Looking for Desire

The Collaborative Projects of Robert Frank and Gerhard Steidl

In the summer of 2014, the acclaimed German publisher Gerhard Steidl approached NSCAD University with an enticing proposition. Would NSCAD be interested in premiering a pop-up exhibition of artwork by Robert Frank? The work would be brought to the university, installed by Steidl and his staff, and Robert Frank and his wife, June Leaf, would attend the opening. Steidl generously donated the exhibition, with no expense to the University, in part as a strategy to expose a new generation of artists to the work of Robert Frank, in an exhibition format that was affordable, fluid and relaxed. The exhibition would also renew an ongoing relationship that Robert Frank has had with the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design since 1973.

Installation view, Striking the Exhibition, “Robert Frank: Books, Films, 1947–2014,” The Anna Leonowens Gallery, Halifax, 2014.

Without hesitation the university agreed, and on Friday September 5, 2014 Robert Frank and Gerhard Steidl premiered the exhibition, “Robert Frank: Books, Films, 1947–2014” at the Anna Leonowens Gallery, NSCAD University. At the age of 90, Robert Frank was on the road again. The crowd that attended the opening was overwhelming. In fact, in the 40 years that I have been in Halifax, I have never seen such a well-attended opening at the gallery. There was a line of enthusiastic admirers that stretched for over two blocks, slowly pacing their way into the gallery on a warm, late summer evening. The long journey to the gallery was well rewarded by the fact that Robert Frank made a rare appearance, openly responding to questions about his work during an interview and generously signing copies of the Steidl books that were available for purchase.

Although the Anna Leonowens Gallery has had a significant history of exhibitions by international artists dating back to 1970, this exhibition attracted an unprecedented audience, validating the celebrity that Robert Frank has spent a lifetime negating. There is a peculiar and inverse relationship between Frank’s consistently stated disdain for fame and the audience that continues to pursue his art and his company. As a faculty member, this aura has been evident in the numerous inquiries and calls that come to NSCAD from artists, curators, students and photographers asking if anyone knows how to reach Robert Frank at his secluded home in Mabou, Nova Scotia. Do we have his phone number? Do you know if he is there now? Is he friendly? The pilgrimage of admirers who aspire to meet Robert Frank raises unique questions about the artist, his work and the enigmatic popularity that his art retains—a popularity that may, on closer examination, be at variance with the existential adversity that his work often engages. Perhaps we are all seeking this anomoly.

Installation view, Striking the Exhibition, “Robert Frank: Books, Films, 1947–2014,” The Anna Leonowens Gallery, Halifax, 2014.

“Robert Frank: Books, Films, 1947–2014” is an experimental exhibition and printing project produced on long rolls of newsprint (some over four meters in length). Due to collection management policies of major museums and galleries who own the original prints and artworks by Robert Frank, his work has become effectively inaccessible, both for scanning from original negatives as well as for exhibition. Access to the collections of vintage prints is financially prohibitive. Steidl and Frank are dodging the museum system with this form of presentation and renewing the material mobility that vernacular photography has always possessed. As Steidl notes in the opening panel of the exhibition, “Frank’s original silver gelatin prints are today fragile objects, and most are not on public display. Galleries, museums and investors lend Frank originals only under limited conditions of display with exorbitant insurance costs, which makes organizing traditional exhibitions extremely difficult.” This is certainly true of many of Robert Frank’s films as well. Although there have been DVD releases of his most critically acclaimed films by the Steidl Press, many are rarely screened and difficult to locate. Perhaps the most notorious and legendary of these is still Cocksucker Blues, the documentary film that Robert Frank was commissioned to make about the Rolling Stones’s “Exile on Main Street” tour in 1972. Due to the incriminating content of the film, the Rolling Stones successfully acquired a court injunction to prohibit the distribution of the film. The film may only be shown when Robert Frank is present at the screening. There are, however, bootleg versions of Frank’s films circulating on BitTorrent and YouTube. Also, two recent screenings of Cocksucker Blues, one in Toronto and the other at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, were successfully presented without Frank being present at the theatre. It was not surprising that during the question and answer session at the opening at NSCAD, Cocksucker Blues was one of the first topics that emerged from the audience.

At a presentation prior to the NSCAD screening of How to Make a Book with Steidl by Gereon Wetzel and Jörg Adolph, Steidl discussed the fact that the vintage photographic print was primarily an economic function of museum and gallery marketing and that today you can get the same information from a photograph that is reproduced to specific standards through more economic means. The works in the exhibition are printed with acrylic inkjet technology on the surplus newspaper stock used by one of Steidl’s sponsors, Süddeutsche Zeitung, a prominent German newspaper, using the printing materials of the giant presses that once drove the newspaper industries. The decommissioning of these large presses is symptomatic of the imposed obsolescence that Steidl and Frank have had to address with museum culture as well. In this respect, the pop-up installation provides an opportunity to sustainably manoeuvre within the conditions of scarcity that have been imposed by the compulsive and exorbitant marketing of art and artists in the contemporary art system.

The materials and form adopted for the large-scale inkjet murals of images and texts is premised on the many publications that Steidl and Frank have collaborated on since 2005. The inkjet prints are presented in a portable format that retains Frank’s ideals about the intuitive readiness and presence of his work. The printed artwork was rolled and transported in shipping tubes from Germany. Robert Frank has described the exhibition as “cheap, quick and dirty, that’s how I like it.”

The books that relate to the rolls of inkjet images were hanging with monofilament from the ceiling of the gallery alongside the rolls of images in each publication. Although this was a rudimentary tactic to provide access to the publications in the gallery, it also directed attention to the object quality of the book format itself. There can be no doubt that Gerhard Steidl takes immense pride in the publications that he produces.

Installation view, Striking the Exhibition, “Robert Frank: Books, Films, 1947–2014,” The Anna Leonowens Gallery, Halifax, 2014.

The exhibition opened as chronological narratives. Publications presented in Gallery 1 were The Americans, 1959, Robert Frank In America, 2014, and Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, 2009. One of the distinctive features in the gallery was a presentation of 10 oversized enlargements of contact sheets from The Americans that illuminate the process and context in which many of the photographs were made. On one sheet, highlighted with a red grease pencil, the incident surrounding the photograph Car accident—U.S. 66, between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona is laid bare. The cars crumpled from the accident, all the automobiles backed up on the highway attempting to get past the scene, the covered body of the victim lying on the side of the road, the arrival of the police and the eventual removal of the body on a gurney, and the recognizable frame that was published in the The Americans, display the grim reality of how the iconic photograph from the highway disaster was seen. On the opposite wall of the gallery, a reproduction of the Covered Car—Long Beach, California from The Americans stares back at the roadside disaster, emulating the covered body of the highway casualty. The two images are an aphoristic statement on the North American infatuation with the technology of automobiles and the ravaging effect that it has had.

This contact sheet also foreshadows the detached silk-screened disaster series that Andy Warhol would complete in the early ’60s. Frequently, when reviewing student work as a visiting artist, Frank would insist on seeing the contact sheets as well as the finished prints. He was looking for an indication of the student’s ability to edit their work as well as the engagement and commitment they gave to the subjects in their photographs.

In the first didactic panel of the exhibition, Steidl maintains that the exhibition is “not a retrospective of Frank’s work, but a dynamic experience whose only permanent trace will be the impressions it makes on its visitors.” As spontaneous and nascent as this may sound, there is certainly a retrospective quality to the first segment of the exhibition that is dedicated to a presentation and interpretation of the era that includes Frank’s most noted and historically cited project, The Americans. Based on the historical prominence of this work, a reflective and nostalgic encounter would be almost impossible to avoid. The transition from the documentary style photography that identified the era of The Americans to the various projects that Steidl installed in the second gallery represents an aesthetic rupture in Frank’s career. The inkjet panels in this section of the exhibition are from the films Me and My Brother, 1969, and Pull My Daisy, 1959, and the books Household Inventory Record, 2013, Tal Uf Tal Ab, 2010, You Would, 2012, Partida, 2014 and Park/Sleep, 2013. In the short didactic panels that accompany the inkjet prints, which evidence Frank’s radical tryst with filmmaking and his recent diaristic publications, keywords appear with frequency: “visual diaries,” “friends,” “home,” “studio,” “interiors,” “everyday curiosities” and “snapshot.” The images and presentation insist on a broader interpretation and understanding of Robert Frank as artist, poet, filmmaker and photographer. The acclaim and popularity of The Americans has generally eclipsed the familiarity of other equally accomplished artworks by Frank. The shortcoming of this historicism has been to treat the complex and diverse experimentation in his films, Polaroids, book works and photo collage projects as supplements to the 35mm documentary-style photography of the 1950s. The fact that Robert Frank completed 27 films from 1959–2005 is a testament to the tenacity of his artistic accomplishments.

Installation view, Looking In: Robert Frank’s Americans, 2009.

In his book, Frank Films: The Film and Video Work of Robert Frank, Steidl, 2003, Stefan Grissemann identifies this period of transition as the time when Frank’s career recedes from the enormous praise that The Americans had aroused. Frank went underground and was recommitting to a raw and radical challenge in his artistic endeavours. The shift from photography to filmmaking was not easy. The films didn’t result in a corresponding critical endorsement. Grissemann describes Frank as “a master of the radical understatement, the refusal.” This stance of “the refusal” that Frank performs has been a decisive feature of his working process since the publication of The Americans.

The first panel in the second gallery featured the Steidl publication based on a storyboard of the film Pull My Daisy, 1959. It is an adaptation of the third act of Kerouac’s play Beat Generation. The title came from an earlier poem authored by Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady in the late 1940s. Co-directed by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, the film is presented in the whimsical and amateurish style of a home movie. The notion that Frank’s work denotes a conscious refusal of established trends as well as a reinvestigation of vernacular forms such as the home movie and the snapshot is a significant observation to consider. The films of this period purposefully refuse cinematic convention, and as Frank returns to photography, tend to refuse the humanist documentary traditions that had been exemplified by “The Family of Man” exhibition, curated by Edward Steichen in 1954. Frank initiated an open and experimental period of filmmaking and photography that embraced the unfettered flatness of the amateur aesthetic. The insight of this refusal to be defined by aesthetic conventions has, in retrospect, been the most identifying element in Frank’s life as an artist. His position in the art system has been an uneasy dialectic of prodigy and outsider, virtuosity and candor, a position that has also been accompanied by a voluntary exile from the potential amenities of fame.

The experimental filmmaking of John Cassavetes and Jonas Mekas as well as the artistic insurgence emerging in New York in the late ’50s and early ’60s provide a context for Frank’s future direction. His friendship with the Beat poets was clearly influential and it afforded an opportunity to traverse and explore his rejection of social and artistic expectations. The release of his first feature length film Me and Brother, 1969, a provocative and demanding work about the problems that Peter Orlovsky’s brother Julius was experiencing with his mental health, received mixed critical response. In addition to being an unprecedented example of experimental filmmaking, Me and My Brother is a testament to Frank’s refusal to compromise his objectives. Completed as a film within a film, it examines the boundary between fiction and realism, interrogating the truth-value of cinéma-vérité in relation to documentary fiction, where actors and non-actors interact within an indeterminate narrative structure. Me and My Brother is a fragmented montage that scrutinizes the diegetic and mimetic potentiality of film, further disclosing his indifference for ready-made resolutions. Frank has stated that the “truth is somewhere between the documentary and fictional, and that is what I try to show. What is real one moment has become imaginary the next. You believe what you see now, and the next second you don’t anymore,” he is quoted as saying in Frank Films: The Film and Video Work of Robert Frank, 2003.

Installation view, Looking In: Robert Frank’s Americans, 2009.

During the exhibition “Robert Frank: Books, Films, 1947–2014” there were continuous screenings of Pull My Daisy and Me and My Brother presented in Gallery 3 of the Anna Leonowens Gallery. In conjunction with the screening of Frank’s known films, there was a rare showing of a short, undocumented film that was made during a summer film workshop that Robert Frank led at NSCAD. This Film is About…,1973, is loosely organized around the narrative of a sexual assault, a criminal investigation and the subsequent trial of the perpetrator. Following Frank’s cinematic style, it includes scenes that depict the film being made. In addition to the narrative segment, sequences of short experimental films made by the students are randomly cut into it. This footage is ad hoc, strangely fascinating and at times disconcerting.

The installation of the visual diaries that complete the exhibition “Robert Frank: Books, Films, 1947–2014” affirms the emotion, poetic longing and melancholy that is distinctive of Frank’s later works. The death of friends and family and the demands of an artistic career weighed heavily on his reception of the world; coming to Nova Scotia offered sanctuary from that noise. Frequently using Polaroid film, the still photographs from this period were produced quickly, often as an immediate and impassioned response to his home, friends and family. The images retain the everyday snapshot aesthetic of vernacular photography. Evoking the remembrance and oblivion that photographs imply, Frank’s memories and statements are frequently scratched directly onto the emulsion of the film and the print, deliberately damaging the fabric of the image through an act of inscription and erasure. This confrontation with the materiality of the photograph recalls Geoffrey Batchen’s observation in Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History (The MIT Press, 2001) on vernacular photography as the “brute objectness of photography in general, the comforting solidity of its memorial function.”

In the film Home Improvements, 1983, there is one scene where Robert Frank asks his friend Gunther Moses to drill a sizeable hole through a stack of vintage black and white photographs that are the material evidence of his esteemed career as a documentary photographer. This gesture expresses a calculated dissatisfaction with his past as well as a response to a short-sighted gallery deal that had resulted in the permanent sale of Frank’s negatives and prints as well as the loss of the copyright to his work. Although he eventually regained the copyright, the destruction of the vintage prints in the film is a sardonic response to the predatory marketing of his art. The deliberate damage enacted on the prints symbolically returns autonomy to his own practice as an artist. Several years later, the stack of damaged prints was dragged out of storage, tied together with heavy wire and nailed to a board with a series of faded thermal video stills from the production of the film Home Improvements. As American poet WS Di Piero has noted in Robert Frank: Moving Out, 1994, the resulting work Untitled, 1989, is a “ruined monument” to an artistic past that is no longer valid. Piero highlights the fact that the top photograph in the stack of black and white prints is titled Corrida, Spain, 1952. It is an image of a Spanish bullfight in Valencia displaying the sacrificial sword of the picador protruding from the back of the bull’s neck. “By mutilating his own pictures, Frank is also trying to lay to rest an uncontrollable energy and make it a ruined monument. Frank is driving a stake through a no longer relevant style, mangling its austere beauty so that its formal, ordered patterns will not deflect the energies of chaos into repetitive (and lucrative) niceties. He is trying to slay certainty. The stack of prints represents an autobiographical structure to which he refuses to be held hostage.”

The montage of photographs, poetic writing and occasional documents that are presented in the

rolls of visual diaries is indicative of the command that Frank’s snapshots have on the audience. The past, present and future moments are implied through an authentic familiarity of the snapshot aesthetic. The rolls dedicated to the publication Household Inventory Record, 2013, is composed primarily of Frank’s Polaroid images, made over an extended period of time. The accompanying book is described in the didactic statement as a “thin upright volume bound in embossed black leather like a logbook or register.” In addition to salvaging images from the exhibition “Robert Frank: Storylines,” 2003, the montage also includes postcards, a birthday greeting and a letter that Frank sent to Walker Evans from the Hotel Roswell in Texas in 1955 while working on T_he Americans_. The letter is beside a photograph of Evans taken in Massachusetts, 1968. In the middle of the grid are two self-portraits from 2001. Frank is shirtless, staring into the lens in order to make a direct record of his existence at that moment in time. The self-portraits establish the visual diaries’ affinity with the everyday use of photography. The vernacular aesthetic of the snapshot as well as Frank’s blunt, poetic honesty about his personal life establishes a popular appeal with the audience even while many of his photographs and films are also alienating and can challenge the affective attention of the audience.

In the concluding remarks of Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes states that photography is either “mad or tame.” That photography is “tame if its realism remains relative, tempered by aesthetic or empirical habits; mad if this realism is absolute and…original, obliging the loving and terrified consciousness to return to the very letter of Time: a strictly revulsive movement which reverses the course of the thing, and which I shall call…the photographic ecstasy.” Robert Frank has always walked on the “mad” side of his medium. The terrified consciousness of Time that Barthes speaks of applies to the work of Robert Frank in so many ways and it’s this “photographic ecstasy” that draws so many devotees to his work. In this respect, Frank’s legacy stands in for our collective hopes and failures.

Installation view, Looking In: Robert Frank’s Americans, 2009, detail.

In museum and collections conservation, the term “inherent vice” is used to describe artworks or other archival material that are designed to fail or are subject to material entropy. This touring exhibition by Robert Frank and Gerhard Steidl exploits an opportunity for “inherent vice” as the material limit, a prescribed outcome for the artworks being shown as well as a metaphor for the exhibition’s curatorial motivation. As instructed by Gerhard Steidl, on Friday September 12, 2014, the work in the gallery was removed from the walls, folded and returned by mail to him in a cardboard box. The prints were destroyed. Steidl will duplicate this process over the next two to three years at other institutions in Europe and North America.

It was poignant that the inaugural installation of “Robert Frank: Books, Films, 1947–2014” was at NSCAD University. Robert Frank and June Leaf have been frequent visitors to the University since their arrival in Nova Scotia in 1971. The memories and anecdotes that accompany these visits are numerous and they overlap with the lives of many people who have had the opportunity to meet and work with these extraordinary artists. In recognition for the generous exhibition and overall contribution to contemporary art, Gerhard Steidl and Robert Frank were given honorary degrees at the 2015 NSCAD convocation ceremony (June Leaf had already received an honorary degree from NSCAD University in 1996). “Robert Frank: Books and Films, 1947–2014” has been presented at the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich and FotoIstanbul, Turkey. It will travel to London, New York, São Paulo and Tokyo. ❚

Robert Bean is an artist, writer and curator living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is a professor at NSCAD University and his work is included in the collections of the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, ZKM (Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie) Karlsruhe, Germany and the Donovan Collection, St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto.