Robert Frank’s thoughtful, unhurried photographs exude surprising human heat, says Waldemar Januszczak
Because of the sheer potency of The Americans, Frank seems to have had considerable career difficulty coming up with a second act for himself. From out here in consumer land, it looks as if he never again produced anything with the clout or resonance of the book that made him. But an unusually wonderful and totally involving display at Tate Modern makes almightily clear that this view is bunkum. Frank has been continuously busy before and after The Americans. What’s more, the show proves that The Amer- icans wasn’t what we thought it was all along.
Frank’s pictures in The Amer- icans were accompanied by a text by Jack Kerouac — who else? — and so audiences have naturally assumed that these two restless spirits were on the road at the same time for the same kinds of reasons. But we see here that they weren’t. Kerouac was a proper beatnik, an existential alchemist of the highway who turned motel dirt into pay dirt by making something heroic-sounding out of his grubby little blunderings about Nowheresville, USA. With Kerouac, that terrible modern confusion set in between losing and winning, where the first state gets mistaken for the second.
Frank wasn’t like that. Frank was something altogether larger, more significant, weightier, more mature. Born in Switzerland in 1924, and only emigrating to the United States in 1947, he was a European Jew for whom travel and the dynamics of the émigré were the problematic legacy of his rootlessness and not the glamorous symptoms of his wanderlust. Frank should not have got in Kerouac to write stuff for The Americans; he should have got in the prophet Isaiah.
The Tate show commences with bits and pieces of photographic fragment, spanning the whole of his career, collaged into a chronological mess that I found heartbreakingly sad. Frank is 80 now. A caption informs us that the beginning of this show is also intended to act as the end. I was particularly moved by a row of three empty rooms recorded in glum black and white at different stages of his life. One is the room left behind by a dead friend. Another is what’s left of a dead love affair.
The third is a room in his dead parents’ house in Zurich, photographed on his final visit there. Memory. Family. Empty Room. The show ahead strays often from this triangular map, but always returns to it.
Having left Switzerland for America, Frank was soon leaving America for everywhere else: Peru, Paris, London. He liked to work in sequence, creating a kind of photographic flick book of the places he fetched up in and somehow endowing his work with a sense of restless narrative. There was always a movie in there dying to get out. It’s an impression heightened by the smart decision in this display to include lots of contact sheets.
Although he produced plenty of killer images in the career ahead, seminal shots of particular people and places — The Americans consists of nothing else — this show seems interestingly uninterested in those split seconds of perfect smash-and-grab that most photojournalists fantasise about. Instead, it tries to empathise with its subjects at an altogether slower pace. Jackie Kennedy at the Democratic convention in 1956 surveys events around her with the amused boredom of a young wife at an old folks’ reunion. In London, in 1951, a little girl skips past an undertaker’s hearse in the fog, and you know that the whole of her life is being plangently prefigured. There’s no hurry here, just lots and lots of rather mournful consideration. The point about the Jackie Kennedy photograph is that she looks so sweet and small-time. Nobody notices her yet.
But they will.
Various sections of this show are glue-ishly involving. And so judgmental. In 1953, Frank ended up in Wales, drawn here, apparently, by a reading of Richard Llewellyn’s indefatigably glum mining novel with the excellently inappropriate title: How Green Is My Valley. The results constitute possibly the saddest stretch of a memorably sad selection. Identifying a 53-year-old miner called Ben James as his focus, Frank follows this hunched, black shadow down the pits, through the streets, back home, into the bath. As grim a life as you’ll ever witness is preserved in coal dust in a melancholy flick book. How Green Is My Valley, indeed.
It was this great gift of empathy that made The Americans so compelling. Whether he was at a Democratic convention in Chicago or at a poor black wedding in Carolina, Frank could sense the tension of modern American life. He spent two years on the road, 1955 and 1956, amassing material for the book, and took 23,000 photographs in all. Eighty-three made it into the final selection. At first, I was miffed that this display doesn’t bother to showcase The Americans in any obvious way, preferring to mix in images made famous by the book with the rest of the show; or replace them with adjacent stuff from the same contact sheet. But keeping The Americans out of Frank’s retrospective ends up doing these proceedings a favour. When you take the whale out of the water, the whole pond gets easier to see.
In the 1960s, after the huge success of The Americans, Frank gave up photography and turned instead to making movies. We quickly find out why, as an exhibition that had been so memorably about others becomes just as clearly about Frank and his family. Obviously, the need arose in him to deal more directly with his own life, rather than to frame photogenic snippets from the lives of others. I suppose the celebrity of The Americans scared him. And led him to fear for his safety as an artist. He certainly becomes extra-radical very abruptly. I sat through a couple of his outrageously brave and wonky movies about his children, put together with such grainy, hand-held insouciance, and their home-made-ness struck me as utterly deliberate and confrontational.
The end of this show is as fascinating as the beginning, but for entirely different reasons. Living like a slob, in a notably cold-looking house in Canada, childless after the tragic early deaths of his son and daughter, Frank seems to have succeeded in transporting the parentless Jewish emptiness of his Zurich origins to the other end of his story on the other side of the world. I loved this show. Even in the frozen emptiness of Canada, there was so much human heat being pumped out.