Thursday, July 17, 2014

my Robert Frank article appearing in the May issue of the Swiss magazine Aufbau

Robert Frank: Zurich to New York

“Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.”
--Jack Kerouac, introduction The Americans, 1959


The Artist Robert Frank, best known for his influential body of work The Americans, was born in Switzerland, lives in Canada, and although canonized by institutions such as the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC,  has always positioned himself as  an outsider.   His unease with the status-quo  has been due to both personal circumstance as well as sensibility.    Although embraced with open arms in his country of origin  Switzerland and later in his adopted home America,  these bastions of 20th century freedom never let Frank completely  forget that he was both an immigrant and a Jew. 

Frank was born  in 1924 Zurich to Jewish parents who created an affluent upper middle class environment.    His father, by being a foreign national from Germany, placed his son’s nationality in limbo, despite his mother’s citizenship.  This caveat combined with the simmering European anti-semitism that was palpable even in Switzerland, created in Frank a sense of being different and “other”.    Despite this undercurrent, he was completely integrated into the nationalistic youth culture of the day which included boy scouts and the Swiss Alpine Club.

In 1941, the  decree by Hitler that denied citizenship to all German Jews, placed both Frank and his father’s safety in jeopardy.  In order to acquire official Swiss citizenship, Frank was asked in written form  to prove  that he was both fully assimilated and had absolutely nothing Jewish left to his character.  Seemingly safe in neutral Switzerland,  the reality of being stateless during WWII, kept the family constantly fearful until the documents were finally issued, days before the war’s conclusion in 1945.

While waiting for those papers Frank decided to apprentice at various photographic studios throughout Switzerland, much to the chagrin of his bourgeois father.  Photographs that he made in his early twenties, show an embrace of  nationalistic sentiment and perhaps even the propagandistic impulse of the time that attempted to cushion the  growing threat of Nazi Germany.  Although these early pictures of parades, festivals, grape pickers and landscapes fail to anticipate  the formidable mature vision that would, a decade later, be able to dissect an entire society,  they do at times display flags,  a subject that would become an important leitmotif throughout his later work,  The Americans.   

After the war and once borders were re-opened, Frank had a desire to view the world beyond the “Enge” of his native country and has stated “I didn’t know exactly what I wanted but I sure knew what I didn’t want”.  The conformity of his early life based on materialistic concerns of his wealthy family and the insulated culture of a Switzerland that had been geographically surrounded by genocide, had contributed to the realization that his destiny would be other than constricted and prescribed.   He traveled  first throughout Europe to witness the aftermath of the war’s destruction and then to the New World, America.

In 1947, Frank’s immediate feeling upon seeing  New York City was ebullient:
“Dear Parents,  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.” 
Indeed, his first visit to the skyscraper clad metropolis must have seemed both cinematic and  a whirlwind.  The famed  art director of Harper’s Bazaar,  Alexey Brodovitch snapped the young talent up within the first month of his pounding the pavement.    Shooting for Bazaar,  it was around this time that Frank purchased his first Leica 35mm camera.  Moving away from his trusted 6x6 cm twin lens Rolleiflex, it was this proportionally elongated  hand-held format that would become the signature of his mature vision.

After a few months of employment within the world of fashion and magazines, Frank wrote home his observation about America: “The only thing that counts is MONEY.   I now understand people who, after the war, despite the success they had in this country, returned to Switzerland to live.”   Just as the young artist had rejected his father’s wealth based reality,  he equally felt disdain towards the fast paced world of American consumerism.   During this first period in New York,  Frank was beginning to feel the isolation and alienation inherent in the materialistic machine that was postwar America.  This realization would soon enough become a major theme in his series The Americans. 

Although a  dream come true for many photographers, both then and now, Frank resigned from Bazaar,  six months after starting,  choosing instead to pursue a path of greater artistic freedom.    During the next two years,  Frank photographed in Latin America and Europe, focusing on making pictures for personal intent.    Around this time, he met his first wife, the artist Mary Frank, whom he would marry upon his return to New York in 1950.  After which the photographer would continue to travel for another few years, between Europe and America.  While still shooting freelance assignments for magazines,  Frank was creating personal work and honing his distinct vision that would become both critical of conformity and lyrical with humanism. 

In 1954,  Frank applied for a Guggenheim fellowship and was the first European to be given the prestigious award.  His intent as stated in his grant application was to create  a  “… record of what one naturalized American finds to see in the United States that signifies the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere.”    Crisscrossing  America, with his wife and two young children,  in a used Ford Coupe, the pictures he made document an exploration of  the social landscape, on Main Street as well as out-of-the-way locations.  With camera in hand, Frank shot every strata of society on the street, at the diner, and all places in between.   At a time before iPhones and global tourism, Frank must have appeared strange with his  small Leica and pronounced accent traveling around in remote and regional locales.  He was often looked on with suspicion and on more than one occasion outright hostility.  He was even put in jail,  first in Detroit and then in Arkansa:  “I remember the guy [policeman] took me into the police station, and he sat there and put his feet on the table. It came out that I was Jewish because I had a letter from the Guggenheim Foundation. They really were primitive.[The sherrif said,] “Well, we have to get somebody who speaks Yiddish. They wanted to make a thing out of it…They put me in jail. It was scary. Nobody knew I was there.”

    Despite some inhospitality and anti-semitism, Frank while on the road, managed to create an epic tome, unique and expansive in it’s unflinching attention to the  melancholic dichotomies found in the America of the time.  Racial divide, economic disparity, and the existential crisis of the individual were themes covered by Frank in a stark but poetic language never before seen.   The body of work was published in 1958 as Les Americains, by the French publisher Robert Delpire.  Frank initially faced  difficulty finding a US publisher due to the seemingly critical revelations in these American pictures,  at a time when the remnants of McCarthyism still lingered.  Grove Press, the famed alternative imprint,  agreed to publish the US edition in 1959 and included an introduction by the beat writer Jack Keroac.

Although initially criticized as being too bleak in both sentiment and artistry, The Americans soon enough became a seminal classic both in the history of art and with students of the photographic medium.    Having achieved what he felt at the time was completion in his desire to make still images, Frank turned his attention towards filmmaking.  Included in his cinematic oeuvre,  is the influential work Pull My Daisy, a tour du force of beatnik artistry, improvisation and collaboration.  Perhaps as infamous is the later film he created for the Rolling Stones that is rarely screened due to lawsuits stemming from the scandalous nature of the finished work. 

By 1970, Robert Frank had notoriety if not fame in a variety of circles, both as a still photographer and filmmaker.  Perhaps feeling the unease of becoming part of the establishment he retreated with his second wife, artist June Leaf to Mabou, Nova Scotia, Canada despite already having dual citizenship in  America and Switzerland.  Several years later, personal tragedy (the death and mental illness of his children) cemented his desire for a partly hermetic life in that rural seaside community.   His art, including Polaroids and large format prints, became more self-reflexive and less worldly but nevertheless equally as arresting as his earlier work.

Throughout his life, Frank has always felt in conflict towards the status quo;  from his early experiences in Switzerland, through his visual exploration of postwar America, and the brutal family tragedies he has endured.   Despite being hailed as a maestro of his chosen mediums, Robert Frank has willfully  continued to embrace the mantle of “the outsider”, that was originally thrust upon him during WWII.  This particular pose, however  has served the artist well in allowing him to continue making an art based on an intense observation of his world as well as the continual reinvention of his craft.  In 2006, I was able to attend a rare interview with the reclusive artist at the New York Public Library.   I was struck that  this much lauded and influential photographer still had an aura of the renegade and seemed to relish his long term ability to create a life away from the noise that his esteemed reputation awards.   At age 89,  Robert Frank, the consummate outsider,  continues to be the artistic visionary and tragic poet of our times.