Possibly, Everything: An Interview with Robert Frank

Robert Frank has always produced books of photographs. He made his first one, 40 Fotos, in 1946, a spiral-bound, single edition of 40 images he’d taken between 1941 and 1945 and assembled as a portfolio he would use in seeking employment. It accompanied him on his trip to New York in 1947 and helped him secure work with Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar. In 1948 he travelled to South America and from the photographs he made there produced two handmade copies of a book he called Peru; one he kept and the other he gave to his mother for her birthday. In 1949 he made a small book of Paris photos–Mary’s Book–a courtship gift to his first wife, Mary Lockspeiser, whom he married in 1950. And in 1953 he produced Black White and Things, an edition of three. That book mapped the course Robert Frank would follow in all the work he did. Everything is there: the place of memory, the use of sequencing, a reliance on intuition, the rigour and emotional courage of poetry–and trusting and leaving space for the viewer.

The poetry is important–it’s all important, but like Kerouac wrote in his introduction to The Americans, published in 1959, “Anybody doesn’t like these pitchers don’t like poetry, see? Anybody don’t like poetry go home see television shots of big-hatted cowboys being tolerated by kind horses.” In the interview that follows we talked with Robert Frank about the form of narratives–in his books and in his photographs assembled from multiple images–being more poetic than literal and linear. His response was the elliptical poetry you recognize from the few lines he writes in his books, from the words inscribed on the photographs themselves. “It’s just the friends I have, people I know…. It’s just the people I know and it’s where I live.”

From Me and My Brother, 1964, All images courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York. © Robert Frank

The recent books, Pangnirtung, Paris, You Would, Park / Sleep, Valencia 1952 and Tal Uf Tal Ab, were the provocation for this conversation because, as Robert wrote to us when we’d completed our first conversation for Border Crossings in 1997, “in Mabou interview about intuition and memory for Meeka and Robert and continue….” From the outset of his career, and maintained into the present, he has followed the instructions he printed on the photograph, Mabou in the Winter, 1989–a grey image, soft, the sea in the distance and in the foreground covering a stump, a blaze of snow, white and frothed like steamed milk spilling over onto the ground beside it. The image is mounted on the lower portion of a grey sheet. At the top of the photograph he has written, “Hold Still, Keep Going.” The place between hold still and keep going is the unachievable state in which we live if we interrogate our lives. It is like the very point of the fulcrum on which Frank’s work teeters, seeking only the briefest sustainable balance. It is the existential conundrum–hold still, keep going–life’s joke, that shimmer of equivocation that he has always pursued in his work, and risking the balance, he has urged, “keep going.” In our conversation in 1997 he told us that it was important to continue. “You have to continue and you have to set yourself a real high level.”

Unswerving consistency in the way a life is lived and the work produced, and to be resolute from the very outset, is truly remarkable. But this is so with Robert Frank. The pull against assertions has always been his manner of responding. In January 2013 he told us, “I always knew what I didn’t want. That was the rule in my life. I absolutely knew what I didn’t want; that gave me the idea and the rest was intuition….” Reflecting, and also gentler now in his consideration than he was able to be as a young man leaving Switzerland, he acknowledged, “It’s sad when you know the only thing you want to do is to get away from what someone is offering you. Sad for them. But I knew right away there was no compromise.” And since our conversation at this point had returned to those early decisions to leave, Robert Frank mused on the lives of his Swiss contemporaries, cousins who had visited America for a period, then returned, settled down in family businesses and are well off. “I’m well off too, but my way,” he added, thoroughly Frank-ian. “Everything not to do I learned from Switzerland.” No need to consider if even the smallest sliver of sentimentality had cleaved a narrow wedge in the rigour of his thinking or his work.

June Leaf, Bleecker Street, New York City, 2010, © Robert Frank

But room for poetry and beauty and friends, always. In the opening pages of You Would there is a joyful photograph of three friends: Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Julius Orlovsky. Peter and Julius stand in profile behind Ginsberg, so engaged they appear to be chanting, almost devotional. Ginsberg faces his friend’s camera, his intelligent face animated–full bushy beard and lively mass of dark hair capped by a white straw boater with a striped band. They must have stopped on a roadside and are standing in a summer field. The book opens with them because “these are my old friends. They were just walking around on a trip to Kansas and that is how I like to remember them, with Ginsberg wearing his hat. The light was wonderful. There is a certain beauty of a photograph when it is spontaneous.”

Bleecker Street, New York City, 2009, © Robert Frank

In Paris he’d always found beauty too, and light and romance. There were flowers everywhere on the streets, and in his photographs. In Tulip, Paris, 1950, a man in a heavy wool coat fills most of the frame. This is post-war Paris, but he is young and the sure future is ahead, and in his present moment is a young woman, almost not visible, whose eyes, behind her dark glasses, must be seeking this young man who is just beyond her immediate gaze. She doesn’t see him, but he sees her and he holds behind his back the gift of a single tulip. Immanence, romance and hope. New York and America weren’t romantic but they were the place of possibility and Robert says readily, “New York made me. It was my luck to come to America.” It was the place where he could develop his own style, make the work that was distinctly and uniquely his.

But home is another matter. The photograph Mabou, printed in Tal Uf Tal Ab, shows three open doors, one to the other leading from the camera and the nearest door, through the others, to the window and its vertical rectangle of light. The open door, the homely comfort of worn paint and the unguarded access of openings speak of home. When asked about this photograph Robert Frank replied, “I have a good feeling about living in that house in Mabou.” Bleecker Street is a good house too, where he and his wife, the artist June Leaf, have lived for a long time, but the attachment is to the house in the photograph. “It’s a place I have more feeling about. I have much more attachment to the place in Canada. [Bleecker Street] happens to be a nice house but it is still temporary.”

That wonderful contingency, the gently goading and impelling restlessness. Always making work, always questioning, always moving on.

For the full interview, purchase issue 125 or subscribe here.

Volume 32, Number 1: Photography

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #125, published March 2013.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.