I’ve got a weird sort of relationship with Robert Frank. Sometimes I love him, sometimes I scratch my head, but he always obsesses me. I’ll spit out a quick review, for those who aren’t up on their photo history. His book The Americans, which is composed of photographs taken by the Swiss emigre traveling across the US in the late 50s set a new standard for photographic books. Following in the footsteps of Walker Evan’s American Photographs, The Americans managed to weave a sad and beautiful and brilliant poem of America, complete with an introduction by Jack Kerouac. In the sixties, he turned to filmmaking, though he was also responsible for the cover art for the Rolling Stones album, Exile on Mainstreet. I was puzzled by his 70s effort, Lines of My Hand because it was so raw an personal, so far away from the documentary thing that I was after at the time. I didn’t buy it. I was sorry.
In the late 80s, I managed to track down a copy of the then out-of-print book at a massive book sale. I paid $2 for a book that was then selling for $500, instead of the original $50 shelf price. Since then, I’ve stopped hesitating.
I picked up a new one today, HOLD STILL— — – keep going.
It felt like a bargain for $42.
From the moment that I felt its soft hard cover, bending it between my fingers I knew that it would be my friend. It’s an exhibition catalogue, put out by Scalo in 2001. There are some old favorites, and some new ones, along with an interview and other stuff.
Within the first few pages, there is a collage of photographs of a bombed out building with these words scratched on the negative:
Memory of destruction
Crushed stones– stairs to nowhere Empty Grandeur and
Elegance of what was – – – –
Amongst the rubble of the police headquarters I find a small
negative. A portrait of someone.
War is over A foot is resting on a pile of
postcards to remember the good old times – – –
A torn frame from the shadow of a movie palace
The sky changes
Painted on walls The Lebanese flag is waiting – – –
I’m not sure what I think of this book yet. Its at once more accessible than Lines of My Hand and scarier, because it represents a fuller career perspective. This is how a person moves from documents to self analysis. It’s a complicated thing that I feel much more empathy for these days. I suspect I’ll be looking at this book a lot. Yes, I’m sure I will.
There’s a lot of stuff to learn here. Just fragments and scraps, not the sweeping statements of the early phase of his career. Things are tightly packed, concise, and scary. There is a haunting picture of a typewriter with the paper moving through it. The top frame has been scratched with “fear.” The bottom frame is marked “no fear.” Frank hasn’t stopped moving.
There’s a message in this book somewhere, if only I could find it.