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.
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” …
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.
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.]
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.