I saw Robert Frank for the last time in Paris, in 2007. I crashed his tête-à-tête with Louis Skorecki, who was also working at the newspaper Libération and whom I had met in New York in 1989. “No, no, only Louis,” Frank had insisted to the press agent, “no one else, not even Sylvie.” Sylvie, that was me, that’s what he had always called me, I’m not sure why. “Who cares,” Louis had said, “what would you have him say? Come along or else I’m not going!”
They had arranged to meet in the late afternoon at a café in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. I felt uneasy when the Swiss-American master made his entrance, wearing his inseparable baseball cap and carrying a walking stick. He made no comment about my presence, he was happy to see us both, you could tell. He was smiling his carefree smile, beneath a messy head of hair, like Einstein. The Centre Pompidou was hosting a retrospective of his films and videos, including The Present (1996), which I had seen in Switzerland, in 1999, at the Visions du Réel festival in Nyon, a sublime town and festival (I have a lot of affection for Switzerland). So we had proposed an article to Luc Le Vaillant, who headed the Portraits section, the famous back cover of a newspaper long considered to be the Mont Blanc of French news writing.
With Robert Frank, there was never any hot air or idle talk, you kept your feet on the ground, you had to catch the vibe. Louis was the perfect friend for this Parisian reunion, the vibe was his thing: that’s his Bob Dylan side. When Frank invited us to ask our questions, we told him we didn’t have any (which was true, Louis didn’t want us to prepare anything). Would he like to choose what to talk about? “Health, money, the present, the past, the future.” The portrait ran on the last page of the newspaper on February 6, 2007, with a photograph by Paolo Roversi. Of the future, Robert Frank said: “It’s the continuation of the past, you can’t forget the past, you know, but you must go on…”
After interviewing him in Manhattan over the course of three days, in the photographer’s Bleecker Street hideout, Louis had written the most wonderful piece ever about Robert Frank. That’s how I first got to know the photographer, through Louis’ words, which were published in a special issue of the newspaper in the summer of 1989, on the eve of the Rencontres d’Arles. It was quintessential Robert Frank: from his photographic beginnings to Buñuel’s “unique, inimitable” cinema; from his “interest in imperfection” to “his loss of passion.” It was not easy to understand Frank’s work, his hesitations, his Beatnik period, his incursion into fashion, his news stories which have more else become classics; and then to enter the mythology while trying to set oneself apart from the clingy admirers that would swarm around the master during his travels. In Nyon, I had greeted Frank after the screening, and in return he had muttered something like “See you soon Sylvie!” In Amsterdam, at an Italian restaurant, he had talked a little about his retrospective, entitled Moving Out, at the Stedelijk Museum. Why this title? “I used to print my photographs while naming what the camera had seen. Now it’s more about what comes out. What I see within. So this title is everything, memory, forgetting….” Memory, forgetting: that might be the best definition of photography. What is a good photographer? “If you have a feeling for people, you are a good photographer.”
I remember Robert Frank and how gentle he was. His gentleness was as melancholic as a light rain. It was hard to be in front of him without thinking of what he had experienced before his internal exile, to imagine that he had been Walker Evans’ assistant; that he had known Jack Kerouac (who would preface The Americans, a cult book published in 1958 by Robert Delpire), Delphine Seyrig, Allen Ginsberg, and the handsome Gregory Corso; or that he had filmed the Rolling Stones during their wild days. Frank’s photographs and films resonated with his inner dramas. They also reverberated with his loves (“It’s important to be influenced by love”), his pranks, and his long stays, snowed in, in the Canadian wilderness, in Mabou, Nova Scotia, a refuge of hungry crows, where he tried his hand at Polaroid.
It was strange to be interviewing him and jotting down his answers: at the time, he seemed to be imparting nothing of great importance, bits of sentences, verbs, exclamations. He kept repeating, “oh man!” … “you know” … “yeah!” His smile. Silence, silence, silence. He was there and far away, solidly rooted in the moment and light years away, as if it was impossible for him to stick around till the next question, as if he had sheltered himself from the present by jury-rigging his personal time zone.
He had agreed that I would take a picture of him (a rather unsuccessful photo, sadly, perhaps due to the color), then borrowed my Yashica to immortalize two adorable old magpies chattering on the restaurant’s patio. He gave the impression of being invisible, and of not needing a camera. That was Robert Frank’s trick, his secret: photography without a camera, not even a Polaroid, photography as a way of being alone in the world. Tracing his dreams to their source, discreetly following their movements, listening to their music.
Robert Frank was no guru, and even Louis, who adored him, adored him so sincerely that it made him almost speechless. Robert Frank was Robert Frank, period. You didn’t have to like him to understand him (and vice versa), you just had to accept getting lost in his images: in his offbeat geography, between Switzerland and the United States, in Barcelona, London, Paris, Beirut; in the vagaries of his biography, sharing his anger, his impatience, his pain.
Robert Frank died on September 11, 2019, in Inverness, Nova Scotia. He was 94 years old. In Nyon, he had said, “I don’t care what happens when I’m gone.”
By Brigitte Ollier
Brigitte Ollier is a journalist based in Paris. She has worked for over thirty years for the newspaper Libération, where she created the column “Photographie.” She is the author of several books about a few memorable photographers.
To learn more about Robert Frank, check out:
Robert Frank (Photo Poche n°10), Actes Sud, 2001
The Lines of My Hand, Steidl, 1988
Robert Frank: Moving Out published by National Gallery of Art in Washington/Scalo
Complete films, released by Steidl
Philippe Séclier’s fascinating film, An American Journey: In the Footsteps of Robert Frank (2008), available on DVD (in the US streaming on Kanopy)
Fans of Bob Dylan should not miss Louis Skorecki’s D’où viens-tu Dylan ?, Capricci, 2012 (French only)
Cover photos credits : Dodo Jin Ming / Paolo Roversi