Culture | Portrait of an American great
Robert Frank has been chronicling American life since the 1940s. Photo: Lisa Rinzler/Assemblage Films LLC

Portrait of an American great

Director Laura Israel screened her documentary 'Don’t Blink – Robert Frank' in Japan recently, sparking fresh interest in one of the key figures in postwar American art

April 2, 2017 5:13 PM (UTC+8)

“I hate to be photographed. I can’t stand to be pinned in front of a camera. I do that to people, I don’t like it done to me,” photographer Robert Frank complained during a video interview.

The interview is part of  “Don’t Blink – Robert Frank,” a 2015 feature documentary film retelling of the artist’s career by Laura Israel, a longtime editor of Frank’s films. It’s composed of past and newly shot interview footage, as well as still photographs and moving pictures by Frank.

The 92-year-old Frank, a Swiss-born US immigrant, is best known for his revolutionary collection of 83 photographs “The Americans” that was first published in France in 1958. For that project, Frank took to the road and traveled 10,000 miles for nine months, taking 27,000 pictures of America.

Frank says his interest lies in visually representing the nature of everyday people rather than the aesthetics of landscape.

Shot in an emotional, impulsive and subjective manner, “The Americans” was groundbreaking in a way that demolished the convention of a neat, perfectly composed style of photography.

In spite of his statement of hating to be in front of a camera, Frank seems more relaxed and easy going in the documentary.

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Robert Frank on the streets of New York. Photo: Lisa Rinzler/Assemblage Films LLC

After a showing of the documentary this month at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Israel said she “was very reluctant at first to the idea of doing a film about Robert Frank.”

“It was a lot of footage because we shot for three years, on and off, with Robert. Also he gave us access to all of his work. He’s very prolific. So, as soon as we finished shooting, the world opened up for us”

– Laura Israel, director

The idea for the project came from a talk Israel had with Tue Steen Müller, a Danish film critic with extensive knowledge of documentaries, at a mentoring program as part of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.

Flabbergasted to learn of Israel’s collaborative work with Frank, Müller kept insisting, “That’s your next film!”

Israel remained hesitant, but brought it up with Frank anyway: “He had the same reaction that I did.” However, “I could tell he was thinking and he said ‘Come back tomorrow. We’ll talk about it.’ And I went back the next day and he said, ‘Let’s start next week.’”

Although Israel had worked with Frank more than 20 years, it was still an ordeal to weave everything into a single motion picture.

“It was a lot of footage because we shot for three years, on and off, with Robert. Also he gave us access to all of his work. He’s very prolific. So, as soon as we finished shooting, the world opened up for us,” Israel noted.

“We set up an editing room, and it was a Robert Frank room. We had all of his books, all of his writings, all of his films, and we just surrounded ourselves with Robert Frank for a year and a half. And it was wonderful.”

Frank seemed to be satisfied with the completed work, asking for no changes whatsoever: “He said, ‘I really liked the music, and you made the photographs come to life.’”

One of the most iconic scenes in the film is of Frank is drilling holes in his own work, the statement seemed to be when the work is sold it’s of more benefit for collectors, not the artists.

As Israel observes, “When he was drilling the holes, I think he was trying to make a statement about the money that’s involved.”

His rage becomes more comprehensible, considering his situation as a photographer and experimental filmmaker living in New York.

“He just did whatever he could to try and keep going,” Israel said, “He did do commercial work. He did separate what he did for money to live on and what he did for himself. And I think he was very good at balancing that.”

“Be curious. Stand up. Keep your eyes open. Don’t blink” is Frank’s memorable quote and one that resonates with Israel as well: “One of my favorite things he says is, ‘I like to walk near the edge. I like people who walk near the edge.’ And I know exactly what he meant.”

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