Searching for the Truth
by Eric R. Davis and Tracy Stephenson
It is difficult to sum up the work of Robert Frank in a few hundred words. In a career spanning six decades, the Swiss-born American photographer has made thousands upon thousands of photographs and over 20 films and videos. More than a dozen books have been privately and commercially made about his work. This article, therefore, considers the period leading up to and discusses his seminal works, The Americans, Pull My Daisy and Me and My Brother.
Robert Frank served his first apprenticeship in 1941 with Hermann Segesser, a photographer who lived in the flat above his parents. It was with Segesser that Frank began to develop his technical prowess. His photographic style developed and technical skills refined further by serving two more apprenticeships with commercial photographers through .1944. During these years Frank also began his filmmaking experience by serving as a still photographer for the film Landam-mann Stauffacherand and as assistant to Walter Weller, the still photographer on Steibruch.
After the end of the war, Frank traveled to Italy and France. His first sojourns helped him begin to see the possibilities in the world at large. These opportunities, of course, were leading him, and many others, toward America. So, in 1947, reacting to what he considered the stifling, narrow mindset of his native country, Robert Frank went to the United States. Along with letters of recommendation, Frank took along with him a copy of his first photo book, 40 Fotos, containing spiral bound photographs that would serve as a visual introduction to his exceptional technical skills and ability to create diverse imagery.
Almost immediately he was hired by Alexey Brodovitch, art director for Harper's Bazaar and Junior Bazaar. Brodovitch was becoming well known for his cutting-edge layouts and for nurturing young talent. At the time Frank was hired for $50 a photograph, Brodovitch also had Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus and Louis Faurer on staff.2
Despite Brodovitch's willingness to accept somewhat experimental work to give Harper's a very contemporary look, Frank became increasingly disillusioned with the controlled nature of the commercial photographs he was creating. Still seeking a way to expand upon photography's intellectual capacity led him to leave New York and begin exploring. He spent six months traveling in South America and doing work for himself. In his words, he "didn't think of what would be the correct thing to do; I did what I felt good doing.'"
The years 1949 through 1954 were ones that would have a large impact upon Frank's intellectual consideration of photography. After returning from the freedom of photographing what he wanted in South America, he began to divesthimself of doing only fashion photography and looked more to doing freelance work. He found these years to be a "training camp" where he "tried out things. I learned about life. ... I entered into a more conscious period where I knew more about what I was doing and what I wanted."4
During these intervening years, Frank's personal life would take a turn. He met and ultimately married Mary Lockspeiser.Their first child, Pablo, was born in 1951. A second child, Andrea, was born in 1954. Between 1951 and 1953 Robert, Mary and Pablo, spent a great deal of time in Europe. It was during this time that Frank's stylistic manner began driving him toward The Americans. The family spent time in Paris, Valencia, London and Wales. While in Europe, Frank producedphotographic essays on bankers in London (1951), bullfighting in Spain (1952) and a Welsh miner (1953).
After finishing the Welsh miner series, the Frank family returned to the United States where the artist underwent something of an intellectual transformation. He decided that life had become too complicated to produce a single all-encompassing masterpiece — one picture that summed up his experience. As a result of his various trips abroad where he photographed as a foreign "observer" of life, Frank resolved to turn this power of observation into a "visual study of civilization," a look inward at his adopted homeland, America.6He was encouraged by, and given references from, Walker Evans, Alexey Brodovitch, Meyer Schapiro, Alexander Liberman and
Edward Steichen to apply for a Guggenheim Foundation grant to pursue his newfound mission.
In his application to the Guggenheim Foundation, Frank stated that he would not be attempting "'the photographing of America'" as that would be a literally absurd undertaking.7 He had in mind an "observation" of America from the point of view of a naturalized American. He was particularly interested in "things that are there, anywhere and everywhere."8 Thismore pragmatic endeavor, in Frank's opinion, would provide a catalogue of such things. His vision included "a town at night, a parking lot, a supermarket, a highway, the man who owns three cars and the man who owns none, the farmer and his children, a new house and a warped clapboard house, the dictation of taste, the dream of grandeur, advertising, neon lights, the faces of the leaders and the faces of the followers, gas tanks and post offices and backyards ... "' Frank applied to the Foundation in October 1954 and received a one-year grant in April 1955. He later applied for and received an extension to bring the project to fruition.
The Americans is a penetrating visual tale. It has everything: death, despair and cynicism, but also images of palpableenergy, a perception of truth, happiness and hope. This is America. The past, present and future coexist in these pictures. This is not civilization lost and found. This is America.
Frank's photographs of America are about more than a physical place. The images are not so much pure social documentary as they are, in many ways, entries in a visual diary — an interpretation and explanation of a foreign life in a foreign land, even for those who inhabit said land, now looked upon as post-modern vanitas. It is a constructed, perhaps even fictional, reality, but never unfaithful.
In Frank's America, like many Raymond Carver short stories, life is roughly carved out. Chances present themselves and choices are made. It is the type of place where, in the blink of an eye, everything can change. Frank finds a startlingbeauty in this mystery of the uncertain, unnoticed and unexpected. This is the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. We know these people ... we are these people. This was and is America. This is a land we only think we understand.
The Americans was first published in 1958 in France because Frank could not convince an American publisher of its importance. In 1959 he was finally able to get the American company, Grove Press, to publish the book with an introductionby the Beat poet, Jack Kerouac. Despite the initial criticism of the book, it has gone on to be reprinted many times inseveral languages. It is an artistic icon of a time gone by. lack Kerouac perhaps best summed up the images and resultingbook. He said, "What a poem this is, what poems can be written about this book of pictures some day by some young newwriter high by candlelight bending over them describing every gray mysterious detail, the gray film that caught the actual pink juice of human kind. Whether 'tis the milk of humankindness, Shakespeare meant, makes no difference when you look at these pictures. Better than a show."1"
Robert Frank moved from photography to filmmaking when he felt he had to tell a story. Concerned that he would repeat himself if he remained a photographer, Frank turned to motion pictures when his preoccupation with his own life moved him away from the single image toward the narrative-driven format of film. Friend and filmmaker Rudy Wurlit-zer said that Frank "constantly resurrects himself like a phoenix ... he reinvents himself again to find out how to look at things ..." with each new project."
Most of Frank's filmography is autobiographical and completely personal. His life is so deeply connected to his work there is little separation between what he does and who he is. His courage to share details about himself with audiences makes his films difficult to categorize. His persistent method of combining documentary and fiction within the same narrative framework is often difficult for viewers to discern. Pioneer underground filmmaker Jonas Mekas describes Frank as an artist who "seeks the truth .., and one who reminds us not to forget the challenges in our own lives."12
Since 1986, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston has served as the archive and distributor of films and videos by RobertFrank. Currently 18 titles are available to universities, film festivals and cinemas across the United States and Canada. Inthe past, Frank's films have appeared as part of the cinema history curriculum at the Harvard Film Archive and Columbia University, honored at international film festivals, and featured in recent retrospectives in New York and Los Angeles. Frank's newest works include The Present (1996), in which the artist contemplates his relationships, the anniversary of his daughter's death, his son's mental illness and his work from his homes in New York and Nova Scotia. Flamingo (1997) is aseven minute poetic diary recording the construction of a new foundation for Frank's Nova Scotia home, and / Remember(1998), a reenact-ment of Frank's visit to the home of photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
The American independent cinema was in its infancy when Robert Frank's Pull My Daisy appeared in 1959. Co-directed with painter Alfred Leslie, the film was quickly acknowledged as a small masterpiece and is now credited, along with John Cassavetes' Shadows, as the point of origin for American avant-garde cinema. In 1996, the film was named to the Library of Congress's National Film Registry and released on video for the first time." Premiering at the same time the groundbreaking photography book The Americans was published in the United States, Pull My Daisy is based on the third act of Jack Kerouac's un-produced play, The Beat Generation. Unfortunately for the filmmakers, MGM had copyrighted the title The Beat Generation and, in 1959, released a B/exploitation movie of the same name. A new title, however, came from an eroti-cally charged poem written as part of a jazz-styled jam session by Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg, called Pull My Daisy. The title refers to the term for the removal of a stripper's G-string. The poem was rewritten and subsequently scored by the composer David Amram. The resultant piece became the theme song to the film, which was sung by Anita Ellis. Much to the chagrin of both Kerouac and Ginsberg, some words were changed for the recording.14The film focuses on a visit from a bishop to the New York City loft of Milo (painter Larry Rivers) and his family. It is basedon an actual incident that took place while friends Kerouac, Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky were visiting Neal Cassady in California. Pull My Daisy alternates between chaotic action and filmic order. Ginsberg states that the film is respectful of the actors as poets, and has the quality of "playing for eternity while at the same time being right there in time."15
The film is shot silent; so Kerouac's improvised narration becomes both a freewheeling commentary on the action and the voice of all the characters. The poets talk to the bishop (Richard Bellamy) about religion and the meaning of life while Milo's wife (Delphine Seyrig from Last Year at Marienbad) attempts to restore order in the loft. As the evening progresses, discussion turns to nonsense and drunkenness. Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie edit Kerouac's narration from different takes and add the original jazz soundtrack composed by David Amram.
Robert Frank loved looking at the response of people to the filmed disorder of his debut film. With Pull My Daisy, he successfully conveyed the growing tensions between the Beat generation and the middle class American values involving family, religion and the work ethic. Filmmaker Emile de Antonio states that the film contained "what everyone was hiding in the 19505: drugs, homosexuality, a different view of the world .... [That was all part of] the Beats: total indifference to everything that would make the Westchester matron's jawfs] drop."16 Pull My Daisy is a revelation of what the world was about to be — all of the political, sexual and general upheaval that was represented in the 19605.
Me and My Brother also examines life on the margins of society. Between 1965 and 1968, Frank worked with Sam Shep-ard, Allen Ginsberg and Julius and Peter Orlovsky on the 35mm feature concerning the complex nature of the relationship between Beat poet Peter Orlovsky and his institutionalized brother Julius. Incidentally, Frank re-edited this film in 1997 as a tribute to his late friend, Allen Ginsberg. The new version of Me and My Brother premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival and was released on video the same year. Me and My Brother explores society's reaction to mental illness by incorporating fictional and documentary cinematic devices to tell the story. The film also raises questions concerning voyeurism, exploitation, acting versus real behavior and the illusion of truth. After spending years in a New YorkState hospital, Julius Orlovsky is released into the care of his brother, who lives with fellow poet and lover, Allen Ginsberg. His condition is diagnosed by doctors, romanticized by psychiatrists and medicated by professionals. At one point, Peter Orlovsky forgets to administer Julius' medication and his brother disappears during a California poetry tour. Julius' deliberate stare, detached behavior and silence makes filming a movie about him difficult to complete; his disappearance complicates matters even more.
The problems Frank encounters while filming Me and My Brother over a three-year period become a metaphor for the struggle to bring truth to the screen. Julius' lack of cooperation in the making of the film and his disappearance become a symbol of Frank's struggle to control his subject matter. In Pull My Daisy, he uses improvisation, narration and real peopleacting as themselves to challenge the limitations of fiction. In Me and My Brother he expresses the difficulties onscreen, constructing a film-within-a-film to comment on the medium's reliability. Frank decides to hire an actor to play Julius: Joseph Chaikin mimics Julius' gestures and behavior in front of a movie screen with images of Julius projected on it. Chaikin's image eventually replaces Julius' projected self and the actor becomes the "character" of Julius. Addressing issues of acting versus real life with this technique emphasizes the alienation Julius must feel in his own life, and underscores Frank's statement on the "unreality" of film. He reinforces that even documentary footage is unreliable because, as the audience sees it, what appears onscreen is only an interpretation of the subject matter.
Me and My Brother returns to the real Julius after he is found in a Napa Valley hospital. As Peter Orlovsky discharges hisbrother, who has undergone shock treatment while hospitalized, Robert Frank's awareness and understanding of his part in the voyeuristic project becomes clearer. From behind the camera, the audience hears Frank question Julius about how he feels being the subject of a documentary.
JULIUS ORLOVSKY: Well, the camera is a, uh ... seems like a, uh ... a uh ... a uh ... a uh ... a uh ... a uh ... a uh ... a uh ... uh, a reflection of disapproval or disgust or, uh... or disappointment, or ... uh ... unhelpfulness ... ness, or, uh, unexplanation -unexplaining ... unexplainability ... inabilit ... unexplainabilty ... ability ... ability ... to, uh ... to, uh ... disclose any real real, uh, truth that might, uh, possibly exist.
ROBERT FRANK: Where does the truth exist?
JULIUS ORLOVSKY: Inside and out side the world. Outside the world is ... well, I don't know ...."
The viewer comes away from the film cognizant that in life there is no screenplay and that Frank questions himself and all others whose lives seem to always be part of a performance. He has emerged with a better understanding of his own limitations in seeking the truth on film.
Robert Frank shows detailed, unsparing scenes of his relationships with the people around him in his film projects. His technique has set the course of his film career: no rules, constant experimentation and subjects close to home. At times he stands in front of the camera, as a reflection in a window or a voice on the soundtrack, and the scenes become like pages from a journal. "I'm always doing the same images. I'm always looking outside, trying to look inside. Trying to tell something that's true. But maybe nothing is really true. Except what's out there — and what's out there is always changing."18
R. Eric Davis is the curatorial assistant for Photography, Print and Drawings of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Tracy Stephenson is the curatorial assistant for the Film Department of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
1.Both German language dramas were made in Switzerland. Leopold Lindtberg directed Landammann Stauffacherand(1941). Sigfrit Steiner directed Steibruch (1942).
2.Patricia Bosworth, Diane Arbus. New York: Avon Books, 1984, p. 166.
3.Sarah Greenough, "Fragments that Make a Whole Meaning in Photographic Sequence," in Robert Frank: Moving Out.Washington, D.C./Zurich: National Gallery of Art/SCALO, 1994, p. 104.
4.Ibid, p. 105.
5.The children's presence would weigh heavily in Frank's later projects including the film, Conversations in Vermont (1969); the video, Home Improvements (1983-85); and several photographs. Andrea died tragically in an airplane crash, at the age of 20, in 1974 in Guatemala. Pablo, who had long been treated for mental illness, committed suicide in 1994.
6.Anne Wilkes Tucker and Philip Brookman, editors. Robert Frank: New York to Nova Scotia. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, and Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1986. p. 20. Quotes for notes 6 to 9 are taken from the reproduction in this exhibition catalogue of Frank's application for a Guggenheim Foundation grant.
10.Robert Frank, The Americans. Revised edition, Millerton, New York: An Aperture Monograph, 1978. Introduction by Jack Kerouac, pp. 6-7. Fire in the East: A Portrait of Robert Frank (1986). Directed by Philip and Amy Brookman. Produced by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and Houston Public Television (KUHT). United States. Videotape, b/w and color, 28 minutes.
12.The National Film Registry annually adds films of historic and aesthetic importance to celebrate film's legacy and to encourage cinematic preservation.
13.Jack Sargeant, The Naked Lens: An Illustrated History of Beat Cinema. London, England: Creation Books, 1997.
14.Fire in the East.
16.Me and My Brother (1968). Directed and Cinematography by Robert Frank. Produced by Helen Silverstein. United States. 35-mm, b/w and color, 91 minutes.
17.Home Improvements (1985). Directed and produced by Robert Frank. United States. Videotape, color, 29 minutes.
Pull My Daisy, 1959, b/w, 28 min. The Sin of Jesus, 1961, b/w, 40 min. 0. K. End Here, 1963, b/w, 30 min.
Me and My Brother, 1965-68 (re-edited 1997), b/w and color, 91 min.
Conversations in Vermont, 1969, b/w, 26 min. Life-ran Earth, 1969, color, 37 min. About Me: A Musical, 1971, b/w, 35 min.
Cocksucker Blues, 1972, b/w and color, 90 min.
Keep Busy, 1975, b/w, 38 min.
Life Dances On, 1980, b/w and color, 30 min.
Energy and How to Get It, 1981, b/w, 28 min.
Keep Busy, 1975, b/w, 30 min.
This Song for Jack, 1983, b/w, 30 min.
Home Improvements, 1985, color, 29 min.
Candy Mountain, 1987, color, 91 min.
Run, 1989, 5 min.
Hunter, 1989, b/w and color, 36 min.
C'esf Vrai! (One Hour), 1990, color, 60 min.
last Supper, 1992, color, 52 min.
Moving Pictures, 1994, b/w and color, 16 min.
The Present, 1996, 27 min.
Summer Cannibals, 1996, 5 min.
Flamingo, 1997, 7 min.
/ Remember, 1998, color, 5 min