A Frank Exchange

For countless Americans, young and old alike, the transcontinental road trip has become an important rite of passage. Many such journeys must have been inspired by the breathless romanticism of On The Road, Jack Kerouac’s seminal 1957 novel. Anyone asked to visualise the iconography of roadside America during the late 1950s will more than likely mention the isolated petrol stations, long-countered diners, neon signs, drive-in cinemas and dusty truckstops familiar from dozens of road movies. Much of that imagery derives from the work of Kerouac’s friend and collaborator, the photographer and film-maker Robert Frank, currently enjoying his first major London retrospective at Tate Modern.

Born in Zurich in 1925, Frank was the child of prosperous Jewish parents. During the Second World War, they remained in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, where Nazi sympathisers provided a constant reminder of the horrors being unleashed across the border. Thanks to Swiss neutrality, Frank and his family survived the war. While he was a teenager, he learned the rudiments of photography from a sympathetic neighbour. He then served a brief apprenticeship before studying the medium at the Zurich School of Commercial Art.

Influenced by the work of the Swiss photographer Jakob Tuggener, Frank began to arrange his photographs in carefully conceived sequences that often made ironic social comments. Prowling the Zurich Streets in search of potentially striking images, he aimed for the spontaneity that Kerouac sought in his writing and Jackson Pollock sought in his painting.

Anxious to escape from the landlocked claustrophobia of post-war Switzerland, he moved to New York in 1947. He soon landed a job with Harper’s Bazaar, but he rapidly grew to resent the limitations of fashion photography, his disenchantment prompting him to resign. For the next six years he travelled in South America and Europe, where he fulfilled less restrictive assignments for magazines such as Life. The earliest work in the exhibition dates from a spell in Peru, from where he emerged with an impressive portfolio of black and white images, some of which are displayed on their original contact sheets.

Following the example of Bill Brandt who was, like Frank, an exile from his native country, he photographed the fog-shrouded streetlife of London, as well as Parisian flower-sellers and coal-blackened South Wales miners. The results, amply represented in the exhibition, are spectacular, if indistinguishable from Brandt’s own work. Along with Brandt’s best pictures, they imbue apparently mundane reality with alluring exoticism. Nowhere is this more evident than in the famous shot of a sinister-looking, top-hatted British banker striding through the City.

On his return to New York, Frank’s career was given welcome impetus by his inclusion alongside such luminaries as Dorothea Lange and Henri Cartier-Bresson in two substantial photographic shows at the Museum of Modern Art, curated by the great Edward Steichen. His growing renown gave him the necessary leverage to obtain a prestigious Guggenheim Grant. This financed a series of journeys across America, spanning more than two years, during which he shot over 28,000 images. From these, he selected eighty-three pictures — many of them evoking the melancholy and loneliness of urban life — for inclusion in a book entitled The Americans (1958). He later confessed that the project had helped him to feel at home in his adoptive country, yet the constituent photographs are pervaded by a foreigner’s sense of the strangeness of America. Far from echoing the prevailing optimism of the period, they highlighted the tensions lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface of American society.

Through his friend Joyce Glassman, later to become a successful writer under the name of Joyce Johnson, he had earlier met Jack Kerouac who was, unsurprisingly, in tune with the project. Frank persuaded Kerouac to write the introduction to The Americans, now widely regarded as the most significant photography book of the past half-century. ‘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,’ Kerouac wrote.

Despite the fame that The Americans brought him, Frank temporarily abandoned photography in favour of film-making. He launched this new venture by co-directing a rough, larky 28-minute film about life in a New York artists’ loft, featuring the beat poets Allen Ginberg and Gregory Corso, not to mention the painter Larry Rivers. He called it Pull My Daisy, its title culled from an early Allen Ginsberg poem. A voice-over, dubbed onto the film’s silent footage, was supplied by Kerouac who adapted it from part of The Beat Generation, his own unproduced play.

Shortly before turning to film-making, Frank had completed a fascinating sequence of grainy photographs taken through the window of a New York bus. Their improvisational technique and deliberate lack of technical polish anticipate his subsequent work as a film-maker. In 1972, by which time he and his second wife had decamped from New York to the bleak coastline of Nova Scotia, he was commissioned by Mick Jagger to direct Cocksucker Blues, a documentary about the Rolling Stones’ latest tour. To their dismay, the film failed to portray them in a suitably glamorous light, instead drawing attention to the boredom and seediness of life on the road. They reacted by instigating legal action against Frank, preventing the film’s distribution. Visitors to Tate Modern have a rare opportunity to attend screenings of Cocksucker Blues and many of his other movies.

The careers of most artists trace a path from youthful experimentation to ageing conservatism, but Frank has taken the opposite route. From the mid-1970s onwards, he has combined his work as a film-maker with a return to photography. His recent work belongs more to fine art than the so-called documentary tradition of Bill Brandt, Walker Evans and André Kertesz. Superimposed over anything from Polaroid images to degraded video stills, he scrawls brief, jagged notes, often expressing his grief over the death of both his children. At first glance these recent pictures have scant connection with his early work, personal emotion taking precedence over social comment. Yet the bulk of the images on show are united by their mournful quality. Like some sad song, the exhibition and accompanying catalogue are nevertheless strangely uplifting. They are essential viewing for anyone with an interest in either photography or the beat generation, among the major figures of which Frank remains a solitary survivor. 

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