scribbling in the dark - photographer's talks: scribbling An Evening with Robert Frank at the Met 2009

An Evening with Robert Frank 10/09/09 scribbled by Erica McDonald Talk was held in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with photographer Robert Frank, Jeff L. Rosenheim and Sarah Greenough. 


Jeff Rosenheim, curator of the Department of Photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art welcomes the full house, telling us that he is pleased that the exhibition Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans, which runs September 22, 2009–January 3, 2010, has already had 29,000 visitors. This exhibit is the first time that all 83 photographs from The Americans have been shown in New York City. Robert Frank, who is soon to turn 85, is sitting on stage with Jeff and with Sarah Greenough, Senior Curator of Photographs, National Gallery of Art, Washington. 

Jeff tells us that Frank's 1955-56 "epic and hallow journey" which began and ended in New York City spanned 30 states and gave rise to the 677 rolls of film or 27,000 photos from which the body of work was culled, and he then turns to Robert Frank. 

RF: Thank you for coming, any questions, I can answer any questions. I am very happy that this happens in New York because this is my city. I like New York and I like to live here, and I hope it will go on for awhile, living here. We (with sculptor June Leaf, wife) also have a home in Nova Scotia where we go in the summer, but otherwise stay here, and I feel that this is my city; I am happy about that.  

JF: Since the exhibition upstairs focuses on the publication of The Americans, lets talk a little about the cover. When the book was first published in France in 1958 Robert Delpire selected a drawing by Saul Steinberg for the cover. It features ink on blue graph paper, a typical sidewalk scene, presumably in New York City with tiny pedestrians and an awning and a streetlamp with a little one way arrow. I think we can all agree that it was a curious choice for the cover of a book of photographs, particularly photographs made mostly outside of New York City. Nonetheless, this is what Robert Delpire selected. However, when Barney Rosset at Grove Press agreed to publish The Americans, you wrote a letter to him in 1959 that's on view (upstairs in the exhibit), in which you specifically state that the Steinberg drawing, and I quote, "Is not a good cover. Should you consider a change, I'd ask (Willem) de Kooning or (Franz) Kline to do one for me." So did you ask de Kooning or Kline to make a work of art for the cover? 

RF: I don't think I did. That's fifty years ago, though. I was a friend of Kline, I knew de Kooning, but I don't think I did ask them. A friend of mine, the painter Alfred Leslie, I think he had the back of the cover in one of the first editions.  

JF: So what process did you go through to select the photograph, the trolley picture (Americans, 18), that is on the cover of that first edition and remains today the image on the cover?  

RF: It seemed to me to be the right picture. It expressed a lot of what I felt on the trip. A treatment of black people, I felt it really reflected some of the strongest moments of my trip. When I experienced for the first time segregation, it was important to me that it could be expressed like this. 

SG: Robert, by the time the book was published in 1958, 59, of course the whole Civil Rights Movement was really just starting, did you think of the cover in any way in relationship to that or was it more an expression of your experience on the trip?  

RF: No, I think I felt it was a good photograph and it was important to have that feeling on the cover.  

JF: Did you consider any other pictures, any other photographs alongside the trolley picture? 

RF: I must have. I feel gratitude to Barney Rosset who is about my age, that he agreed to publish The Americans without the text, like it was published in France where they had on every page a comment on America from some writer. I felt it was very anti-Americans but I was still happy to have the book published. Finally then, Barney Rosset agreed to publish it also because he got the sheets (for printing) from France brought to America, so it didn't cost that much. It was also important for Rosset to have (Jack) Kerouac's name on the cover. 

SG: But Kerouac originally wasn't going to write the introduction. Hadn't you first asked Walker Evans to write the introduction?  

RF: Yes, I did. I asked Walker and then he wrote an introduction, and at the same time I think an article appeared about On The Road by Kerouac in the New York Times. And a friend of mine, who was a kind of an agent, (Emile) de Antonio, he suggested that I should get in touch with Kerouac about writing about the pictures. So the Walker Evans forward was replaced by Kerouac's, which made Walker unhappy in fact. 

JF: But it was the right decision?  

RF: Undoubtably.  

JF: One of the main differences between the French edition and the first American edition was the introduction to the book by Kerouac and the removal of all the text that had been selected. It's interesting to me that around the time that you were working on both the French edition and also with Kerouac on his text, you also took a road trip with Kerouac down to Florida. It must have been the Spring of 1958, and for those of you who don't know, that trip was to recover some manuscripts from his (Frank's) mother, I think. What was traveling on the road with Kerouac like? 

RF: Well Kerouac didn't drive so he would sleep in the car most of the time. It was important to pick up his mother and a few cats to bring her back, he had bought a house, I forget where (on Long Island) it was exactly. The trip back was more interesting. One incident I remember; we stopped somewhere in Florida, we stopped because she wanted to get water for the cats, there were about 2 or 3 cats, and when we stopped Kerouac went outside. A few minutes later the cops came and said "What's in the car, what's going on here?" And I never understood really why - Kerouac apparently played with some (slot) machines and some money came out - I don't know. That was a little incident that stayed with me because Kerouac's mother was really very good the way she opened the door and said to the cops "I'm Kerouac's mother and an old lady with cats and what do you want from me?" And that stayed in my mind. Soon Kerouac came back and he really did win some money on these slot machines, and maybe that made him suspicious. But that really was the only incident that I remember. 

JF: Didn't somebody offer to buy the car? Didn't something happen, you were in the town of McClellanville (South Carolina) where Robert made one of the great pictures in the book, it's the picture of the barber shop interior seen from outside where his shadow allows us to see through his body, if you will, to the inside (Americans, 38). But didn't you go back to the McClellanville barber? 

RF: I did go back, yes, and it was unchanged really. But I don't remember. Who wanted to sell something?  

JF: Well, Kerouac soon thereafter wrote a really wonderful treatment of the trip down to Florida with you, and back. I didn't realize that you had been pulled over by the cops, but he talks about the barber trying to by your car, and give you two older cars for it.  

RF: I don't remember really, these stories come up and they change. I don't remember anybody offering me two cars for one car.  

JF: So....I thought it might be fun to read a little bit about that trip down to Florida because Kerouac puts on paper something that is very hard to imagine could be so beautifully expressed, at least for me. And I think it is the finest piece of writing about a photographer working that I know. I thought Robert, you might enjoy listening to Kerouac describing you trying to make pictures. This is from 1958. It was not published for many years until Evergreen Review, Barney Rosset's magazine published it after Kerouac had died. It was published in January 1970 (On the Road to Florida). And it goes like's very short. Actually it's very long, it's going to be short tonight. And you have to understand that Kerouac didn't write with any commas, or very few periods, and it's like one large exhalation. I'll try to read it my way but it's probably not going to be his way. (punctuation that follows is mine, EM) 

Just took a trip by car to Florida with photographer Robert Frank Swiss born to get my mother and cats and typewriter and big suitcase full of original manuscripts and we took this trip on a kind of provisional assignment from LIFE magazine who gave us a couple hundred bucks with which we paid for the gas and oil and chow both ways, but I was amazed to see how a photographic artist does his bit of catching those things about the American road writers write about. It's pretty amazing to see a guy steering at the wheel suddenly raise his little 300 dollar German camera with one hand and snap something that's on the move in front of him and through and unwashed windshield at that. Later on when developed the unwashed streaks don't harm the light composition or detail of the picture at all, seem to enhance it. We started off in New York at noon on a pretty Spring day and didn't take any pictures until we had navigated the dull but useful stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike and come on down into Highway 40 in Delaware where we stopped for a snack in a roadside diner. I didn't see anything in particular to photograph or to write about but suddenly Robert was taking his first snap. From the counter where we sat he had turned and taken a picture of a big car trailer with piled cars, two tiers pulling in the gravel driveway but through the window and right over a scene of leftovers and dishes where a family had just vacated a booth and got in their car and driven off and the waitress not had time yet to clear the dishes. The combination of that plus the movement outside and further parked cars and reflections everywhere in chrome glass and steel of cars cars road road. I suddenly realized I was taking a trip with a genuine artist and that he was expressing himself in an art form that was not unlike my own and yet fraught with a thousand difficulties quite unlike my own. Contrary to the general belief about photography you don't need bright sunlight, the best moodiest pictures are taken in the dim light of almost dusk or of rainy days like it was now in Delaware late afternoon with rain impending on the sky and lights coming on the road. Outside the diner seeing nothing as usual I walked on but Robert stopped suddenly and took a picture of a solitary pole with a cluster of silver balls way up on top and behind it a lorn American landscape so unspeakably indescribable to make Marcel Proust shudder. How beautiful to be able to detail a scene like that on a gray day and show even the mud abandoned tin cans and old building blocks laid at the foot of it and ... and the old road with its trucks cars poles roadside houses trees signs and crossings little details writers usually forget about. 

JF: Pretty good.  

RF: Well it's difficult for me to tell stories, but (that) was very impressive of him because he slept for long stretches and he would wake up and say "It's okay, now I've had my dream." He wouldn't say anymore about the dream. We didn't really talk too much to each other. It was a friendship that probably was based more on things that could help him; he didn't drive a car so... He liked my two children. At that time they were 10 and 8 years old or so. And they liked him because he would be in the car and (we'd) stop at a light, going to New Jersey or somewhere, and he would lean out of the car and ask the car that stopped next to him, in some other language he made up that no one could understand, and of course the people in the car wouldn't understand...he had a very good sense of humor. He was a good guy, he was a lucky friend for me really that I got to know him and the other beat writers because it opened a whole new window on the world for me. I didn't know people like that from my time in Switzerland. It was probably the most important part in my career to watch them and learn from them. I guess it helped me to take the pictures I took, though I think chronologically I took many pictures before I knew him.  

SG: That's what I was going to ask you. You also have said that you asked him to write an introduction to the book before you had even read On The Road. You knew it had gotten so favorably reviewed but you said you hadn't read On The Road. Was it just intuition in meeting him sensing that he was the right person?  

RF: No...somebody did read On The Road before. (Emile) de Antonio said this is a great writer, and at the same time the review of On The Road came out. So I met him, Kerouac, I called him, and he was really available, I think a girlfriend he had called him up. And he just met me on the street, I had the dummy of my book with me. All the pictures that are in here (in the current edition), but maybe 2 or 3 that have been taken out, and he just looked at it and said "Yeah, I can write something." Ten days later he showed me what he wrote. It was longer than what is printed here, some cuts were made. It was very simple. It would be much more complicated now. What Walker Evans wrote, it was used in a (1958) U.S. Camera article about my pictures. (see But Walker was not happy about it (his text not being used for the introduction to The Americans) he considered it a...Walker was very aware of class, and this was a sort of another class that these beat writers belonged to.  

SG: Walker had also been very helpful to you in getting the Guggenheim Grant in the first place, too.  

RF: Walker was, was clear that I would get the Guggenheim because he knew all the people and he'd make sure I'd get it. So I had no reason to criticize him, but I got to know him very well and you have to be truthful when you talk about somebody in public like that, at least say what you really felt. I did feel often that Walker was a different man that way, he made distinction of class. 

JF: Robert, in the process of editing your work down from the large sum of rolls of film to the work prints and then to the production of the maquette, did you share those pictures with Walker? Did he offer any advice? Did you seek any? 

RF: Well I certainly remember showing him a dummy and - you know it's 50 years ago and very hard to remember - he was very encouraging. 

JF: It seems like just yesterday. Those of us who have been following this book as long as we have it just sort of seems forever for us but I think he may have seen some of the first pictures. Didn't you send some prints East? With hopes of getting a renewal, either printed in Los Angeles or San Francisco? Wasn't that part of it? Sarah? 

SG: It seems as if he might have sent some prints but we have no idea what they were. When you stopped in Los Angeles and then went up to San Francisco you applied for a renewal of the Guggenheim Grant and it seems as if you might have sent some prints at that moment, but they also could have been (sent) earlier. 

RF: I remember, I did send maybe ten or twelve prints to the office here in New York of the Guggenheim Foundation, and I think they demanded it if they (were) to give you a renewal, to show what you'd done so far.  

SG: There's a wonderful document that's here in the exhibition that's part of the Evans Archive here at the Met that is your draft for your renewal application in which it has your writing stating what you had accomplished so far and what you wanted to accomplish. And then it has Mary's (Frank's wife at the time) writing on top of it more clearly articulating those thoughts that you had just sketched out.  

RF: Well, yes, at the time I was young and I needed help.  

SG: Had Walker also suggested places on the trip where you might find it profitable to visit, and if so, do you remember which places those were? 

RF: I remember. Walker suggested McClellanville, South Carolina. Other than that, I don't remember.  

SG: We can follow your route around the country by following - you annotated each of the rolls of film with the city where it was taken - so we sort of piece together the route, and you are wandering through the South, but you end up in places like Scottsboro, Alabama for example. So, had you thought about going there because of the trial (The Scottsboro Boys), was that something that intrigued you or was that really by accident that you ended up there?  

RF: I can't be sure of that, it could be, I certainly read the South Carolina, so I would have gone there because of that. Usually I just followed an intuition, which way I would go, how much time I had to spend in a town. Sometimes the time was limited by police; there's a scene I never can forget. I think it was in Arkansas, and a cop called me over, I was walking on the road, and he was sitting on like a veranda, and he just called me over like that "Come here, boy." And he pulled out his watch and he said "I give you five minutes to get out of here." And that was it. He followed me to the car and up the river...that was one sort of arrest, I was also put in jail on suspicion.  

SG: You had lived in the United States for eight years by that point. Did you expect to meet that kind of hostility, particularly traveling through the South, was that surprise?  

RF: I learned it on the trip. It must have been also in the South, I picked up a hitchhiker, a middle aged man, I think he was black, I'm not so sure but he must have been. I said come in and opened the front door, and he said "No, I'll sit in the back." And that was really new for me, but then I began to understand why. It was completely new for me, segregation, because I came from Switzerland, and living in New York we didn't really talk much about that. But on that trip I really learned, I was astonished by it. I think this country (has) changed a great deal.  

JF: Robert, did you have a big AAA road map that you started with at the beginning of the trip and put little marks or stars in places, and if so, do you still have it?  

RF: I had friends, actually a friend of my wife, that had connections with Detroit (one of the first destinations). She said I can help you if you want to photograph in a factory, and otherwise I wouldn't have gotten in to photograph. So that connection she arranged at Ford. And I wanted to photograph at Standard Oil, but I didn't get permission for that.  

SG: And you photographed then in the ESSO refinery in Baton Rouge, I think.  

RF: It was just the workers coming out of the factory, I couldn't get in.  

JF: What interested you about the factories and the workers?  

RF: The people, I mean the faces. The working place, it's different. It was a very strong experience to get into the Ford factory, called the River Rouge Plant (in Dearborn)(Americans, 50?), it really was a fantastic place. It was in the summer and it was so hot in the factory and the noise was so fantastic. It was really a little hell. It didn't come out in the pictures really, the difficult conditions. Otherwise it was a trip that was just based on intuition, how I'd go out to the left or right. Mostly it was easier really to photograph in the cities because there were more people. 

SG: And were you consciously trying to get all different types of people? Those workers, and maybe more wealthy people, black, white, hispanic, or was that kind of distinction not in your mind? 

RF: I don't understand the question. 

SG: Were you consciously trying to photograph a wide range of people? Rich and poor, black and white, or was it just whomever you came across? 

(possibly RF still does not understand the question but something of an answer can be found in a 2008 "interview" with Charlie LeDuff. RF says "A photographer is attracted by extremes. You look through the book, I's not partial.") 

RF: I only remember two comments: one mostly was, "You must be a Communist." At that time there was the fear of Communism and so that was mostly what I encountered. That expression of fear or some feeling that I would be a Communist. And the other place was in the South when I photographed, I think I mentioned it in the book though maybe not this one, a group of white boys playing football, and the guy looks at me and he says "Why don't you go to the other side of town where the ni**ers play?" That's the sort of the feeling that I often encountered. It was completely new for me, segregation, but it's what I learned on the trip. That was fifty years ago.  

JF: Robert, when you got to Los Angeles you spent really quite a lot of time out there, and you were obviously working on the project, but there were other projects that kept you there. And you did a lot of work in the city and in the suburbs, and even going to the television studios, which was a relatively new medium. What brought you to the studios?  

RF: At the same time that I was doing the Guggenheim I got a lot of work from the New York Times' promotion department. It was a friend of mine who had it, and he often had me photograph scenes of ordinary people, how they lived, and they used it in the promotion department at the Times. That brought me to... 

JF: The Burbank Studio (Americans, 60). 

RF: Yes. I was interested, you know when you are in Hollywood, it's a big part of it. And I take it (the photos) were also used in the New York Times promotion/movie industry.  

SG: And then on your way back East, you went sort of due East and then you seem to have gone very far out of your way to go to Butte, Montana, driving very far North of Salt Lake City to go to Butte, Why Butte? Do you remember?  

RF: It's romantic. Imagination. Nobody knew anything about it really, it's sort of at the border of something. I was lucky to find that hotel room (Americans, 26). It was a city that impressed me. 

SG: Did you go there because of the mines?  

RF: No, I didn't get in the mines, I tried, Anaconda Mine, no, there was no permission to go there. Butte was like a city at the time that had no paved roads. It was all dirt roads and children played there and was kind of a... I remember it very well because it was different. 

SG: It was also a place where Kerouac went through several times on his various trips that then comprised On The Road. He was there a number of times too. 

JF: It's sort of famous as a very wild town. Very open, as they say. So this sort of town with dirt streets, still had this twelve story or fourteen story brick hotel that was quite fancy. Was that (Americans, 26) actually your hotel room?  

RF: Yes, that was the hotel window. Then I photographed two hitchhikers that I picked up in Butte. I always liked the picture a lot, the profile of the two (Americans, 32). 

SG: That's one of the more fascinating contact sheets to look at, because you took two frames of those hitchhikers and either the frame before or after the one that you selected for the book where they're very glum looking, the other frame they're smiling, it's more of the happy road trip. 

RF: I think both of them were looking for work, wherever I let them out. You know, I never kept notes, and so, it's lost. But the photographs are here. It would have been better if I would have taken notes but I never did. Too busy driving, and looking... 

JF: But you must have kept some sort of notes, because wasn't one of the problems when you were arrested in Arkansas they wanted to process your film because they must have seen on the canisters some cities and places, Scotsboro, that you had photographed, or Detroit. How would they have known where you had been if they hadn't seen some sort of marks on the canisters? 

RF: I'm not sure about that. I think I told them that I was going to photograph in Baton Rouge. I think they just had nothing else to do.  

JF: But they did offer to process your film for you, though. 

RF: It was a bad scene actually. I didn't realize then, (but) I was all alone and they just had me there in jail and nobody knew where I was. They asked me if I knew the Mayor of New York and questions like that. They asked me what the Guggenheim was. They were kind of, not very educated, but at the end it turned out okay. (It was a) scary incident really, to be there in jail. But you know when you are young like that you don't think much about it, you hope it all will turn out alright. And it did turn out alright, every difficult situation. I was in jail in Detroit too, that was because I was in a black neighborhood and the cops came and they opened the trunk of the car and I had the old license plate, it was a secondhand car, and they said "Why do you have another license plate?" I tried to explain and they locked me up. I think any photographer, even today would come into similar situations because when you photograph there's a kind of suspicion in photographing, it's not the most welcome occupation unless you have five children, and you know, a happy family scene. Photographing on the street and in certain neighborhoods is not, certainly at that time, was not too pleasant. 

SG: But that incident didn't seem to, at all, increase your hesitancy about plunging yourself into other potentially fraught situations. There's the picture, for example of the bar in Gallup, New Mexico (Americans, 29) where, if you look at the contact sheet, you can see there are a lot of drunken cowboys there, and at times you seem hardly to have even put the camera to your eye. But you're still photographing. 

RF: Well a photographer is a hunter, you know. You go for a good picture and you want to come home with that. But I was always really careful, I've often photographed without looking in the viewfinder, and held the camera low. You have to try not to attract much attention when you photograph, and you learn how to do it. I remember I photographed a black couple in San Francisco (Americans, 72) on a grassy hill overlooking the city. And I photographed maybe twenty feet behind them and then I instinctively knew they would turn around and see me, and just in the right moment I turned around and photographed away from them. You have to be quick as a photographer to work that way, and you have to have good intuition, and be quick.  

JF: Do you think the camera offered, did you feel protected by the camera in some way, that this was providing you some sort of shield or protection?  

RF: No, I felt the opposite, especially with the concerns of Communism. At that time Communism was sort of in (people's) heads... 

JF: But how did the camera signify that?  

RF: You were a spy!  

JF: Seems obvious. The answer is the truth, the scary truth. 

RF: Well, I am very happy that those 80 pictures survived and the book is still available and is still being sold. If Mr. Steidl is in the house he could testify to that. I think it really is unusual that photographs that are so small can survive that long, so I'm proud of that. 

SG: Did you have any sense when you published it that, particularly with all the scathing reviews that it got initially, it might survive this long? Did you have any sense that it would have such a long life, such a huge impact? 

RF: No, I didn't. I just often work by intuition. I don't have a clear plan of what will happen. I stated, when I asked for money from the Guggenheim that I would have a publisher, but I didn't have a publisher. But I knew that the photographs would only really live if a book would be published eventually. So I was really happy that it was published in France, (and) Delpire was a friend of mine at that time, but it wasn't published the way I wanted it, without explanation on the page about the pictures. So it took me awhile to convince Barney Rosset that he could publish it just without any text. And that's how the book survived. If it would have had text and all that with it I don't think it would have survived. It became kind of a classic work. And I think it was really modeled after Walker Evans' book. What was Walker's book?  

SG: American Photographs. 

RF: American Photographs, yes. I think if you're a photographer you work intuitively but you still have an idea of how you want that project to end. And I was very, very determined to get a book published. So I was thankful for Delpire to help me get it to a start, and then have Grove Press publish it, and further on it was another publisher who picked it up, and now Mr. Steidl is in charge of it, and he takes good care of it, I like him.  

JF: You've turned on more generations of photographers with this book and I think it not only is as rich and as powerful and as complicated (but) as stunningly ambitious today as it was fifty years ago. I know that all of us who like the medium of photography are still trying to figure it out and to learn from it. It's daunting for all the photographers out there to see what you did, but we're greatly enriched by this.  

I should say that Robert is a filmmaker as well and just tomorrow we are beginning a film series in this auditorium and starting with Pull My Daisy which Robert made in 1959, about the time of the publication of the U.S. edition of The Americans, and we'll be presenting these films on four consecutive Saturdays. I highly recommend them. Also in the Sacerdote (Lecture) Hall in the (Uris Center for) Education Department, almost all of Robert's films and videos and those are free with admission and I highly recommend it, they are showing in the mornings and the afternoons throughout the run of the show. Robert is not just a photographer of The Americans but I think each of the venues went out of their way to be able to do a complete film program and I highly recommend it, and I know you will be enriched by those as well. Sarah? Robert? Thank you all.