Just as America’s Leave It to Beaver decade was fading to its final credits, Robert Frank’s raging, ravenous book of photographs, The Americans (1958), landed like a sucker punch. Critics at the time were not pleased. Assessing the Swiss-born photographer’s grainy, cock-eyed, prowling pictures of tattered flags and ghostly glowing jukeboxes, festering racial injustices and the sad lineup of lost souls who had seen their tethers to the American Dream unceremoniously cut, the editors of Popular Photography sneered that they were ‘warped’, ‘wart-covered’ ‘images of hate’ made by a ‘joyless man who hates the country of his adoption.’ Of course, it didn’t matter.
Beat bard Jack Kerouac, who wrote the rollicking introduction to the book’s 1959 American edition (it had been first published the previous year, in compromised form, in France), rhapsodically declared that Frank had ‘sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.’ The cool-handed California conceptualist Ed Ruscha recalled in an interview that the appearance of a copy of The Americans in his art school’s cafeteria caused a kind of frenzy: ‘there weren’t enough chairs for everyone; we were craning our necks, looking at it page by page. It’s like – You know where you were when John F. Kennedy was shot? I know where I was when I saw The Americans.’ As word spread, luminaries hailing from every conceivable corner of angelheaded hipsterdom – from Patti Smith to Jim Jarmusch, Mick Jagger to Nan Goldin – flocked to the flame of Frank’s achievement. It now stands as an indisputable keystone in the arch of 20th-century visual culture.
But despite the accolades heaped upon him, Frank, who died last Monday in a hospital near his remote home in Mabou, Nova Scotia, where he and his artist wife June Leaf had lived part-time since 1969, always seemed averse, even openly hostile, to fame. By the time The Americans really caught the world’s attention, Frank had largely abandoned photography in favor of experimental film. (‘When you make a film, you have a conversation,’ he once said by way of an explanation, ‘You have more contact with people. When you photograph, often you walk away.’) The first of these, Pull My Daisy (1959), a loose adaptation of a section of Kerouac’s unpublished play Beat Generation (1957), narrated by Kerouac and starring a rag-tag group roped in from the downtown New York demimonde – including Gregory Corso, Alan Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Alice Neel – is now an under-underground classic, which clad Frank’s Beatnik bonafides in iron, if ever they were in doubt.
Ironically, perhaps Frank’s best-known film was also his least seen: a verité-style documentary of the Rolling Stones’s American tour supporting Exile on Main Street called Cocksucker Blues (1972), which followed the band as they leapfrogged across the country, kicking up louche whirlwinds of sordid sex, intravenous drug use and good old-fashioned rock-and-roll wherever they touched down. The film was unseemly enough that the band’s legal team ended up slapping Frank with an injunction that made screenings nearly impossible. (Among the stipulations was that Frank had to be present every time the film was shown.) Frank’s final acerbic take on the Stones: ‘It’s hard to have that much money and power and be human.’
Frank kept his humanity intact. Perhaps, in part, because he largely managed to avoid both power and money. He assiduously kept the art world at a leper’s distance, and even when he managed to acquire a small fortune by selling millions of dollars’ worth of art from his collection, he promptly formed a foundation and rid himself of the spoils. But Frank was most human because he didn’t hide: he was a hard-bitten, rumpled, cantankerous poet until the end, fuming about others’ perceived inauthenticity, and never afraid to let his own mess hang out on the line.
In lesser-known films like Conversations in Vermont (1969) and Home Improvements (1985), he addressed his fraught and tragic relationships with his two children, Andrea and Pablo, whom he had with his first wife, Mary. Growing up in the Frank household was not a breeze (‘it was very, very hard, almost impossible to live with me,’ he once admitted), and he was perpetually haunted by thoughts that he had in some way failed them, particularly after they both met untimely deaths – Andrea in a plane crash when she was just 20, and Pablo by suicide in 1994, after a protracted battle with schizophrenia. When he did return to photography, after his move to Nova Scotia, his work became inward-facing, howling with anguish, frustration and ennui, befitting the desolate, ravishing landscape that became his chosen home. Scrawled across one scratched and smudged 1978 diptych, in which Frank’s hand is seen dangling a skeletal doll, are the words ‘Sick of Goodbys’ (sic), written as if in blood.
Of course, in the end, all roads lead back to The Americans, the towering achievement that Frank couldn’t have escaped even if he had wanted to. The alienation felt so palpably in his later work was always there, but in a different form: in the anguished face of a black trolley rider in New Orleans, pleading out of the back window behind rows of white faces; in the defeated slump of a man in Memphis, getting his shoes shined in the bathroom of an empty train station; in the wild eyes of the hitchhikers that Frank let drive his car while he snapped them in the act. It was the great American loneliness that seemed to have wormed its way inside him and never let go. But long before his death, Frank’s work had taken hold of America, and the world, too. He was never really alone. We were all there with him.