233: Robert Frank (1924-2019)

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Archival Spaces 233

Jan-Christopher Horak

This is the first blog on my new website, but is a continuation of a blog I have been writing for over ten years. I started it on an Ithaca College website in 2009 at the invitation of my colleague Patty Zimmermann. In 2011, I moved it to the UCLA Film & Television website, when I became Director. This obituary was written in September 2019, but was not published, because I left UCLA. I offer it now on my own site.



Robert Frank (1924-2019)

One of the greatest American photographers of the 20th century, Robert Frank, passed away on September 9, 2019, at the age of 94 in his home in Nova Scotia. Born in Switzerland, Frank came to the United States in 1947 and toiled for more than a decade without recognition. When his book of photographs, The Americans, was published in 1958 in Paris (no American press would touch it), it was savagely attacked by critics, but is today considered one of the masterpieces of the century, its unvarnished look at America influencing all subsequent generations of photographers. An American edition was published in 1959 by Grove Press with an introduction by Jack Kerouac, and it was with Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg that Frank made his first film, Pull My Daisy (1959), now considered a classic document of the Beat Generation. The general public probably remembers Robert Frank for his long banned Rolling Stones film, Cocksucker Blues (1972) and his photography on the album, Exile on Main Street.

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I met Robert Frank a couple of times in the late 1980s/early 1990s, while I was curator at Eastman Museum. At the time, I wrote a long essay on Robert Frank’s film work, “Daddy Looking for the Truth: The Films of Robert Frank,“ which was initially published in Afterimage (1989) and then revised for my book, Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema(1997). I was shocked to hear Frank himself quote the title of my piece in his one hour, one take video, C’est vrai (1990), and then noticed that in a revised edition of his book,The Lines in My Hand, Frank had written under a frame enlargement of himself holding the camera from Home Improvements(1985): “Daddy looking for the truth.” I don’t know whether Frank was being ironic or not, because like all artists he hated definitions, as I note in an excerpt from my piece:

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Frank’s films, like his photographs but in a more direct and personal sense, continually decry the intolerable schism between the outside world, the physical realm of real life, that portion of the universe which is beholden to the physics of light, optics and photo-chemistry and the inner world of the spirit, of human emotions. Frank keeps hoping that there is a connection, that the meaning of images can be read as semaphore of the soul. At the same time he documents their failure to communicate, their opacity when the concerns of the father are to be articulated to the off-spring. Frank’s desire that photographic images function as memory is continually thwarted, because the past is a foreign place, because the father’s narrative of history is perceived by the son as a means of controlling the present, of defining power relations.      

In all of his film work, Robert Frank, the artist, the husband, the father, is the subject. Although he never appears in the scene, he is omnipresent through the surrogate, through the camera eye. A number of critics have remarked on the “rather self-obsessed group of autobiographical films.” Marita Sturken). But are they? Are we getting the real Robert Frank, or only his image? A screen persona, an aesthetic construction, a fetish? Frank remains an enigma, an image, undecodable, forever trapped on the other side of the lens. He resists interpretation, definitions crowd him, like just so many armored tank traps at the Swiss border in 1940. “It’s the misinformation that is important,” Frank once said in reference to Brookman’s biographical video on Frank, Fire in the East: A Portrait of Robert Frank (1986). For all their autobiography, Frank’s films are not consciously revealing. He keeps the audience at a distance, just as he uses the camera to keep his distance from those around him. Being close and yet keeping distance is the key to Frank’s voyeuristic gaze, as Christian Metz has pointed out: “The voyeur is careful to maintain a gulf, an empty space between the object and the eye, the object and his own body: his look fastens the object at the right distance…”

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Referring to Frank, Jonas Mekas once asked: “Where does this morbidness come from? From this world, you fool…”  But it is not the world, it is rather an obsession with images of the world, silent, incommunicado, which give his films their nihilistic tinge. In Home Improvements (1984) Frank notes, while his camera is pointed at a window of his house, allowing him to film his reflection, filming the artist:

          I’m always doing the same images. I’m always looking outside, trying to look

          inside. Trying to tell something that is true. But maybe nothing is true. Except

          what’s out there. And what’s out there is always different.

As he speaks the camera pans away from the window to a completely empty landscape, then to a barren, wintry shot of the same scene. Inside/outside, a world of reflections in which everything is an illusion, because emotions are by definition as fleeting as the images which supposedly capture them. Inside/outside, Frank positions himself as subject in a voyeuristic spectacle, where his desire depends on the continual pursuit of an absent object, the camera a permanent barrier between himself and the object.

R.I.P. Robert. Your journey is done.

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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