Robert Frank & The Americans

It was nothing more than happenstance that I saw documentary films about two renowned American photographers on successive days: Laura Israel’s Don’t Blink – Robert Frank in its run at the ICA and Sara Fishko’s Jazz Loft Project – According to W. Eugene Smith which was showing at Barbican as part of the London jazz Festival.

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Frank is probably still best known for his photo book, The Americans, which resulted from a Guggenheim-funded road trip he made around the United States in 1955/56. Initially published in France, it didn’t come out in America until 1959, when Grove  Press published it with an introduction by Jack Kerouac.

That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and the music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that’s what Robert Frank has captured in tremendous photographs taken as he travelled on the road around practically forty-eight states in an old used car (on Guggenheim Fellowship) and with the agility, mystery, genius, sadness and strange secrecy of a shadow photographed scenes that have never been seen before on film. For this he will definitely be hailed as a great artist in his field.

Well, he was. But not straight off. The reviewer in Popular Photography characterised the work thus: meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposure, drunken horizons and general sloppiness. Elsewhere he was taken to task for the picture of American and Americans the book presented: this is not the real America and whoever thinks so must hate America, this is not the way we live. Kerouac, not surprisingly, disagreed.

As American a picture – the faces don’t editorialise or criticise or say anything but “This is the way we are in real life and if you don’t like it I don’t know anything about it ’cause I’m living my own life my way and may God bless us all, mebbe” … “if we deserve it” …

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Robert Frank : Bute,Montana

There’s a clear relationship in the photographs, I think, to some of the images that Dorothea Lange and others shot during the Depression, except that they were more studied – more consciously ‘artistic’, I suppose, and, as we now know, some of them were less spontaneous than they were made to appear – whereas, as Israel’s film makes clear, Frank was more likely to seize the moment, shoot on the fly. Look at them now, and aside from thinking, yes, how great they are, it’s hard to reach back and see what the negative fuss was about – that’s how used we’ve become, through street photography and the rest, to the kind of photography of which Robert Frank was one of the pioneers.

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Robert Frank: Car Accident – U.S. 66, between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona

It’s not clear from what Frank has to say in the film if it was the negative reaction to The Americans that caused him to move away from photography into film making, or if he thought, okay, that’s it, that’s my statement, that’s my work, now I need to get on to something new. [He had previously taken two series of photographs in the UK, not published until the 1970s, one in the City of London and the other – quite superb, these – in a mining village in South Wales.]

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Robert Frank: Three Welsh Miners

The first film in which he was involved, which also involved Kerouac, was Pull My Daisy, a movie about the Beats that he co-directed with Alfred Leslie. He has carried on with film and video ever since – he’s now 92 and not showing much sign of lying down – most famously Cocksucker Blues, a documentary about the Rolling Stones on tour, of which Mick Jagger said: It’s a fucking good film, Robert, but if it shows in America we’ll never be allowed into the country again.

Much of Israel’s film was shot in and around the converted fisherman’s shack on the coast of Mabou, on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, to which Frank moved with his second wife, the sculptor, June Leaf, in the early 70s. The reclusive life seems to suit him, though he does also spend some time in a loft on Bleecker Street in Manhattan, and although he has gone back to photography alongside film and video, it’s a long way from The Americans. These images are manipulated, collaged, yoked together, written on, the negatives scratched and scumbled, highly personalised. As if he’s saying that was then – those people – and this is now, my life, mine and June’s, me.

For more details of Don’t Blink – Robert Frank, including screenings, check out …

It’s showing at the ICA, just off Trafalgar Square, for the rest of this week

I’ll turn my attentions to W. Eugene Smith and the Jazz Loft Project in a few days’ time.

 

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Jumpin’ with Jazz Steps: Blue Territory Returns!

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October looks as if it’s going to be a busy month, one way or another, with most of my activities – just for a change – centred around Nottingham. Darkness, Darkness is at  Nottingham Playhouse for the first two weeks of the month, and, during the second of those weeks, the band, Blue Territory, [that’s us in action, above] and I will be repeating out previously successful mini-tour of Nottinghamshire libraries [No band bus, no Smarties in the Green Room, and positively no groupies] following the estimable Dave O’Higgins to  Worksop, Southwell and West Bridgford.

Along with some of the familiar pieces about Chet Baker, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, we’ve been working on some new material, including a small tribute to Jack Kerouac, whose poetry and jazz readings with the likes of Al Cohn and Zoot Sims in the 1950s lay at the heart of much that we do.

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Barry Wallenstein at the Vortex

Poetry and Jazz, the two operating together, can be a wonderful thing. Sometimes. Also, as some of my own experiences have taught me, it can be tricky, fraught with difficulty, hard to pull off, to hold together. But when it works, as a performer, as a poet, there’s nothing much to beat it – lifted along on the rhythm of someone else’s bass, someone else’s drums; your words, your lines etched around, embellished, occasionally upstaged (no matter) by this horn player or that; for those moments when you’re up there at on stage, the mike clamped close to your mouth, barely able to read the half-remembered words (I wrote that? I did!) through the sweat pouring off your forehead, over your eyes, your glasses smeared with steam, it’s unbelievable – top of the world, ma! – better than best.

Jack Kerouac did it. Back in ’58. With Steve Allen at the piano. With Al Cohn and Zoot Sims on tenors. With Allen again in ’59. Not strictly poetry this time, but prose. Jack’s prose, the prose of On the Road. “It’s the Beat. Be-at.”

Others since.

In this country, politely at first. Poetry and Jazz in Concert. Danny Abse. Laurie Lee. The Michael Garrick Sextet.

Less politely, New Departures and Mike Horowitz – the man with the kazoo, the man without whom …  The Poetry Olympics. Stan Tracey at the piano.

I myself first read with the Midlands Jazz Quartet, as they were called then, in the Nottingham Playhouse bar in 1992. With only a change of sax player, Mel Thorpe removing himself to France and Ian Hill taking his place, and a change (or two) of name, I’m still reading with them now. Whenever we get the chance.

But last night at the Vortex Jazz Club in East London belongs to Barry Wallenstein.

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Barry Wallenstein, an American poet who’s been collaborating with jazz artists such as Stanley Cowell and Cecil McBee since the 1970s, and is here briefly from New York and reading last night – brilliantly – with the Mike Hobart Band – each and all of whom deserve a name check: Chris Lee on trumpet, Danny Keene at the piano, Greg Gottlieb on bass and Eric Ford at the drums. Hobart himself plays a thrilling, sometimes raw-sounding sax, controlled and lyrical where needed, at others wild and echoing shades of R&B as he drives into the edges of the avant-garde. Archie Shepp? Was I hearing something not a million miles from Archie Shepp?[Next time I see him, he’d doubtless tell me my ears need a serious retread.]

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But no matter, it was Barry who held it all together, front and centre, the evening’s raison d’être; Barry who exemplified the art of holding our attention without ever being showy, letting the words, the rhythm of the words do, as it were, the talking; barely moving, other than to turn the pages of his poems, remove and then replace his glasses, listening carefully all the while to music around him, just as the musicians were listening to him – hanging, as we were in the audience, on to his every word.

Barry Wallenstein!

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