Capturing Americans: Documentary Looks at Photographer Robert Frank

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Trolley (New Orleans, 1955). © Robert Frank, from "The Americans"
Trolley (New Orleans, 1955). © Robert Frank, from “The Americans”

By Michelle Trauring

“The best way to be is to be curious, stand up, keep your eyes open, don’t shake, don’t blink.” Robert Frank

Laura Israel should have known that if there is a man who refuses to be directed, it’s Robert Frank.

In her defense, she found out early into filming the intimate portrait of her frequent collaborator and longtime friend, the now 92-year-old Swiss-born photographer whose fame lies in his prolific body of work—including his 1958 photo book “The Americans” and the infamously unreleased “Cocksucker Blues,” a downright strange and incriminating documentary commissioned by the Rolling Stones—and his avoidance of the media, punctuated by his quick wit and dark, sarcastic sense of humor.

Her crash course started with a window shade and an overlooked moment.

“He pulled up the window shade at one point and the director of photography, Lisa Rinzler, asked him to pull it up again, as she had missed the shot,” Ms. Israel recalled. “He quickly pulled the shade down and said, ‘That’s it!’ So we didn’t give him direction after that. Either we got the shot, or we didn’t.”

Then, there was the day they had planned to shoot in the Bronx, and he said, “I want to go to Staten Island.”

“So we wound up trying to get the Staten Island ferry, which ended up sending us in a whole different direction to Jersey City,” she said. “He loves to put a wrench in the plan, just to see how you deal with it. It was fun, actually, to be prepared for that. It’s really nerve wracking, but it can be fun if you go with it. I think he did things like that on purpose just to shake us up a little and have things happen more organically.”

The 82-minute film, “Don’t Blink – Robert Frank” — the editor’s second directing effort — chronicles the photographer’s time in New York, his involvement with the Beats, Rolling Stones and 1960s counterculture, his experimental film work, his relationship with his wife, artist June Leaf, the loss of both his children, and, of course, his own childhood.

Born in Zurich in 1924, Mr. Frank grew up during Hitler’s rise to power, which affected him greatly, Ms. Israel explained.

“It made him more empathetic to marginalized people, and I believe he felt a common bond with them as an outsider,” he said. “His father was among the German Jews whom Hitler stripped of their citizenship and he lived stateless in Switzerland, a precarious though comfortable life considering the death camps just beyond the borders. Although Robert eschewed his family’s bourgeois existence, his father was an avid amateur photographer and I think that Robert absorbed his love of photography.”

He would emigrate to the United States in 1947 to work as a fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar in Manhattan, and to experience a “bigger place,” Ms. Israel said. The country felt so vast to him then and represented the perfect escape from his family and their life, he has said.

“There was no other way than to go away,” he said. “I mean, the influence of being there, and living in that milieu was too strong, and if I would have stayed there, no matter what, I would have become like that.”

As soon as he stepped foot in Times Square and into its chaos, he knew he had found his world, Ms. Israel said. In a span of just 10 years, he would befriend Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, begin to dabble in boundary-pushing filmmaking, and built enough of a reputation as a photographer to land himself a Guggenheim Fellowship.

It would send him across the country and back again, and result in a coast-to-coast, black-and-white snapshot of America—from its faces and iconic symbols to political malaise and racism.

It would become known as “The Americans.”

The project changed the nature of photography, what it could say and how it could say it—at least, that is what critics would eventually agree over time. Initial reactions were poor, picking apart Mr. Frank’s loose, casual approach, which produced what they called dark, blurry and technically incorrect photos.

The book of 83 photos, narrowed down from a whopping 27,000, was first rejected by publishers in the United States, only to be picked up by the French press in 1958. A year later, it would be published stateside by Grove Press.

“Robert has said that completing ‘The Americans’ was a lot of work, and I really felt that when interviewing him about it,” Ms. Israel said. “He would get up very early in the morning and go out and hunt for photos all day, then come back and organize his photos or plan his next location. It sounded as if he was an athlete, and he commented that as a photographer, ‘you have a time that’s good for you’ when you are young and eager to run around hunting down photographs.”

Over the years, age did not slow him down. In fact, after Ms. Israel first met Mr. Frank in 1989, he took off on his bicycle, saying he was “going to look for ideas,” she said. They were to work on a music video together for “Run” by New Order—she as the editor, he as the director.

Laura Israel. Andrea Blanch photo

Ms. Israel was ecstatic, she said. “I remember clearly the first day that Robert Frank came to my studio” she said. “It was before Apple computers and nonlinear editing, so everything was on tape. It was really boring to fast forward and rewind the tape to look for shots, so I would sit with the director on the first day and do a reel of select shots to choose from.

“I had never worked with Robert before, so I asked offhandedly if I would need to be prepared to go back once we made these choices,” she continued. “Robert emphatically replied, ‘No! First thought, best thought. We don’t go back, only forward. It’s fate.’ I said, this is my kind of director to work with.”

As their professional relationship and personal friendship only grew from there, it didn’t occur to Ms. Israel that he should be in front of the camera, not behind it, until she completed her first film, “Windfall” and found herself across from director Tue Steen Müller as part of a mentoring program associated with the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.

From the minute she sat down, it was clear he was less than enthusiastic about her film, she said.

“I was intimidated. He is kind of a gruff guy, so as a remedy, I told him I worked with Robert Frank,” she said. “He nearly leapt over the table and exclaimed, ‘Your next film will be about Robert Frank!’ I replied, ‘I don’t do films about Robert Frank, I work with Robert Frank.’ But then on the plane ride home, I was staring out the window and started imagining scenes to shoot.”

She went to visit him the next day.

“You don’t think it would be a good idea for me to do a film about you, do you?” she asked. He shook his head, and she changed the subject.

But she could tell he was thinking about it.

“By the time I got up to leave, he told me to come back the next day and we’d talk about it,” she said. “Then, the next day when I went back, Robert said, ‘Let’s start next week,’ which alarmed me. But I bit the bullet and jumped in.”

Despite all odds, Mr. Frank opened up to her. He wanted to share his stories, she said, and from day one, she showed him utmost respect, she said, to which she attributes the film’s candidness and intimacy. And she never shot any video or took a photo without asking him first, she said.

“There was only one time Robert Frank really didn’t respond well to the camera on him, and it was a moment I chose to include in the final cut: when images of the Rolling Stones were being projected on and in back of him,” she said. “He refers to it as ‘hateful footage.’ Then I react and say, ‘Cut,’ and he starts laughing. So, of course, I had to include it in the film. You can’t tell the way it is edited, but then we all started laughing because we realized Robert was challenging us to get our reaction.”

“Robert did like the film, I think, because I kept it moving and somehow captured his dark sense of humor. Many of his friends have commented on that,” she added. “You have to get close to Robert for that to come out. Also, he said we made the photographs come alive. That made me really happy.”

“Don’t Blink – Robert Frank” will screen on Friday, March 31, at 6 p.m. at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill. A Q&A with director Laura Israel and editor and art director Alex Bingham will follow. Tickets are $20, or $5 for members. For more information, call (631) 283-2118, or visit parrishart.org.

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