changed the course of photography the way he did in the late ’50s with The Americans. Given his scorn for the limelight and his refusal to live up to anyone else’s idea of a Great Artist, that probably suited him just fine.