Robert Frank's Journey from Photography to Film

by Michael G. DeVoll

Editor’s Note: This article was inspired by a screening of Frank’s films a the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in May 1995. The films of Robert Frank are distributed in the United States by the Film Department of the MFAH (713-639-7531) and in Europe by Vega Film A. G., Zurich, Switzerland (01-252-6000)

“That crazy feeling in America when he sun is hot on the streets and music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that’s what Robert Frank has captured in tremendous photographs taken as he traveled on the road around practically fort-eight states in an old used car… 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.”
Jack Kerouac, Introduction to ‘The Americas’ 1959

That same year, Robert Frank gave up still photography. Why would an artist, about whom such grand statements have been made, decide to give up the practice of that medium to pursue other visual interests? This question leads to an examination of the similarities and differences of Franik’s media of choice: photography and film. Because Frank’s photography is so greatly acclaimed and his film/video work so prolific, it presents an opportunity for a comparative case study.
Robert Frank, born in Zurish, Switzerland, in 1924, immigrated to the United States in 1947. Frank is, and probably always will be, best known for The Americans, a body of work created under a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1955-56. Naomi Rosenblum writes that Frank was “predominant in establishing a time and style for the next generation. [His] irreverent, unposed, erratically framed, and sometimes blurred forms (reflective also of their maker’s anti-aesthetic attitude toward print quality) adumbrated the taste of a generation that had had its fill of heroes and icons.”1 Although his images would influence the next generation, they were not well received at the time. Published in France in 1958 and in New York in 1959, “his disillusioned images were seen as an attack on American optimism.”2
In this series, Frank trained his camera on the indecisive moment: the downtime between life’s important episodes. We are shown the glimpses and fragments of people’s lives that Frank encountered during his two years of wandering the United States with his family. Because of his “anti-aesthetic” approach, we also get a sense of his peregrinations – the physical act of wandering has been translated into his images.
There is a consistency of vision in Franks’ photography that is difficult to describe. Duane Michals says: “It’s an atmosphere; there is always an atmosphere of light, an atmosphere of the relationship between the people.” Michals goes on to say that Frank’s images are “poetic – the indelible, indescribable part that we respond to.”3
With such a level of praise, on might assume Frank turned from photography because he had created a reputation that was almost impossible to live up to. “Frank, aware that his style had reached some sort of climax, was faced with the question of what to do with the rest of his life. He switched to film and eventually changed his subject.”4 Frank offers a more lyrical explanation: “I become more occupied with my own life, with my own situation instead of traveling and looking at the cities and the landscape. And I think that brought me to move away from the single image and begin to film, where I had to tell a story. And I guess I most often choose to tell my own story or part of it or make up some story that was related to my life. So sometimes the two paths crossed.”5 Upon close examination, it becomes apparent that even though he changed media, his vision remained consistent.
“A photograph is fiction and as it is moving it becomes reality.”6
Pull My Daisy (1959), Robert Frank’s first film (co-directed by the painter Alfred Leslie), as adapted from the third act of The Beat Generation, an unproduced play Jack Kerouac, loosely based on an actual event. The film begins with a woman opening her New York City loft for the day: pulling back the drapes, straightening yesterday’s messes, feeding and getting her son off to school. This routine is interrupted by the arrival of three poet friends who decide to spend the day waiting for Milo, the woman’s husband, to return from his job as a railroad brakeman. They pass the time drinking, smoking pot and talking about poetry. Soon after Milo’s return, the group is joined by a bishop, his sister and aunt. As the discussion meanders around a range of subjects including religion and the meaning of life, Milo’s wife struggles to maintain order in the midst of the chaos of drunkenness and a spontaneous jazz recital. After the bishop and his attendants leave, she finally compels her husband and his poet friends to continue their revelry elsewhere.
However straightforward the story, the film itself is far from conventional. All the footage was shot silent and the sound track consists of improvised voice-over narration by Kerouac. Although the action is based on his play, the spontaneous narration is a combination of his words in place of dialogue and asides about the events portrayed. The results are disorienting; at times we feel the narrator is relating the action, at other times creating the action. Te addition of original jazz music, composed by David Amram, adds to the frenetic energy of some portions of the film.
There is also confusion about the nature of the film: documentary versus narrative fiction. This is brought about by the choice of actors and the style of filming. The poets are portrayed by a virtual “Who’s Who” of beat generation poets (Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso) each portraying himself. The bishop’s visit actually occurred while Kerouac, Ginsberg and Orlovsky were visiting a friend in California. So does that make the film a fictitious narrative or a re-creation of an actual event?
The filmic style of the work also adds to the dilemma. The film is shot in grainy, high-contrast, black-and-white. At times, some faces are obscured in shadow; at other times, lights wash out large portions of the image. The camera is hand-held and shaky, at times with dizzying pants and sweeps, cinema verite in its infancy. This style of filmmaking is generally associated with documentary films rather than more formally composed narrative films.
Most of Frank’s films defy categorization. It may be because he sees no difference between who he is and what he does, so he intentionally blurs the distinction between truth and fiction. Several of his works have been autobiographical:Conversations in Vermont, 1969; About Me: A Musical, 1971; Life Dances On…, 1980; and Home Improvements, 1985. At the close of his video Home Improvements Frank states: “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 different.” With this as a starting point, all of his films, even the ones that are not overtly autobiographical, are about him and his search for “truth.” He prophetically alluded to this in a letter home to his parents not long after moving to New York City: “Never have I experienced so much in one week as here. I feel as if I’m in a film. Life here is very different than in Europe. Only the moment counts; nobody seems to care about what he’ll do tomorrow.”7
It is the nature of the moving image that has pulled some artists away from the still image. Unlike still photography that “stops time,” film retains the fluidity of time and motion and so is perceived to be more closely linked to reality. There is also the added element of sound, a filmic device with which Frank has experimented throughout his film career – from the only slightly cohesive voice-over of Pull My Daisy to his use of non-synchronous sound in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
C’est Vrai!, 1990 combines many of these same facets of Frank’s filmmaking. This video piece was created for French television and the assignment, given to several film/video artists, was to shoot one hour of unedited video of their lives. Frank starts at his studio and proceeds to a can that carries him around New York City, stopping periodically so he can get out and film. He is accompanied by an assistant with a clipboard (who keeps track of the locations and gets model releases when warranted), a sound person (we only see an arm or leg from time to time as they load and unload from the van), and a friend who joins them at the second stop. As in previous works, Frank subverts the “documentary” aspect of this film. At the various stops, he casually films passersby on the street and eavesdrops on phone conversations, but he also tapes prearranged, scripted vignettes with actors. The friend who joins them constantly tries to get Frank to let him play out some scene so he can be included in the project. The friend is actually Peter Orlovsky, who appeared in Frank’s first film. During these various interludes, the sound technician may be concentrating on one subject while Frank, with the camera, focuses on another. With this project, the prophecy of forty-three years prior comes true: there is so much going on, he feels like he is in a film.
So where does this leave Robert Frank? In 1986, Anne W. Tucker and Philip Brookman curated “Robert Frank: New York to Nova Scotia” that was accompanied by a 111-page catalog and a documentary video, Fire in the East: A Portrait of Robert Frank. After the initial viewing in Houston, the exhibition traveled to five other sites in the United States and Germany. That same year, in conjunction with the MFAH, the Center for Creative Photography published Robert Frank: A Bibliography, Filmography, and Exhibition Chronology, 1946-1985, a 183-page comprehensive overview by Stuart Alexander. Also in that year, Robert Delpire edited Robert Frank by Robert Frank in conjunction with a retrospective exhibition in Paris and a new edition of The Americans was published in three languages. In 1994, Sarah Greenough and Philip Brookman curated “Robert Frank: Moving Out,” a comprehensive retrospective for the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. This exhibition is accompanied by a 335-page catalog and has an international traveling schedule through 19996. Curatorial Assistance in California is currently touring an exhibition of work from The Americans. Pick up any photographic history book and it will talk about Frank and The Americans.
When asked about the differences between the two retrospectives, Anne Tucker said the MFAH exhibit was intended as a chronology and an evolution of ideas related to Frank’s life. This show served as a framework for his career while the National Gallery exhibition is a sophisticated examination of Frank as an image-maker. She noted that this exhibition illustrates graphically the shift in his work from the ‘40s and early ‘50s to the work from The Americans; from spacious images of lone figures on the horizon to crowded images with the subject right on the surface. It drives home the fact that he is “a man who has constantly needed to shift.” This then puts his shift to filmmaking in context: it is yet another step in a life of constant change.
So where does this leave Robert Frank as a filmmaker? He has seen himself primarily as a filmmaker since 1959 and has made twenty-one films in those thirty-six years. Although the exhibitions mounted by both the MFAH and the National Gallery included screenings of his films, which are also addressed in the catalogs, his oeuvre is still overshadowed by his photography and especially The Americans. One is hard pressed to find a film history that mentions him. Film critic and historian Jonas Mekas has said that Frank’s Pull My Daisy was one film that “Marked the end of the avant-gardeexperimental cinema tradition of the ‘40s and ‘50s.”
The disparity of how Frank is viewed in the two worlds of photography and film can be attributed to timing. The Americanscame at a time when photography was on the cusp of change and Frank was there as an innovator. As a filmmaker, he was finding his stylistic niche at the end of a filmic generation. Economists are another contributing factor to this dilemma. His photographs were, and continue to be, a hot property in the photographic market while his films have less broad-based appeal. Candy Mountain is his only film to have received national distribution when it was produced; the others have had limited distribution, either self-distributed by Frank or a few through the Filmmaker’s Coop in New York. Today, their distribution through the MFAH Film Department is steady but slow. As far as funding to produce the films, Frank has received that through the American Film Institute (1971), the Canada Council (1975) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (1981). This is evidence that he is respected as a filmmaker and continues to be an innovator.
So Frank remains a filmmaker today not because of the interest from others, but for the reason any artist continues to make art: because of the passion within. Franak’s films are, for him, the most satisfying way for him to express himself and to find his truth.

Footnotes

  1. Rosenblum, Naomi, A World History of Photography, Abbeville Press, Inc., 1984, pp 517-518
  2. Lemagny and Rouille, A History of Photography, Cambridge University Press, p. 193
  3. Fire in the East: A Portrait of Robert Frank, 1986, documentary video, co-produced by MFAH and Houston Public Television (KUHT), directed by Amy Brookman and Philip Brookman
  4. Vicki Goldberg, “What to Do With the Leftover Pieces Of a Life,” The New York Times, October 16, 1994, review of “Robert Frank: Moving Out,” at the National Gallery
  5. Fire in the East
  6. Robert Frank in a letter to Sarah Greenough and Philip Brookman, curators of the National Gallery of Art’s retrospective exhibition, “Robert Frank: Moving Out.”
  7. Robert Frank in a letter to his parents, reproduced in “Robert Frank: New York to Nova Scotia,” exhibition catalog, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, edited by Anne W. Tucker, p. 14
  8. Sidney, P. Adams, Visionary Film: the American Avant-Garde, 1943-1978, Oxford University Press, 1974, p. 340

Michael G. DeVoll is another artist who has given up still photography to pursue the moving image. He works as HCP’S Associate Director.

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