Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank

Gerald Fox

25 Sep 2013
In advance of the screening of Gerald Fox's 2005 documentary Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frankon Tuesday 1 October.

This September we're very pleased to be screening a selection of highlights from the 2013 Montreal International Festival of Films on Art (FIFA), including a rare chance to see Gerald Fox's 2005 documentary Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank, in which the legendary American photographer and filmmaker looks back on his life and his photographic travels. In advance of the screening on Tuesday 1 October, at which the director will be present for a Q&A session, Gerald recalls the ups and downs of making the film with the notoriously reticent photographer.

The omens were not good as I leafed through a number of books on the legendary Swiss-American photographer, Robert Frank in the Tate bookshop before my meeting with Vicente Todoli, Director of Tate Modern and the curator of the upcoming Tate retrospective of Frank’s work. Almost every one mentioned the fact that Robert Frank does not give interviews and is adamantly opposed to explaining his work. One introduction even asked, “How does one approach an artist who has repeatedly avoided everyone and everything?” Not terribly reassuring! He appeared to be a bit of a hermit living his life solitarily in remote Nova Scotia. But Todoli was convinced that he could persuade Robert Frank to collaborate on a first ever documentary for The South Bank Show about his life’s work. And what a life it has been…

Frank is the photographer who created The Americans, a look at the dispossessed soul of the nation in the mid-fifties, still considered to be the most influential single book of photography of the last fifty years. He is the director of Pull my Daisy (1959), the jazzy, avant-garde film narrated by Jack Kerouac that epitomised the Beatnik spirit of the era and defined the new American independent cinema movement emerging at the time. He also made the now legendary Cocksucker Blues, a controversial, cult movie about the Rolling Stones’ infamous tour of America in 1972 that was never granted a release by the Stones due to its explicit images of shooting up backstage and naked frolicking with groupies on an airplane. Not to mention his twenty-five other films and a lifetime of photographic inspiration that is unrivalled by any other living photographer.

After several quirky phone calls in which a frail but humorously self-deprecating Robert Frank informed me that his health was in dire shape indeed, that he was no intellectual by any stretch of the imagination and that he spent his days simply waking up, lighting a fire and staring out the window of his Nova Scotia shack… but that I could give it a go if I really wanted to, I finally stepped straight off the plane and hurried off to his New York studio. It was here to which he returned from time to time with his partner, the artist June Leaf… to a photogenic, ramshackle old bohemian building on Bleeker Street, off the fabled Bowery downtown. Filled with quirky old postcards, memorabilia, and hordes of dusty photographs, spilling from half open drawers and strewn across unmade beds, old wooden desks and glowing light boxes it all represented a lifetime of image making and collecting. Unshaven, scruffy, sleepy, wearing dirty baggy trousers, creased blue shirt and a green baseball cap Frank hobbled downstairs to meet us, epitomising the ageing American artist who cares nothing for the conventions of normal society.

He seemed friendly enough, if a little circumspect, and agreed to make a trip to Coney Island, a place he photographed in 1958, provided we had “a car with air conditioning as my legs are no good. Okay (a word he used frequently whatever the mood)”. He was even willing to be filmed on a New York bus from which he had produced a rich body of work years previously but was convinced that we would be thrown off immediately, as “the city is so paranoid these days”. Finally, he took me (and my researcher Josie) off to meet his wife June in their other oddly empty, nondescript apartment near Union square with a wonderful view of the city that apparently Robert liked staring at for hours at a time. His wife June, wonderfully lined and expressive, bubbled with energy and enthusiasm as she prepared some special mushrooms with truffle oil for us to savour. In her company he visibly relaxed as she teased him about his appalling refusal to ingratiate himself with his neighbours in Nova Scotia, planting large bushes to block them out from his view but ruining her sea view in the process!

Filming began well. Robert spoke movingly about growing up in Switzerland as a Jew under the constant threat of Nazi invasion, his decision to “get out” and leave a tired, broken Europe and head off to New York and “become an American.” He got a job with Harpers Bazaar as a photographer shooting pens and shoes for the back pages, but soon realised that fashion was not for him and so began a succession of journeys travelling around the South America and Europe on his own or with his first wife Mary and newborn son Pablo. Taking the photographs that would later make him so famous – sad looking Peruvian Indians, vibrant Parisian flower sellers, snooty City bankers in London that studiously ignored him, “nowadays they would just tell you to fuck off!” and heroic Welsh miners with whom he went down in the mines - all set the stage for his most groundbreaking work of all, achieved by travelling around America in a car armed with little more than a Guggenheim grant, a little Leica camera, and “some brain and some feeling for people.”

The hundreds of photographs which he took on this journey, an extended road trip which saw him arrested simply for looking suspicious in the south led to a growing sympathy for black people and the way they were treated, preferring to “observe how elegant they can be compared to the fat white people.”  These photographs, characterised by their truthfulness were eventually published as a book provocatively called The Americans. Jack Kerouac who had recently become a friend wrote the introduction, claiming that Robert had sucked “a sad poem right out of America onto film.” Established photography critics disagreed, howling that it represented a “wart covered picture of America” but, although surprised by the reaction, it didn’t make him hate America “it just made me understand how people can be.”

When he had had enough about talking about his past and showing us old photographs, Robert suddenly turned to the camera and smiling, said he wanted to do something else: “let’s go and see June in the studio and talk about love”… so, of course, that’s where we went next. June works in a bright, cluttered, machine-filled studio in the same building and when we arrived she was busy working on a new sculpture specially for us: “I thought it would not be boring to see me actually having an idea” she murmured, as she blow- torched two pieces of metal into the shape of a human falling off a metaphorical cliff.

“Is that man me or is it someone else?”

Robert asked from a chair in the corner. “It’s not a man, it’s a pregnant woman,” she remonstrated, before placing the woman in a little metal theatre specially designed for showing it off to its best effect.

“We never fight” she explained, “but sometimes we each scream, very loud” before proceeding to do exactly that, letting out a piercing scream full blast at the camera to show us exactly what she meant, and then persuading a reluctant Robert to do the same. He tried to wheedle out of it by claiming this was just a piece of theatre and he had no reason to scream. But when he saw the look of disappointment etched across her face he suddenly hollered at the top of his voice to which June could only mumble, “isn’t he great?” They were certainly proving to be a lively couple on camera.

When I looked out the window the following day, a Sunday, it was pouring with rain and dark as a foggy London morning, not the right weather at all for a visit to the beach at Coney Island. The New York summer had evaporated overnight. This was not a disaster until I hooked up with the crew only to discover that we had been given the wrong black and white stock, the slow speed instead of the high, which meant that it would be impossible to film at all under the existing conditions. There wasn’t enough light. And it was the weekend. So we could not find any black and white stock anywhere in the city. Impossible. I was distraught. The whole day’s shoot was in danger of going down the pan. A filmmaker himself, Robert sympathised and even tried to help by calling a few old buddies who might have some spare rolls of film locked away in a cupboard. But as the rain persisted my confidence began to ebb and Robert became increasingly impatient to know what was happening and when we were going to begin. I didn’t know what to do. His friend’s one roll of film was three years out of date and, in my cameraman’s view, too dangerous to use and nobody else was coming up with any good ideas.

Things were not going well. Robert retired to his study and ominously shut the door behind him. June soon appeared saying that Robert had asked her to come down and look after him and that this was not a terribly good sign. She went off to console him and then reappeared approaching me, hesitantly, as I sat there with my head in my hands, disconsolate.

“Robert says you mustn’t be scared of him.”

“I’m not scared of him,” I replied.

“Well then you should be. Everybody’s frightened of him,” she jumped in quick as a flash.

“I’m just in a bit of a quandary, that’s all.”

Finally we decided to do some filming in his kitchen for want of anything better. A gruff looking Robert reappeared. Now, suddenly for the first time I really was frightened of him. Had she said something to him? I hesitantly asked him a rather bland question about the meaning of one of his photographic works. As he was replying the phone rang. “This might be my saving grace. Hullo…” he answered. We stopped filming. This did not bode well. After another conversation with yet another friend promising a dusty, long forgotten roll of black and white film dating from the sixties, I tried again. This time the film ran out in our camera just as he was beginning to articulate his answer. Robert shook his head in disgust and walked back to his room. He wasn’t enjoying this at all. When we finally got him back in place and turned over I simply asked,

“Robert could you just tell us again …”

He exploded. “I’m not an actor. I can’t go through this shit. There’s no spontaneity in this. It’s completely against my nature what’s happening here.” Robert works through intuition and, admittedly, the last few questions had a bit of a forced air about them.

His explosion over, he calmed down immeasurably and, in fact, became more loquacious than ever. Perhaps he preferred me being a little scared of him. June smiled and told me things would be much better now that he had got it all off his chest. Suddenly the sun came out. The black and white film was loaded and we headed into the New York streets where Robert expounded on his filmmaking career. Jack Kerouac was a “genius with words” who successfully narrated Pull My Daisy virtually off the cuff, “and you don’t find that very often”. Travelling with Allen Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky, together with Orlovsky’s catatonic brother Julius around the States in the sixties made him realise the Beat spirit put some optimism into the air: “Nowadays there is no more dreaming really”.

The story of what happened to Cocksucker Blues was boring to him even if people were hugely interested. Mick paid him for it and told him “that Keith came out better than me, so be it,” before promptly banning it from ever being seen. Frank then railed against the middle classes who were taking over his neighbourhood: “the yuppies they have a right to live too. I just don’t want to live amongst them, I don’t even want to live next to them, but I have no choice!”  Finally, sitting on a broken television set in front of the traffic on the edge of the Bowery, he opened up about his son Pablo who committed suicide after a long battle against mental illness in 1994. Robert admitted that his troubled son depended on “love from his parents that he didn’t get enough of.” However, the many highly personal films and photographs Robert made over the years documenting his son’s decline attest to the enormous love and affection he showed his son under very trying circumstances.  Eventually though, he had had enough. “Lets go to Coney Island, okay,” he murmured, wiping away a tear from the corner of his eye.

The moment they arrived, he and June immediately procured not two but three of Nathan’s famous hotdogs, complaining that although delicious they were not as good as they used to be. On the beach, Robert wondered around looking at the people lying around, who he thought were no different from those he had photographed in 1958. Spotting a man with a large camera with a telephoto lens around his neck, he exclaimed, “That’s me fifty years ago, only I didn’t have such a big camera.” A Rabbinical scholar from New Jersey asked him why we were filming him.

“I did some photographs here fifty years ago,” he replied.

“So in fifty years they gonna do a documentary about me?” he asked.

“Depends what you do,” Robert smiled.

The day’s filming ended with Robert suddenly producing a photograph he had taken fifty years before of the Lido and charging around asking everybody under the sun whether they knew whether the building still existed. A policeman on horseback had no idea, “sorry”; an old man with spectacles as thick as World War One airplane goggles hadn’t a clue what he was talking about, the owner of a local freak show angrily accused us of trying to expose him on camera and one man suggested that Robert should talk to his friend who had taken over three hundred photographs of Coney Island for his new book, which didn’t impress him in the slightest. Eventually he found what he was looking for when a forty-year-old black guy remembered buying cotton candy in front of the very building as a boy and pointed it out. Robert really liked him. For him, this made the whole trip, indeed the whole filming nightmare worthwhile. Thank God for that.

He got his revenge on me when we wandered into the freak show to have a look while the crew were packing up. When my researcher and I were hoisted onto the stage to stand on a bed of nails placed on top of the belly of a two hundred and eighty pound man, who was already lying on another bed of nails beneath him, Robert and June giggled like schoolchildren. They thoroughly enjoyed my embarrassment. Suddenly, it was me on show not him, and I realised what he had felt like all along…like a man in a freak show. No wonder he got so annoyed!

When we arrived in Nova Scotia a couple of weeks later, I called him from the car during the three hours journey to his home in Mabou. “I’m surprised to hear from you. To be honest I didn’t think you were coming.” Secretly I think he was hoping we were never going to show. The filming in New York had exhausted him and he had told Todoli, “Never again. I did it once but that’s it!” Still, he had put a huge amount of energy into it and knew that Nova Scotia was a vital part of his story.

When we showed up the next morning, the air was still, the view spectacular and the midges were out in full force. They bit my legs remorselessly all day, much to Frank’s amusement, as he giggled at my silly shorts, flip-flops and silver toenail varnish knowing the total agony that was ahead of me. The poison that these devils inserted into me lasted for days. The itching was intolerable. He, of course, was covered head to toe fully protected against the scourge. Visibly more relaxed in Mabou than New York (aided by I’m not sure what!), he spoke about the change in his work that was brought about by living in this remote environment and his powerful desire not to repeat himself (which had led to him giving up photography for nearly twenty years): “I wanted to say something about what it feels like to be alone here.”

He also spoke movingly, about his daughter Andrea who had lived with him in Mabou, working in an old age home there before begin tragically killed aged only twenty in a plane crash in Guatemala. Frank has made some wonderfully poignant works, both moving and still, which celebrate her memory. It was also around this time that he began to use writing in his photographs, scratched in on the negative or scribbled inside the actual image itself. The famous photograph Sick of Goodby’s comments in the most beautiful way on the pain of losing those closest to you. And Robert Frank knows what this is like more than most, having lost both his children in utterly tragic ways.

June, meanwhile, hated the fact that people mythologized that the idea of him living here all alone, like a hermit. He jokingly admitted that he did sometimes tell people “yes, I live in that shack all alone. Sometimes I do go fishing to make ends meet!” But she made it quite clear that it was her not him who had actually spent many months alone making ends meet through cruel winters, while he was away filming the Rolling Stones and other such things. As in New York it was easy to see why they loved each other so much. Their independent work as artists and mutual admiration for each other together with a healthy appetite to tease each other and a shared interest in building a home together all on their own had doubtless sustained them through many a snowstorm and a fair share of personal tragedy.

We finally filmed him scything weeds in one of the fields, dandelions floating away into the air. It was a magical sunny day. June took us swimming on the beach below, the water warmed by the constant Gulf Stream. I think the Franks had finally come round to enjoying our company (and that of our crew who had been put to work chopping down trees) and we left them with a vibrant and poignant documentary in the can. After 30 years of refusing to allow anybody to film him Frank had, against all expectations, delivered in the most refreshing and revealing manner possible, one of total honesty. Just like his photographs.

Reproduced courtesy of Gerald Fox

Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank with a Q&A with director Gerald Fox screens on Tuesday 1 October 7pm as part of our series of Highlights from the Montreal International Festival of Films on Art (FIFA) (27 September - 3 October 2013). Festival Sponsored by Edwin Fox Foundation

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