Robert Frank, born in Switzerland in 1924, arrived in New York at the age of 23 as an artistic refugee. The United States is above all the subject of his book – which has become cult – and the subject of a criticism of its society, through his eyes, that of a European.
He crossed the country in 1955 and photographed the Americans on the bus, in the restaurant, in the street, at home. A cowboy, a tattooed home taking a nap on the grass of a park, the suffering of a woman who has just buried a loved one, a shoe shiner, a road, women who drink: only eighty-four of his images were published in 1958 with indifference.
Considered sad, perverse, even subversive by the American press at the time – “Robert Frank, a man without joy who hates his adopted country” -, the recognition of his major work was not immediate. The images were initially considered distorted, stained and bitter. Yet at the heart of this social critique was a romantic idea: that of the photographer seeking a reality, however raw, harsh or joyful it may be.
Its importance has continued to grow over the years. While The Americans was also in the news for its political character, it also challenged the forms of documentary photography of the time, defined by clear, well-lit images with a classical composition.
Now the most influent book in the history of photography, Robert Frank was hailed as a true innovator by his peers, critics and the general public. “You look at these pictures, and at the end you don’t know at all which is sadder, a jukebox or a coffin,” wrote Jack Kerouac, a figure of the beat generation, in the preface to the book. The Americans had just been re-released by Delpire, its original publisher, a year ago.
Frank the filmmaker
Robert Frank was also an experienced filmmaker. In 1960, with Jonas Mekas (who died last January), Peter Bogdanovich and other leading New York underground filmmakers, he founded the New American Cinema Group. Pull My Daisy was his first film in 1959. The script, inspired by an evening at the poet Neal Cassady’s house, is a fragment of an unfinished piece. The text is written and read in voice-over by Jack Kerouac. Produced in the studio of the artist Alfred Leslie in East Village, it brings together figures from the sixties: Allen Ginsberg, Mary Frank, Gregory Corso, David Amram, Larry Rivers.
Robert Frank made his first feature film in 1965. Me and My Brother refers to Peter Orlovsky (a poet and protégé of Allen Ginsberg) and his schizophrenic brother Julius. Peter organizes the discharge from Julius’ Bellevue Hospital and takes him to the Beat Generation meetings. Robert Frank then closely follows the maniac Peter and the catatonic Julius from one situation to another, until Julius moves away from the camera and exits the film. With this film, Robert Frank began to blur the boundaries between reality and fiction, and positioned himself as a precursor to docu-fiction.
Cocksucker Blues is his most controversial film. It traces the Rolling Stones’ 1972 tour in North America following the release of the album Exile on Main Street. The documentary shows many excerpts from the concerts of this triumphant tour, but also backstage filmed scenes, as well as scenes shot during the British rock band’s stay in hotels, in their private plane, or in the limousines that carry them between two concerts, with all the excesses and debauchery inherent to their musical style and time. The film features bold and raw scenes, including naked groupies smoking joints and injecting heroin, a fornication scene on a plane, Mick Jagger snorting cocaine and simulating masturbation, and Keith Richards throwing a television set from the sixth floor of a hotel. Considered too scandalous by the Rolling Stones themselves, they were banned from broadcasting for a long time. Today the movie is available on the Internet and is screened at events in Robert Frank’s honor, such as last May at the ImageSingulières festival in Sète, France, where it was presented by curator and journalist Christian Caujolle.
By Jonas Cuénin