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.


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” …

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.

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.]

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.


Frank’s Friends

Celebrations of Frank O’Hara’s life and work, both, of course, closely entwined, continue apace. Last Saturday’s colloquium at the ICA – Frank O’Hara and Friends – broadened out those celebrations to include references to the work of some of the other poets and painters of the New York School with whom O’Hara was closely associated. One such, the artist (and sometime jazz musician) Larry Rivers, contributed the collage, based on his own nude portrait of O’Hara, used on the cover of the 1974 Vintage edition of O’Hara’s Selected Poems, edited by Donald Allen, and shown below. And today, it  should be noted, marks the 89th birthday of one of the foremost of the New York poets, John Ashbery.

O'Hara 1

The ICA event was, as those occasions tend to be, a mixture of the interesting and entertaining with the academically obscure and self-serving, the first keynote speaker, Geoff Ward, Principal of Homerton College, Cambridge, being all of the former and none of the latter.  Jess Cotton, a PhD student from UCL, talked interestingly about the relationship and cross-influences linking O’Hara and fellow poet James Schuyler, and Eleanor Careless (great name!), studying for a PhD at Sussex, spoke of the connections between O’Hara and the painter Helen Frankenthaler and his poem/her painting Blue Territory in the context of “gendered risk”.

Last night’s event at Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham, organised by Leah Wilkins, was an altogether less grandiose affair and none the less enjoyable for that. Some fifty people crowded into the store, taking up all the available chairs and filling all the nooks and crannies between bookstands, to listen to largely unexplicated readings of O’Hara’s poems by, amongst others,  the poet and lecturer, Matthew Welton; the newly in place director of Nottingham Contemporary, Sam Thorne; gay literature historian, Gregory Woods; and founder of Mud Press, Georgina Wilding. As I said when someone commented kindly on my reading of The Day Lady Died, that poem is so close to perfect that being given the opportunity to read it aloud feels almost like stealing.

O'Hara 2


More & More Frank …

You’ll have noticed, if not from this blog then from elsewhere, quite a lot of brouhaha around the 50th anniversary of the death of New York poet, Frank O’Hara on July 25th. 1966. Some – a mass reading of Lunch Poems outside the South Bank’s Poetry Library – just gone; more to come. On Sunday, July 24th in London there’s a one-day symposium – The Day Before O’Hara Died – organised around O’Hara’s life and work at the ICA. As well as talks, readings, discussions, there will be a number of rare and limited editions from the Poetry Library’s collection on display. And then, less grandiloquently, there’s a celebration of O’Hara’s poetry at Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham on the evening of Wednesday, July 27th. The poet, Matthew Welton, will talk about the importance of O’Hara’s work and a clutch of others – Becky Cullen, Leah Wilkins, Gregory Woods, David Belbin and myself, will experience the joy of reading a selection of the poems aloud.

I don’t know if anyone is going to be reading “My Heart”, but if they’re not, maybe they should.


I’m not going to cry all the time
nor shall I laugh all the time,
I don’t prefer one “strain” to another.
I’d have the immediacy of a bad movie,
not just a sleeper, but also the big,
overproduced first-run kind, I want to be
at least as alive as the vulgar. And if
some aficionado of my mess says “That’s
no like Frank!”, all to the good! I
don’t wear brown and grey suits all the time,
do I? No. I wear workshirts to the opera,
often. I want my feet to be be,
I want my face to be shaven, and my heart –
you can’t plan on the heart, but
the better part of it, my poetry, is open.

Still Being Frank …

Running a theme here, and with a one day symposium on O’Hara’s life, work and friends at the ICA on Sunday, 24th July, there may be even more. But for now, following up on the previous post’s recent poem from Out of Silence, here are a couple more that somehow didn’t make it into the New & Selected. (Wonder why?) The first comes from Bluer Than This (Smith/Doorstop, 1998), the second from Taking The Long Road Home (Slow Dancer, 1988)

Seven Year Ache

“There’s nothing so spiritual about being happy
but you can’t miss a day of it, because it doesn’t last”
Frank O’Hara. “Poem”(“And tomorrow morning at 8 o’clock”)

Listening to the radio this afternoon,
thumbing through my well-worm life
of Frank O’Hara, its pink and purple annotations,
I notice Top Hat is on TV in time to see
Fred and Ginger shelter in that convenient bandstand
and marvel at the way she mimics so perfectly his routine.
And I think of the young O’Hara watching them for the first time
from those red velvet seats of the Worcester Warner’s.
How he loved them!  Ginger’s ‘pageboy bob’, Fred’s
‘peach melba voice’. Watching them now,
I hate Astair’s dinner-suited smugness,
the certainty he’ll get the girl at the end.

Last night, and then again today, I’m taunted
by the bizarre easiness of dying. O’Hara at forty
knocked over by an errant jeep on the beach,
his mother, frail from hospital and drying out,
tumbling yellow roses into his grave. Such waste!
Each day that’s lived is lived in hope and in regret.
We die each day and not from love but lack of it:
the pull of your hand away from mine, the turn
of your face aside. Whatever flowers you throw
on that fresh-turned earth will carry with them,
bright and unremarkable, the stench of what was missed.


This & Then That

the day is full of possibilities

we can climb the hill into the city
& pass the girl with blue eyes
coming back down
camel coat like a bathrobe
on her shoulders
sleep and love in her eyes

our bags packed with spiced sausage
& cheeses & strong with the smell
of fresh coffee
we sit and eat a slow, late breakfast
you read one of the folded papers
while I wait a little breathlessly
for the waitress to dip low
skirt peeling back from her legs
like fine blue paint

you stop me with a smile

Dave gets up from piano practice
tousle-haired kids draw men like stars
we talk of Rothko, Frank O’Hara, the blues:
Gill out, getting on with life

later we take the cat for a walk
around the park
check out the evening movies
I can tell from the look in your eyes
we’ll be in bed soon
sunset back of the trees

Movie Going Then & Now

One of my biggest pleasures – still is, for that matter – was going to films during the day. There are certain theatres I like to go to because I know I will be one of the only people in there. Matinees on a weekday are my favourite times to see films, or in the late afternoon. I did that a lot when I was writing as a teenager. After school was when I would go to see a lot of European films. I also discovered the nouvelle vague when I was in high school – at revival houses. They don’t have those any more. Well, there aren’t any in L.A. anymore. I don’t know about New York.

Bret Easton Ellis in conversation with Don DeLillo, “The Believer”, Vol 9, No. 7, September 2011.

I marked this passage up at the original time of reading – if for nothing else, it signified the only thing, being writers aside, I could imagine Easton Ellis and myself having in common – as it struck an immediate chord. Not that there’s anything so remarkable about writers going to see afternoon movies – what on earth else are they going to do? It was more the idea of it as a habit that began during one’s relatively early years. School years.

One way or another I devoted a lot of time between the ages of, say, 12 0r 13 and 15/16, to skipping school. [Though never on Wednesdays, for that was sports day when, in a ragged crocodile, we would troop down Hornsey Lane to the school playing fields on Hurst Avenue.] If it were an especially fine day, I might take the tube up beyond Highgate, where the school was located, to East Finchley, and spend the bulk of the day on a meandering route through Cherry Tree Woods into Highgate Wood and from there into either, or both, Waterlow Park and Hampstead Heath. More usually, I would head off in the other direction, seeking out one of the many second- and third-run cinemas that proliferated my area of north London  in the 1950s. [As was the case, of course, elsewhere.]

I headed for these cinemas for several reasons. For one thing, as mine was one of the last of those movie-going families who went to the cinema every Friday night without fail, I would have already seen a goodly number of new releases with my parents – which meant the choice was invariably theirs; whereas in the smaller cinemas, which were cheaper and thus within reach of what I could afford from my lunch money, I could make my own selection. Nothing highbrow in those early days, but with the kind of zealous devotion that would make me the film buff I was to become, I made a point of seeking out particular films at particular venues.

So, it was to the Holloway Grand that I went to catch up on Doris Day musicals and to the Electric Pavilion (or was it the Empire in those days?) at the other end of the Holloway Road to see George Montgomery westerns; for more westerns, my favourite genre in those days, the Gaisford in Kentish Town had a strong line in Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, while the Court on Malden Road (where the usherettes had a habit of parading the aisles with bug spray between screenings – I kid you not) was the only place where I could regularly track down Wild Bill Elliott. And the only time I managed to see Lash La Rue (no, he was a cowboy star, too) was on my sole visit to the Essoldo, Caledonian Road.

None of these cinemas were to outlast changing habits. [Not mine, other people’s.] The Grand closed in 1961, the Gaisford in ’60; the Court showed its last films in 1958, the Electric Palace in ’57 [to become an Irish dance hall]; grander than the rest, the Essoldo soldiered on until 1965. Another casualty of the late 50s was the Astoria near the foot of Highgate Hill, where, as part of a mass school visit, I saw “Scott of the Antarctic”, and where my friend Trevor Halpin and I plucked up our courage to see “The Blackboard Jungle”, despite newspaper reports of older teenagers dancing on the seats and rampaging in the aisles to Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”.

But by the end of the 50s I was in the sixth form and mixing with a more intellectual crowd and starting to watch the kind of European movies I imagine Easton Ellis was also watching, Bergman and Goddard and Antonioni – which, in my case, meant frequent trips to the Everyman in Hampstead and the posher and more expensive Academy in Oxford Street. The Everyman’s repertory programme, sadly long abandoned in favour of armchair seating and waiter service, with commensurate prices, and a similar – no, more off-the-wall – programme at the Electric Cinema in Notting Hill, went on to feed my lust, and that of every other capital-based film buff, for everything from 40s film noir to the arcane and avant-garde, right through into the 70s.

Like Easton Ellis’ L.A., it’s difficult, if not close to impossible now to find anywhere in London, outside of the BFI Southbank, which bothers to show a consistent revival programme any more. [And to those who say what does it matter? You can watch everything on DVD or on download, I’m sorry, but you just don’t get it.] Thankfully, there are a small number of exceptions. The ICA programme is worth keeping up with, as is that of the recently reopened Regent Street Cinema – would you believe a recent Sam Fuller double-bill? And now there’s the Close-Up Film Centre in Sclater Street, E1, just off Brick Lane and near enough to Shoreditch High Streeet Station, with a dedicated repertory programme that’s well worth checking out. Just a shame there are no afternoon screenings.

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Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life

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Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life


Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life