Robert Frank has a reputation. Even after his death in 2019 at age 94, he has a reputation. As a brilliant, once-in-a-generation photographer, yes, yes, a thousand times yes…but also, as Popular Photography magazine once referred to him, “a joyless man who hates the country of his adoption.” Frank has been called snippy, stubborn, sour, surly, and self-absorbed. Oh, and also bitter, ornery, and dour, not to mention cold, pessimistic, uncompromising, and reclusive. But could all of that be, you know, a misunderstanding?
Lisa Volpe thinks so. Volpe is the curator behind “Robert Frank and Todd Webb: Across America, 1955,” the exquisite new exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, that features the photographs Frank made on his 1955-56 road trips across the country that filled the pages of his groundbreaking book, The Americans. In researching the show, Volpe spoke with dozens of people who knew Frank. Their version of him offers a much more nuanced—and less reductive—perspective of one of America’s greatest photographers.
“One of the things I want people to perhaps think about [after seeing the exhibit] is that they don’t know Robert Frank as well as they thought they did,” Volpe says. “The characterizations of him as just grumpy and a curmudgeon aren’t really the end of the story.” In asking Frank’s friends about the person they knew, Volpe remembers, “Over the phone, in their voices, I could almost hear, you know, a smile, because, yeah, he was grumpy, but he was also the kindest person, and the most caring.”
Clark Winter, a longtime friend of Frank’s and now the treasurer of the June Leaf and Robert Frank Foundation, agrees. “After my wife was diagnosed,” Winter told me, “Robert called her every day to check up on her. Every day for months.” Winter also relayed a handful of stories about Frank, all playful and loose, including one where Frank led his wife, the artist June Leaf, and Winter on a meandering, hours-long, goose-chase of a car ride through various boroughs in New York to find a bagel. “Robert told me, ‘In life, Clark, one has to learn to get lost.”
Winter, an occasional guest at Frank and Leaf’s remote cabin on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, made home movies of the supposedly hard-edged photographer collecting, believe it or not, cute little heart-shaped stones; talking self-deprecatingly about the time he started a fire on a nearby hillside; and ruminating about his work. [View one of Winter’s never-before-seen films here.]
At one point, Frank tells Winter about an image he printed but ultimately cut from The Americans: It featured a young woman riding a horse at a rodeo in Casper, Wyoming. As Volpe wrote in the catalog that accompanies the Houston exhibit, the woman is “positioned elegantly and confidently, but her open mouth reveals a total lack of teeth. Frank deemed it ‘too cruel’ to include. He refused to use images in which his subjects were depicted ‘without any beauty around them.’” What drove Frank to make the next picture, Winter says, “was always curiosity and empathy. Not sympathy. Empathy.”
The truth is that Frank wanted to make art more than anything else and he didn’t have time for quotidian crap—paperwork, people—that got in the way. As Winter told me, “He was intolerant of people who tried to use him or use his work to make their own points. He could spot them in two seconds. If they called him, he just wouldn’t pick up the phone. To him they were distractions.” So maybe instead of “reclusive,” he was actually being protective.
Reading The Americans as pure critique, says Volpe, “is such a one-dimensional way of looking at it. There just much more to it.” After all, in Frank’s first book, Black White and Things, of which only three copies were originally produced, he included a quote from the French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who wrote The Little Prince: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly/What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Frank, she told me, has “these conflicting emotions of hope and despair that are see-sawing all over the place in his work. Those are the polar emotions for Frank. It’s not all despair; there’s an element of hope in his photos.” What, I asked Volpe, are his hopes? “He wants people to be fair and kind. And when they aren’t doing that, he gets disappointed. That’s where the critique comes in.” Volpe continued: “One of the things that struck me as I was collecting as much of Frank’s writings as I could—you know, his letters, all of the things he wrote about The Americans—is that the most common words he uses when he’s describing this project are hope and love.”
But no one should mistake Frank’s sense of hope and love for sappy and sentimental. Not in his photographs, not in his life. In 2008, a Vanity Fair writer accompanies an aging Frank and Leaf on a trip to China. At one point, the writer asks Frank if he’d like to see a picture of his baby. The great photographer responds, “Why should I want to see that?”
Cover photo: Robert Frank 1985 © Philip Brookman