Happy Birthday Robert Frank
Robert Frank spoke no english when in 1947 he landed in New York City at the age of twenty three, and sitting at lunch counters on Broadway would order pies, which he could see on display on the counter, by pointing at them. By 1959 he would publish a book of photographs, first in France, then in New York with Grove Press, that was a failure at the time, remaindered after a few hundred copies were sold (as was Let Us Now Praise Famous Men before it), that would at the time be seen for the radical vision of America that it was. In the South someone wanted to know if he was “a communist”. He was not. What Frank was, was a Jewish immigrant, a Beatnik, an artist and a photographer of awesome vision, who handled a Leica like a dark angel sent from another planet.
For anyone out there that remembers the 1950’s we dearly needed this visitation. Queers were in deep cover (tranies appear in one of the many blockbuster pictures), bikers were considered sub scum (there are two leather bound bikers leaning off their Harleys), Negroes were segregated (the cover showed the St. Charles street car in New Orleans, whites looking out the front windows, blacks looking out the rear.)
On November 8, 2012, Robert Frank, who lives in New York City, celebrated his eighty eighth birthday. His book has been celebrated around the world, recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Many many academic words have been written about this book. But what was it about it that made it so important in 1959 going forward? What did it look like to a nineteen year old person in 1961, when Frank was given his first one person show, not in New York City, but in the basement corridor of the Art Institute of Chicago, by Hugh Edwards, the curator of prints and drawings who had fallen in love with his work. Edwards sent me to Wittenborn and Company on Madison Avenue in New York City to get a copy of the book. There were two left, remaindered for $7.50 each. One was the French edition which had a text on every page facing the pictures, picked perhaps by the publisher Delpire, quotes from authors about America. And the Grove Press Edition from which the text was mercifully dropped and instead had Jack Kerouac’s brief explosive poetic introduction.
The pictures hanging in the Art Institute were hard to look at. Some had people cut off at the edges, others had slanted sky lines. Some, like Belle Isle, Detroit had a raging beauty from which I will never recover. There was a deep deep love of America in these pictures.
I know what impressed me about the Americans in 1961. It was a book. Here was a photographer who had walked away from the entire world of magazine photography and presented his work as a book. (Eugene Smith had by then not been able to publish Pittsburg or any book of his work). And implied in that decision was a man, a photographer at that, of enormous integrity. For a nineteen year old that was the beacon in the night. In a world were any normal young person dreamed of working for a corporation, or academia, where the Ivory Tower was completely silent about segregation, in a nation where “business was the business of America” , now appeared in the photography world a person of integrity. Frank cared about something besides money. Or fame for that matter, since the book was a huge flop.
Robert Frank was a street photographer, who, despite all the pressures, was true to himself. So here is to you Robert Frank. God Bless You and thanks.