Robert Frank in His Own Words

Pity the next biographer of photographer Robert Frank! Now that he is gone and both his children are long deceased, it may be the unlikely witness of his wife, artist/sculptor June Leaf, to reveal the inner mind of this complex artist, who seemed to many to embody the tag “reclusive.” That is the shared wisdom of many critics who have written about Frank since his death Sept. 9 in Inverness Hospital near his home in Mabou, Nova Scotia. 

But there are many myths about this most enigmatic man, who was not a misanthropic hermit. In fact, he loved being around and with people. The early work for which he is most known, The Americans (1959), may be viewed by many as a visual ode to the poor, dispossessed and marginalized, but that is not how Frank saw his two-year journey across America in the mid-1950s as he recorded the natural and human landscapes of what was to become his adopted land. It is true that the stark lives documented in his 83 “newsreely” images conflicted with the Eisenhower-era portrait of American primacy that was then common cultural currency. Frank’s vision was so different from the prevailing ethos that he had no success in finding an American publisher for his photo book, which was finally published in Paris by Robert Delpire. Even in that first edition, his photographs seemed to serve as illustration to essays by John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Henry Miller and Erskine Caldwell — even Simone de Beauvoir. The U.S. publication followed the next year with a jazzy introduction by Jack Kerouac.

A measure of how castigated The Americans was by Frank’s peers is an infamous, embarrassing comment by Minor White, himself an outsider as a closeted gay artist. White called The Americans “a wart-covered picture of America by a joyless man.” (No one has, to my mind, ever labeled White a societal bon vivant.) The many tributes to Frank and his seminal work have been so numerous and comprehensive that I have no desire to repeat them here.

Many have judged Frank’s subsequent work as having lesser merit, deeming them efforts by an artist who had one great work to offer and then “retreated” into increasingly personal narratives rather than risk repeating himself. The truth is that, like any true artist, Frank simply moved on, first into film and then into personal, almost diary-like images and words and videos that increasingly became his bridge to self-analysis, discovery and the rest the world. In the process, he felt a need to “destroy” The Americans (according to Sarah Greenough in a chapter from the comprehensive book Looking In)In doing so, Frank entered into unhappy relationships with several photo dealers, ridding himself of vintage prints and retiring negatives of his canonical work.

This past June, New York’s Film Forum showed an intimate feature documentary about Frank that was directed by Gerald Fox, photographed by Robert Hannah and Kyle Cameron and edited by Steve Scales. It was made in cinema vérité style and follows Frank in and around the Bleecker Street home and studio he shared with Leaf, his second wife. He revisits the nearby Bowery, where he spent years in squalid quarters with his first wife, Mary; son, Pablo, and daughter, Andrea. Much of the documentary is in black-and-white, but Frank and Leaf are also photographed in color in their other home in Mabou, Nova Scotia. 

The documentary is titled Leaving Home, Coming Home. Here’s a surprising footnote: it was actually finished in 2004. A shortened version, running about an hour, was broadcast on the BBC’s The South Bank Show that same year. I don’t know the circumstances exactly, but apparently Frank exercised some control over the subsequent distribution, and he did not approve the release of the feature-length version until shortly before his death — ironic, considering Frank’s Rolling Stones concert film, Cocksucker Blues, had been censored by the band.

Leaving Home, Coming Home is an almost unbearably intimate testament, introspective and sad. Much of it depicts a life lived in loss and a profound effort to find meaning through art in an indifferent world. The loss of his children — Pablo to mental illness, institutionalization and death at 42, and Andrea to a plane crash in Guatemala at 20 — became the focus of much of Frank’s subsequent work.

To watch this documentary is to experience the travails not only of a great artist, but also of a father in the winter of his life who is trying to define a way to understand and resolve his own life. To anyone who has judged The Americans to be a dispassionate outsider’s view of humanity, watching Frank wander with the camera crew into the haunts of his past life is almost unbearably personal and empathic.

For my own part, I understand I must now reconsider the whole body of Frank’s photographs and movies not as a long footnote to The Americans, but, perhaps, as the true testament of a deeply introspective life.

Early in Leaving Home, Coming Home, Frank addresses the camera to discuss the perception that his work is “somber.” Suddenly, the film magazine runs out. Showing the ambivalence he has about the whole enterprise, he erupts: 

I can’t go through this shit! I mean, there is no spontaneity in this. It’s completely against my nature, what’s happening here.

He then suggests they move on to Coney Island, where he had once made a memorable series of shots of people sleeping on the beach on July 4. It’s clear that this entire cinematic journey is going to have a bumpy road.

I found the abbreviated cut of the film on YouTube: 

Melvyn Bragg introduces the documentary on the eve of a major Frank retrospective at the Tate Modern. This abbreviated version is somewhat intimate, but it is also dispassionate in presenting the arc of Frank’s life. What’s missing from this version are extended sequences from Frank’s personal films and videos, including Conversations in Vermont, Life Dances On, Home Improvements and The Present.

The image resolution of this video is only 240p. I hope it will serve as an appetizer that will tempt you to watch the fuller version, which is available on YouTube, Amazon Prime and Google Play. You can also buy the DVD.

I believe it’s these lesser-known films and videos that may ultimately become as important in Frank’s personal journey and testimony as the 83 images in The Americans. The final photograph in The Americans is not of a lone, anonymous figure at work; denizens of a bar or juke joint, or a desolate strip of roadway. Rather, it’s a car parked on the shoulder of U.S. 90 outside Del Rio, Texas. In it are Frank’s wife Mary, Pablo (leaning against his mother in the front seat) and Andrea (swaddled in near silhouette against the rear windscreen of their Ford Coupe). It is a murky image, a prophetic window into Frank’s own future.


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