Even 30 years later, you cannot feel but sorry for the poor French TV journalist who interviewed Robert Frank in 1984. He must have been quite happy before filming—he had succeeded where most important magazines and newspapers had failed: actually securing an interview with the most influential photographer alive. But everything goes awry right from the start. “I hate these fucking interviews,” is the first thing that comes out of Frank’s mouth. Lots of expletives follow, plus an explanation: “I do that to people. I don’t want it to be done to me.”
Excerpts of the “French interview” have found their way into Don’t Blink: Robert Frank, a documentary by Laura Israel which will screen at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam later this month. They serve as contrast. Next to the stiff and formal TV footage, Israel’s film looks energetic and slightly chaotic. It’s a patchwork of archival material, snippets of Frank’s own films and slice of life documentary scenes seemingly shot from the hip. It has the look and feel of Frank’s own work, which isn’t strange if you take into account that Israel has been his editor for the last 20 years. More importantly, this personal relationship enables her to get really close to the grumpy old man, who—even though he turned 90 last year—hasn’t lost his bite one bit and can still be extremely sarcastic. It’s probably the best portrait ever made of Frank that isn’t made by himself.
Don’t Blink: Robert Frank, Laura Israel, USA, 2015, color / black and white, DCP, 82'. All images courtesy of IDFA
You can’t make a documentary about Robert Frank and not talk about The Americans, the 1958 photobook that is the single biggest reason for Frank’s fame. Eleven years after the photographer had moved from Switzerland to New York, he embarked on epic journey which lasted nine months and included thirty states. The book he composed out of the 27,000 pictures he took shows the US as a place of poverty, little hope, and overt racism—a perspective not quite in line with the optimism of the Eisenhower years. It was first published in France and was only much later picked up by the beat generation and recognized as one of the most important photobooks of the 20th century.
Don’t Blink touches upon The Americans only briefly. An anecdote about threatening rednecks in Alabama, some pictures from the famous book—that’s about it. It’s probably because Israel knows about Frank’s reluctance to rehash the story of his milestone work, now almost 60 years in the past, that she doesn’t push him on the subject. But at that point she doesn’t investigate The Americans’ aesthetics or social impact in any other way either. It’s almost as if she just wanted to get the subject out of the way and get on with it. In a roundabout way, however, Don’t Blink does answer any questions you might have about The Americans. And because it does so in an indirect, almost elliptic manner, it helps to understand it better than any straight interview ever could. By focusing on his other work, Israel puts the iconic masterpiece in perspective.
The Present, Robert Frank, USA, 1996, color, 35mm, 27'
The Present (1996), one of the Robert Frank shorts IDFA is also screening, allows us a peek in Frank’s psyche. It’s a rather formless visual diary, with the artist puttering about and thinking out loud about his daughter’s early death, his son’s mental illness, his doubts about art. There is a lot of self-depreciation and old world melancholy. Even though Frank was enthusiastic about his new home country at first, he soon felt at odds with the capitalist rat race and has cultivated an outsider position ever since. This very much informed The Americans, which focusses on the lives of those who don’t live the American Dream, who don’t even think about it.
Frank loves the common man and the simple life. In Don’t Blink we see him talking to passersby from the backseat of a car, or rummaging through the inventory of a nickel and dime shop while joking with the owners. In Paper Route (2002) he portrays Robert MacMillan, who delivers the mail every morning in Nova Scotia, where Frank owns a humble country home. At the same time Frank must have met everybody who’s somebody and has since 1950 passed through New York: Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac of course, but also politicians and rock heroes. But his behavior with them is exactly the same as with MacMillan. Frank is a great egalitarian and by making everything personal acts himself as the equalizer. This is best illustrated by I Remember, in which he re-enacts a meeting with Alfred Stieglitz, trying on the role of Stieglitz himself and having a young French colleague play his part.
I Remember, Robert Frank, USA, 1998, color, ProRes, 7'
Even more than his mentor Walker Evans, Frank developed a snapshot style to record the everyday. In Don’t Blink the artist is constantly taking pictures, using numerous digital machines and Polaroid cameras. The number of images produced on a daily basis must run in the thousands. It makes you wonder where they all end up, especially when you see Frank’s untidy apartment. But his probably biggest talent lies in choosing the right images and careful editing. It’s the associative and poetic way of sequencing images that make his photobooks such outstanding and innovative works of art. Israel addresses this quality subtly by inserting shots of contact sheets with marks on them or a short impression of Frank talking to his publisher.
At the core, Frank’s working method has always been experimental. He draws on prints, tries out chemicals, cuts into negatives. He was allowed to do this while working for Harper’s Bazaar in the 1950s, operating in the shadow of anonymity. The fame The Americans eventually brought him must have felt restrictive: his reaction to it was almost allergic. He put away his photo camera and started making films instead. His films may have the same quality as his photographs—the poetry, the nonchalance, the melancholy—but they are nowhere near as iconic. It doesn’t bother Frank, though. “It’s nice how films survive, not like photographs,” he muses in Don’t Blink when looking at a screening. “Photography is just a memory, but film is alive.”
Cocksucker Blues, Robert Frank, USA, 1972, color / black and white, video, 93'
Some films can even be alive without distribution. Frank’s best-known production is also his least screened: Cocksucker Blues. It documents the 1972 US tour by The Rolling Stones. After seeing the footage Mick Jagger decided to effectively ban the film, which can only be shown once a year at a film festival, this year IDFA being the chosen place. It’s not the disproportional drug abuse or backstage orgies Jagger objected to most, but the images of stressed-out band members screaming their heads off at each other and the sense of hollow loneliness shrouding the superstar existence. This was documented not only by Frank but also by the Stones themselves who had been given their own camera. In her film, Israel imitates this multiplication of perspective by doing the same with people in Frank’s vicinity.
“Every person behind the camera is showing himself,” says Frank’s wife June Leaf somewhere near the end of Don’t Blink. And right she is. But now the man behind the camera is reluctantly put in front of it and an aggressive form of self-awareness kicks in. Only by hopping from one subject to the next, Israel succeeds to outrun a meltdown and keep the flow going. Don’t Blink doesn’t necessarily unveil unknown facts or present surprising new insights. It does, however, get us closer to Robert Frank and the heart and mind that gave us The Americans.
A screening of Don’t Blink: Robert Frank takes place on November 19, 7:15 pm, at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in coordination with the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. Several short films by Robert Frank will be screened at the Stedelijk Museum on November 19 and 20, 2015.
(Image at top: Don’t Blink: Robert Frank, Laura Israel, USA, 2015, color / black and white, DCP, 82'. All images courtesy of IDFA)