“It was logical for me to get off doing still photography after becoming a success at it. I think it would just become a repeat—I would repeat myself.”
An interview with Robert Frank, from one of ten symposiums at Wellesley College 1977 called “Photography within the Humanities”.
Robert Frank: I’m just trying to, as they say, find my bearings. But what shall we talk about? I usually talk about the weather first. I live in Nova Scotia now, and one thing it has done to me is I changed speed. It’s a remote little village—Cape Breton, and it’s very slow. Once I got stuck in a field with the truck, and a guy I know stopped on the road and came walking over. He just looked at me and said, “Calm down, Robert. Calm down. ” That’s sort of one change I felt by living there, but I think that’s a very important change. I calmed down.
I was apprenticed in Switzerland when I was nineteen or so, to a photographer, and switched to some others. I did it mainly because I didn’t want to go into my father’s business. I had no Brownie, you know, or anything. I never went to photography school, but I was lucky in meeting the right people. In New York. That’s what New York is great for. You really meet the people you need. You choose them. I lived in New York for a long time, and I think it wore me down. I didn’t want to fight that hard anymore. I sort of ran away. I still think New York is an incredible place, and that I could go back and work there again, because in Nova Scotia I wasn’t able to work. Now I’m in California, teaching filmmaking for two months at the University of California at Davis. I like that, because I can talk about filmmaking quite easily—it’s easier than talking about photography, because photography is sort of in the past for me, and I always like to talk about what happens now.
Why did you leave still photography to do film?
It was logical for me to get off doing still photography after becoming a success at it. I think it would just become a repeat—I would repeat myself. I have found my style, and I could build on that, and just sort of vary it a little bit here and there. But beyond that, I don’t think there’s much beyond that. I’ve never been successful at making films, really. I’ve never been able to do it right. And there’s something terrific about that. There’s something good about being a failure—it keeps you going. I mean, you look for it, to do it right; and I felt I wouldn’t spend that much energy or that much effort in still photography anymore. Well, you repeat yourself anyhow. There are a few essential ideas that an artist has, and you work with them all your life. I think you have to make a conscious effort to at least get off of it a little bit. You will always come back to it. I have a lot of good ideas sometimes, but I forget some of them, or they get mixed up by becoming verbalized.
Covered Car— Long Beach, California, 1955-1956
“Probably another reason I moved away from still photography is because I do a lot of things intuitively. I felt I would get caught up in being kind of analytical, and building onto it and perfecting it. I didn’t want to go on.”
Probably another reason I moved away from still photography is because I do a lot of things intuitively. I felt I would get caught up in being kind of analytical, and building onto it and perfecting it. I didn’t want to go on. I didn’t want to hear about it anymore. As it turned out, once I turned away from still photography, everybody got really interested in me, and why I turned away from it. But the fact that I don’t do it anymore has to do with my temperament. It has to do with my curiosity. I believe very much that an artist has to be very curious. I mean about other things.
As a still photographer I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. I could walk around and not say anything. You’re just an observer; you just walk around, and there’s no need to communicate. And so you feel that you don’t have to use words. Whereas with films it becomes more complicated—thinking in long durations, and keeping up a kind of sequence.
I began filmmaking right after The Americans—1959. This guy said, “Let’s go down to Florida with a camera—a 16mm camera—and you make a little film there, like your photographs.” So I went down there, and I shot about fifteen rolls, about a half hour’s worth of film. And then I came back to New York and I didn’t have any money to develop it, and I put it away. I kept thinking about what I had done down there, and it’s funny. I thought, “I’ve done the same thing as I did in the photographs. I photographed the same scenes and the same people.” I have never developed the stuff. I just thought a lot about it. It was a terrific lesson, and I think it taught me that I didn’t want at all to make a film that would look like my photographs—that would have any connection with them. That was probably not too good a decision right away, because that’s when all the failures came marching in. I mean, I thought I could work with actors, which I couldn’t. So maybe it would have been better if I had made some kind of documentary films in the beginning.
“I’m satisfied that I’ve done them. I guess I would have been happier if they had been successful, but I believe very strongly, the main thing is to do it.”
Are you satisfied with your failures in film?
I’m satisfied that I’ve done them. I guess I would have been happier if they had been successful, but I believe very strongly, the main thing is to do it. I just looked at a film that I’d done maybe five or six years ago. It was a film called Life Raft Earth which was a straight documentary on a demonstration in California, organized by the Whole Earth Catalogue people. They fasted for many days in a parking lot. I didn’t like the film too well after I finished it—I thought it not very well photographed. And now I like it quite a bit. I thought it was very valuable to me. I’d made a record of what happened, and I think that way it’s satisfying. Even a failure can be quite important, and maybe it will turn around and not be such a failure. After all, when the book The Americans first came out, it wasn’t very well received at all. They wouldn’t publish it. They thought it was terrible—anti-American, un-American, dirty, overexposed, crooked.
“It was the first time I had seen this country, and it was the right mood. I had the right influences—I knew Walker’s photographs, I knew what I didn’t want, and then that whole enormous country sort of coming against my eyes.”
Did you have the same experience with the book as you did with the film—sort of stepping back after a few years and feeling better about it?
No, I was sure about the book. But with the films, I’m never sure. Well, I’ve made a film about the Rolling Stones and the tour, and that’s a film I feel pretty sure about. I feel it’s true. You know, when you do something, you have to feel that. I knew the photographs were true. They were what I felt, they were completely intuitive. There was no thinking. That feeling has stayed with me; I never waivered from that. When I did The Americans I was very ambitious. I knew I wanted to do a book, and I was deadly serious about it, and somehow things just happened right. It was the first time I had seen this country, and it was the right mood. I had the right influences—I knew Walker’s photographs, I knew what I didn’t want, and then that whole enormous country sort of coming against my eyes. It was a tremendous experience, and I worked, but it came naturally to show what I felt, seeing those faces, those people, the kind of hidden violence. The country at that time—the McCarthy period—I felt it very strongly.
Senior couple in front of Alumni Hall, Chautauqua, New York, 1953 @ Robert Frank
“In McGehee, Arkansas, you know, they arrested me. I was driving early in the morning on a little country road, and the cops came, stopped my car, and said, ‘What are you doing?’”
There were a lot of juke-boxes in The Americans. Were they an intentional symbol of the fifties?
I guess it was something new that I had never seen, really, and I was impressed with that. I think I like pictures that would convey a sound. Maybe it has something to do with that. You would look at the photographs, and maybe you would hear the sound come out. I don’t know, but probably it was like a symbol that I saw over and over again. I like the picture that has the television set in it. I think I always like pictures that have that element in it—that you would hear the sound, or imagine the sound.
Somebody asked me the other day why I never talked about what happened to me on that trip. I never really did, and it was sort of curious that I never talked about it, so I told them a few things. Like in McGehee, Arkansas, you know, they arrested me. I was driving early in the morning on a little country road, and the cops came, stopped my car, and said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m on a Guggenheim Fellowship, and I’m traveling around photographing the country.” The guy said, “Guggenheim? Who is that?” So they pulled me in. They said, “We got to arrest you,” and I said, “What for?” and they said, “Never mind,” and kept me in jail for almost three days. I didn’t know anybody; they could have killed me. It’s pretty scary, and I think that somehow came through in the photographs—that violence I was confronted with. Besides that, I had the influence of Life magazine. I wanted to sell my pictures to them, and they never did buy them. So I developed a tremendous contempt for them, which helped me.
EXPLORE ALL ROBERT FRANK ON ASX
How did that contempt for Life help you?
As an artist today I somehow feel that you have to be enraged. I mean, besides the intuition I had and how the country affected me, I also didn’t want to produce what everybody else was producing. I wanted to follow my own intuition and do it my way, and not make any concession—not make a Life story. That was another thing I hated. Those goddamned stories with a beginning and an end.
Are you still enraged?
No, I think your rage goes down comparatively as you get older. The only photographer that I think has steadily shown new work and good work is Bill Brandt. But most of the great photographers, like Cartier-Bresson—compared to his early work—the work in the past twenty years, well, I would rather he hadn’t done it. That may be too harsh, but I’ve always thought it was terribly important to have a point of view, and I was always sort of disappointed in him that that was never in his pictures. He traveled all over the goddamned world, and you never felt that he was moved by something that was happening other than the beauty of it, or just the composition. That’s certainly why Life gave him big assignments. They knew he wouldn’t come up with something that wasn’t acceptable.
“As an artist today I somehow feel that you have to be enraged. I mean, besides the intuition I had and how the country affected me, I also didn’t want to produce what everybody else was producing.”
I remember Life once gave me an assignment. I went with Kerouac to pick up his mother. We wanted to get some money for the trip to Florida, so I said, “Let’s get some money from Life.” We went there, and they said, “Alright, Kerouac will write a story, and you’ll photograph.” So we did it, and I showed them the photographs, and the guy said, “Well, this looks like Russia.” I never forgot that.
How did Lines of My Hand come about? Were you moved by this same contempt for Life?
There’s a Japanese edition of that book that explains it very well. These two Japanese came, whom I’d never seen before, and they said, “We want to do a book of your photographs.” We became quite good friends—we have a correspondence, and I felt I really wanted to give them something that would tell them about myself. So they made a book that’s a little bit different than the American edition—it’s a very expensive book: it’s big and elaborate, and it’s much better than the American edition. But then again, it’s a book that goes back. It’s all looking back. And I don’t want to do it anymore.
Are you bored with stills?
Well, I looked at the exhibition here; somehow boredom is a rough word to use. I looked at Mili’s stuff, and that certainly bores me. I liked what Smith wrote about the photographs—why he photographs, what he believes. I wouldn’t be bored with him because he’s obsessed with it. I’m never bored when I feel an obsession in somebody. I’m bored with the aesthetics of photographs, but then I think Walker’s photographs are like jewels. They stay the same. I’m not bored with that. I’m trying to define how I am bored with photographs. I’m sort of bored with mine. If I continued with still photography, I would try to be more honest and direct about why I go out there and do it. And I guess the only way I could do it is with writing. I think that’s one of the hardest things to do—combine words and photographs. But I would certainly try it. It would probably fail; I have never liked what I wrote about my photographs yet. That would be the only way I could justify going out in the streets and photographing again.
Does the film medium allow you to be more “honest and direct”?
I think film is more of a living thing—more of an instant communication between people. If I were to show a film, it would be a very definite statement. That just appeals to me more now—to have that immediate response. Photographs leave too much open to bullshit. There’s too much aesthetics involved—too much peripheral talk. I would go out, and I would photograph, and I would come and put the photographs, like twenty of them, on the table here. And you could look at them, and you could pick up more than two, or the whole thing, and nothing definite could be said about them right away. There would be these discussions; you know—it’s a good print, or this photograph is good after this one. You can look between the photographs, and I can talk about them and influence you while you’re looking. I would never talk while the film runs. Everybody has to look at the film the same way—you have to sit in a dark room, and there’s no way out. You either close your eyes or look at it. And it isn’t anymore a question of whether the photograph is good or bad. It’s whether I got through with that film what I wanted to say.
South Carolina, 1955
“Anybody who is going to be an artist has to be curious. He’s got to go out and do his own thing. If you talk to a student, and the student is any good, has any guts, he will not do what you tell him.”
Do you think that it has something to do with the fact that film is a couple of more elements closer to how we experience life—in that it has movement, and it has sound? That it’s more complex?
I would just call it truer. It’s more stepping in. That’s one thing I found in my films. Although it’s true that I often feel like an observer, I’m still in it. I’m part of it, definitively. And it’s hard to see what part you’re in as a photographer. I think Smith is a good example. He is in it. His obsession—I feel that in his photographs. But for ninety-nine per cent of the photographers it’s a game. A game with aesthetics or taste, or artistry like Gibson, or jokes like Erwitt, tricks like Mili, fashion like Penn. I mean who else? Name somebody and I’ll say something nasty about them. Only the people who are obsessed should continue with photography. Arbus—she was obsessed with her life. A girl I met in New York, a student of Arbus, said to me, “Well you know, I really got mad at Diane Arbus, because she treated our photographs just like she treated the people she photographed. We would put our picture up on the wall and Diane would look at the picture, and she would say, ‘Oh, how interesting. Where did you meet that woman, and where did she come from, and what’s going on here?’ ” And the girl was very pissed. She said, “I didn’t get anything from her.” And I found that very strange. I mean, that’s the way Arbus was. That’s what got her to get these pictures of these people. It’s that curiosity that one has to have.
Anybody who is going to be an artist has to be curious. He’s got to go out and do his own thing. If you talk to a student, and the student is any good, has any guts, he will not do what you tell him. And it usually works out that those students are the ones that you really get interested in, and they will get something from you. That’s the way I can help as a teacher. I can help those few.
When students bring in their films, I can put my finger on something important right away that goes on inside them. The films are somehow more revealing than photographs. It’s because the filmmaker cannot get away with that instant that might be accidental. He’s got to come up with three minutes, and you see there how he feels, how he goes back, how he looks away, how he runs to something else, or how confused he is looking around. And the same thing happens when I show my movies—the personal movies that deal with my life. I’ve done two or three of them, and after the light goes on and I’m out there, I really feel like I’ve taken my clothes off, in a way. I feel like I’ve really shown a lot. And some people understand it, and some people don’t. But I’ve never felt that as a photographer. I’ve never felt like I’ve given that much. And in a way, that’s one thing teaching taught me—to be more generous with myself.
How do you teach film?
We just make films. That’s all I’m interested in. I can’t just sit there and talk. I give the students a theme. I say, “Make a film about oranges.’ ‘ So they think about it, and some write a script or a little story board, some just go out, some don’t know and just sit there and look at you. Or I make a film. Like I said, “I’m going to make a film, and I’m going to title it ‘1981 Viet Orphans.’ ” I got to know an eight-year-old half-Chinese boy, and I sat him on a table. I explained to the students what I would do—I just made it up. I gave the boy a big knife, and so this guy’s cutting all the vegetables I have there, asparagus, everything. He’s just hacking this food apart. I guess this runs about three minutes, and that’s the film I made. I haven’t gotten it back, but I’ll put it on the projector, look at it, and we’ll talk about it. The boy got really furious, and that’s where I wanted the film to go.
For the Glory of Wind and Water, 1976 @ Robert Frank
“I wonder about anybody that teaches for that long. I don’t see how you can keep it up. You must become very uninspired by it.”
Today you can go out and buy your capsule, your cartridge of Super-8 film for three dollars and fifty cents, put it in your camera, and shoot your stuff. You bring it to the drugstore and it comes back in three days, and you look at it. It’s like you use a pencil: you write down what you feel, what you think. Then you can talk about it. Then I can explain about the cutting, and say, “Why did you do it that way? I would do it this way.” But what I teach really is to pick up the camera and have the confidence to say something you feel strongly about.
I’ve thought a lot about teachers—people who teach photography, people who have tenure from colleges. I’ve been thinking a lot about Callahan. I wonder about anybody that teaches for that long. I don’t see how you can keep it up. You must become very uninspired by it. If you’re an artist, I think that the university world is not good. I think the real world is better. You have to be against the system in some way. How do you do that? That’s the question. You’re not going to do it here, or in any school. That much I know. Because this is where the system is taught, and you’re a part of it, and I’m a part of it. And I don’t want to be a part of it. But I’m here. I’m being paid. And that’s my thing; that’s the whole thing that I have to offer—that I wasn’t part of it. I’m just trying to tell you here what makes me tick. What else am I going to do? Theorize about black and white values?
I just feel that the universities are really very protected compounds or factories, or whatever, and that’s why I wonder about Callahan. He keeps on working, and produces that good work. But maybe the work isn’t good at all, because he’s made this carefully planned move, and he’s j ust perfecting something which is his own vision. And he’s perfecting it so beautifully because he’s in that beautifully perfected place to begin with. And I hate that. I wish that he would photograph something else. I’ve seen a show at the Light Gallery, and it’s quite beautiful. He prints quite nicely. But I found it deadly. Not in a good way. But I’m not talking against him. It’s the aesthetics of tombstone photography.
Do you think that photography today has become overrun by aesthetics?
No, I think a lot of young people have turned away from that. I know a number of young people who photograph and there are no aesthetics involved—they take pictures without looking in the viewfinder. It’s just gotta be done. They often don’t develop it, but it’s something they carry with them, and when they feel like it, they take a few pictures. Maybe later on they’ll take them out and do something with them. I think eventually some body of work will come out anyhow, that will express something very strong. Maybe it will take longer, but they’re not in a hurry that way.
But then they’re not obsessed, either.
Well, that’s true, but I think it will come later. I think it’s good that today people do a lot of different things—study architecture, or play music, or write a book. And I like it very much when people write with photographs. That’s a very hard thing to do. When I started to use the Super-8mm camera, I took footage, and I’d often run the whole film through the camera. Then I’d wind the film back, and then I’d write some sentences on black acetate—just burn it out. I’d put it on a light box, and I’d put that film back that I’d run backwards, and I’d sort of know what was on the film, and I’d put sentences over the whole picture. I mean, it’s sort of a destroyed picture. I did that for a while, and I sort of liked it. Those films are somehow simple, like exercises. They’re just takes, and they’re very satisfying, and in that way they might be like photographs. I put them away and didn’t look at them for three years, and they were very true. Those sentences made a lot of sense later. I guess a lot of photography today deals with your personal life. It records it in some way—what you see, or your environment or travels.
“It’s not so much that you want to make beautiful photographs. It’s something else, and that appeals to me. I’m not interested in taking a beautiful photograph. I don’t mean that there’s no room for it; I just don’t want to do it.”
It’s not so much that you want to make beautiful photographs. It’s something else, and that appeals to me. I’m not interested in taking a beautiful photograph. I don’t mean that there’s no room for it; I just don’t want to do it. For example, I live in a very beautiful place. I could get a camera, and make a very beautiful picture. It could be almost as good as Ansel Adams. But I don’t want to take a beautiful picture, and I can’t, really. It makes me feel good to look at it. It wouldn’t make me feel good to take that picture.
I don’t believe in it anymore—beauty, aesthetics. I think it is crazy if you are a photographer, and the only idea that you have is that you want to be an artist. And that’s what I would object to in somebody like Ralph Gibson. That is transparent in his work—wanting to make “art.” Every picture is “art”: meaning, depth, space, all these words. And some photographs are quite beautiful and memorable. To me photography is life. It has to deal with life. And there’s another thing —”good” or “bad.” Maybe one shouldn’t make any distinction between film and photography when talking about it. You know, it’s “good” photography—maybe it’s just important to do it. It’s important to do a film; it’s probably harder to do that. It means more thinking, more preparation. When you do photographs, you can go around, put it together after two years, send out all the postcards, and put it on the wall. Like in the Stones film, it was either do it or get out. Often photography can be in-between, either-or.
I’ve done Nova Scotia with the movie camera. I’ve gone from left to right, when it snowed, when it hailed and then when the wind was blowing, and I plan to use that in some way. It’s not the beautiful photograph. It j ust means a passage of time to me. I’m working on a film about my daughter, and another friend of mine who died, and I plan to use that, like time is going by. But I mean, it’s beautiful to be alive, but life isn’t that beautiful. In an interview with Walker Evans, you talked about DeKooning and Kline, and the energy that was in New York in the fifties with the abstract expressionists.
Do you feel that this sort of energy is necessary for a lot of people to get together and make a movement?
Sometimes, you know, what I’m talking about is not what I mean. But I was talking about a lifestyle that impressed me. It was like a political stand. At that time I think the abstract painters were suffering. They were having a hard time. And they totally believed in what they were doing. They were a really strong group. All that photographers talked about at that time was how to make money, how to get into magazines. It was a relief to go into a group that was not interested in that way. And in that way it has changed a lot, because painters have become very successful and very commercial. I have been asked several times to produce a portfolio of my photographs, and I never wanted to, because I somehow am against a certain preciousness. I don’t mind if a gallery sells some of my prints, and they go somewhere, and I get some money. But to make a business of it—to print fifty portfolios and sell them for two thousand dollars, and they’re all in a box with tissue between them—I don’t want to do it. It’s deadly. I don’t want to have an exhibition, either, because that’s deadly too. Museums are . . . well, they’re not deadly, but for me it would be back to the old work again. Dig it all up, have it printed up.
Well this museum guy Szarkowski —I guess he will be interesting to listen to. I haven’t been to the museum in a long time. I like what he’s showing now—the Hungarian photographer Koudelka. I’d like to see the Bacon show at the Met. I like his paintings a lot; I get the message. I don’t know. The museum is sort of a tastemaker. It’s very powerful, and anything that powerful I mistrust in a way.
Mary and Pablo in high grass, 1956 @ Robert Frank
Well you have your own sense of power, your sense of purity . .
I think my asset is only that I sort of know who I am. I know what I can do—what I can do well. As an artist, what have you got? No power, nothing. In the end, power I think is measured in dollars. I think of the power that I have encountered in artists that I know. When they get successful, they make factories out of their art. A guy like Indiana, say, builds up his empire. Warhol. I think Warhol is a very important artist; I have great respect for him. The more power you get, you know, it seems the weaker you get as an artist. I often think that the best work you’ve done is the work you’ve done when you had no power, really. When you had no name. As a teacher I would just try to get people to get up the courage to do it, not to be afraid that they would fail, just that they tried, that’s all. I certainly wouldn’t want them to be like me, or make films like me. Well, feeling like that is part of what people pick up from you, and so that is your influence. I guess that is powerful, but I never looked at it that way. I’m not conscious of it. Whereas with the Stones, every second, you see that tremendous power that they have. Actually, everybody around them is afraid of them—their friends, everybody. What can they do? They can kill you. It’s as simple as that. They can beat you to a pulp and tell you to get out. They can do anything.
How did you go about making the Stones film? Did you get to know them very well before you started shooting?
No, I didn’t. I made a record cover for them, and Mick Jagger sort of liked me. They called me up in Nova Scotia. I said to them, “That’s the camera I want.” They bought the camera, and they said, “You do the film. ” There was never any more talk about it. I j ust got paid, and they let me do whatever I wanted to, but it was the agreement that I would finish and give them the film. They have the say whether it’s going to come out or not. We went on tour with them in 1972. It’s pretty interesting to get to know somebody as powerful as Jagger, or that group. So much money, so much power. It’s sort of frightening. It’s a frightening film in that way. And if I could have shown what really went on, it would have been horrendous—not to be believed. The film is a pretty down-trip film. They weren’t too happy about it, but Jagger is very straight. He said, “You did the film, that’s the way you see it; although that’s not the way I see it, that’s not the way it really is.” I like him personally, and he’s quite an amazing guy. He has a fantastic head, and he’s really in control. They’re rough people to be with. You’ve got to keep up. If you can’t keep up, it’s too bad.
You seem to have been a stranger in their world, and there seems to be an element of the stranger in both your films and photography. How do you feel about that?
Well, I think that’s quite a good observation. I guess I am an observer, in a way. It also had to do with the fact that a lot of my work deals with myself, especially my films. It’s very hard to get away from myself. It seems, almost, that’s all I have. That’s sort of a sad feeling. But that feeling of being a stranger—it has to do with years of photography, where you walk around, you observe, and you walk away, and you begin to be a pretty good detective. I was very happy to make the Stones film, because it got me away from myself. But then again, the film turned out to be about my friend. We both made the film together, but he really sort of lived what the Stones imagined they were living. It was a drug scene, but he really did it in front of the camera, and I lived with him, so I made the film on him, part of it. And on Jagger and Richards. Those were the three people that interested me. I wasn’t interested in the music at all, I mean the performance, but Jagger knew that. I guess that’s one of the reasons he liked me.
“It’s very hard to get away from myself. It seems, almost, that’s all I have. That’s sort of a sad feeling.”
You spoke earlier of your mistrust for powerful institutions, like the museum. Do you feel the same sort of mistrust toward Jagger?
There are two images in my mind. On the one hand, I admire him because of his ability as a performer, his capability as an administrator of such a powerful business venture. But then on the other hand, it would be the same for a politician whom I would mistrust. In the end it would turn me off completely. I would have nothing to do with it, because in the end he would destroy me. Because I don’t play his game; I’m not in his class. All the personalities in that group are especially rough. They are hard on each other, they are completely without feeling for anyone around them. Anything goes to get the work going and keep it moving. And that’s a strong experience to go through—to see that, and how it works.
Well, let’s talk about John Morris. I knew Morris from when he was with Ladies’ Home Journal. He promised me work, and he never gave me work. He said, “Look, I think that you can get into Magnum, and I’m going to bring them all down here.” And Cartier-Bresson, and Capa, and Erwitt—they all came down, and they looked at my pictures, and they didn’t say much. But then he called me back a few days later, and he said, “Well, we will take you.” He lined up an arrangement for me, and I would make a certain amount of money, and I really couldn’t have done it. I felt that they didn’t really want me, and it was more a personality thing. And he said to me, “You know, you should learn to take more vertical.
You did fashion work, too, didn’t you?
When I came here, that was the first job I got. Brodovitch of Harper’s Bazaar hired me. He was a very important photography teacher at that time, 1948 or 1949, and he had these classes, and he asked me to come. I was very thankful to him, because he got me that job, but I discovered that in his classes, all he wanted to get was ideas for fashion photography—new ideas. And I dropped out right away. I was never any good at fashion photography. I had no interest in clothes, which you have to have if you’re a fashion photographer. That was interesting about Brodovitch, that he thought he could make me into a fashion photographer. He had the same idea about Cartier-Bresson.
“You know, one of the worst things an artist can do is talk about his work.”
Can you talk a little about Walker Evans?
Yeah, well, he helped me a lot when I was starting. He helped me get the Guggenheim. He never said much, but he’s a guy who doesn’t have to say much, but you know he understands what you’re about. So we had a good thing that way. He came up to Nova Scotia about three years ago. He had recovered from an operation, and he came up there to visit. I took him to all the old houses—the people live just like in the thirties or forties in the States, and he was overjoyed. He photographed and photographed. And I liked to see him so happy about photographing, but at the same time, I felt that I wouldn’t want to do that when I’m older. I once came to see Walker at the office at Fortune. It was when Agee had died, 1955, around the time I got the Guggenheim. Agee was his best friend, and I remember him just sitting on his desk in front of a window and looking down on Rockefeller Center—you know, where they ice skate?—and he just sat there and he cried. I was very moved by it. I went with him on a trip to photograph mills in New England, and his wife had left him, and he was very sad then. He was very intelligent, but he didn’t play the intellectual, although I’m sure he had it. He went to very good schools, and he talked a lot about breeding. He had class and style. A lot of California painters are certainly tremendously influenced by Walker’s photographs. The whole pop art thing is very strongly influenced by photography. Walker couldn’t stand Steichen.
What about Steichen? Do people talk about him?
I think he had a terrific understanding about art painting and sculpture. I think his judgment about that is probably better than about photography. But if there’s one thing I dislike in photography, it’s sentimentality. And Steichen to me must be—how do you say it?—the personification of sentimentality. I can’t stand that.
“If you’re an artist, I think that the university world is not good. I think the real world is better. You have to be against the system in some way.”
What do you think of Dorothea Lange’s work?
I like her work. I remember, I went to see her when she was very sick, in California, and she sat there in her bed and we talked about things. Then, all of a sudden, she said, “I just photographed you.” And you know, I was looking around, and I understood. She took a picture of me in her mind. And that was a very nice thing she said. My favorite photographers are Bill Brandt, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and I like Emmet Gowin. These are sort of classic photographers, so I’m, you know, I’m an old man. I like the classic stuff. I can’t talk about photographs, really. There’s a certain verbal gift you have to have. What could I teach you except to tell you about myself? Whatever help that would be. You know, one of the worst things an artist can do is talk about his work.
ASX CHANNEL: ROBERT FRANK
(All rights reserved. Text @ Wesselly College, Images @ Robert Frank)