Arnaud Claass’s Essay on Robert Frank, published recently by Filigranes Editions (2018, 160 p.), Presents a multi-faceted reading of the work of this great artist of Swiss origin. Anxious to renew the approach with various tools, he also strives to replace Robert Frank most famous work, The Americans, not only alongside his other editorial masterpieces (including The Lines of My Hand, reissued last year by Steidl) but in the context of a creative adventure spread over a total of more than sixty years. The considerable influence of his films on independent cinema is also widely discussed.
The excerpt we publish below discusses the alternation, from 1971, between the phases of Frank’s almost wild withdrawal into his isolated house in Nova Scotia and those of immersion in society (teaching, commissions, movies). Struck by the misfortune of the disappearance of his daughter Andrea in a plane crash and the incurable illness of his son Pablo (who was to die in 1994), he gave his photographic and cinematographic work a stylistically different turn, more and more meditative. Inspired by such great literary figures as Robert Walser, he tended to melt life stories and formal inventions, deploying a feeling of self as a narrative perpetually restarted – without denying his curiosity for the world or falling into the banal narcissistic introspection.
When The Americans, the American edition of The Americans, appeared, a retrograde public attributed it to the malice of a broken down photographer. As the critical turnaround ultimately led to this book becoming the cult work that we know, he found his privileged place in the legend of the artist. His films, then his passage to a photography more and more devoted to the ordinary of a life withdrawn several months a year on the wild coast of Mabou, then the simultaneous practice of the two mediums, completed the impressive gesture of Frank . Alternately isolated in this region with the brutal climate of Nova Scotia or immersed in the tumult of New York, he also traveled to teach or answer rare commissions, realizing a tstory on the Democratic Convention of 1984 for the magazine California, or in 1996 the video Summer Cannibals with his friend Patti Smith – his notorious musical tropism also conjures up Tom Waits (photographed for the cover of his album Rain Dogs) as well as Bruce Springsteen, whose manager Jon Landau made him discover The Americans, and who declared that he wished to be able to write songs like Frank photographed12. Above all, Frank became the untamed and intimidating lord of an unprecedented autobiographical demand, conducted along a thread dotted with fragments and flashes. His work, done before this turning point in the story of the self (especially the Americans but also the Parisian, Welsh, London, Peruvian images of his youth) took, along with their impact on the art of showing the social scene, the status of chapters of a long personal odyssey. By giving his work a tone that is more and more internalized, Robert Frank wove a network of narrative meshes, complete narratives or barely begun, bound in spite of that by a discontinuous current. An inevitably precarious balance between self-relation and self-invention then came into play. His artistic adventure began to bear all the characteristics of such enterprises, based on what Foucault called self-concern, and on the type of gathering of attention that he assumes: it is useless to recall the many examples, whether historical or contemporary, literary, photographic or even cinematographic, from Seneca to Michel Leiris or Paul Nizon, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg, via Montaigne or Robert Walser (the photographer-filmmaker will often say his admiration for the Swiss writer13). One could push the comparison to the “existential” films of Johan Van der Keuken and Boris Lehman. The essential point would be that even if we know perfectly well that the autonomous entity of the Self is a delusion, we can not live without this fiction because it is vitally necessary to us.
In Frank’s case, the Americans’ subsequent integration into this inner song gave his entire work that complex and particular flavor. To put it simply: the return to oneself characterizing his works after 1958 seemed to throw on this book that went back to the past a retrospective light. He made the journey through the American social and geographical reality of 1955 another form of self-reflection, a specular reference of the past to the present, the inaugural element of a narrative identity, to use the famous notion coined by Paul Ricoeur. But it is not at all offensive to the exceptional strength of the Americans to say that this group, once again, does not respond at all to a psychologizing conception of subjectivity. To protect oneself from this introspectionist vision, in one of them he declares (“… always looking outside, trying to look inside, trying to say something true “). This sentence, it is true, has all that is necessary in appearance to satisfy the interpretation by the “depths”. It emphasizes the double crossing of a gaze that would find in the outside world the echo of an intramural of the spirit. It does not justify any fetishism of the abyss. To say that one seeks an existential truth in the rightness of a relation to what is out there does not mean that one indulges in the worship of interiority – at least to the interiority such as Walter Benjamin pointed out with irony, likening it to the comfort of housing from which the bourgeois can indulge in the satisfied observation of the surrounding world: a parable that Victor Burgin used as a springboard for a study on the history of mentalities14.
Quoted by R.J. Smith in American Witness – The Art and Life of Robert Frank, New York, Da Capo Press, 2017. This biography was published when I had just completed this essay.
The Robert Walser Zentrum in Bern even organized an exhibition in 2012 in which Frank pays tribute to the writer, titled Ferne Nähe / Distant Closeness – Tribute für / A Tribute to Robert Walser.
Victor Burgin, In Different Spaces – Berkeley, University of California Press, 1996. The author takes up the famous image of the bourgeois interior as a metaphor for Kierkegaardian interiority.