Robert Frank. Part two - Editorial

“Make sure you bring a pencil,” he told me over the phone. “We’ll see each other on Monday at 10 a.m., okay?” Sunday, August 25. I had just arrived in New York City and had called him, ready for more of the unexpected: the flight to New York already two weeks earlier than planned, the last places available. He was finding it too hot (over 30 degrees) and too loud in the city, and he was eager to get back to June, his wife, in Mabou in Canada. So it hadn’t been a dream after all: or had it? Had Robert Frank really said yes in the end, yes to doing another “du” issue with us after 40 years? We had had more or less regular phone calls over the past year, and I had come to know his voice and his tone. Grumpy, somehow: or not? No, actually quite friendly, even lovable. Perhaps.

At any rate there had been no trace of his infamous moodiness. “You’re the editor of ‘du’,” he asked. “How long now?” He had been a subscriber for over 50 years, he told me, and he still liked to browse through the Jakob Tuggener ‘workers’ issue. “Good photos, a nice issue,” he said. “That was still during Kübler’s time.” It was late summer 2001. We were thinking of an issue about New York, I said, his New York: about his friends, pictures from the bus like the ones he did in the fifties, Bleecker Street, his immediate neighborhood, the Bowery in transition or the new art scene going on in the old slaughterhouses in Chelsea. “You know,” he said, “I’m old now, I hardly take photographs at all anymore, actually not at all, now and then a Polaroid.” He didn’t think photography had much life left in it anyway; its time would probably be up any day now. He found it banal to go around these days taking pictures of people on the streets of New York: “It’s almost embarrassing, everyone does it, after all. And everyone has the pictures in their heads already anyway, all more or less the same.” Who was I to gainsay the master of casual precision?

Ridiculous. Why didn’t I just hang up and forget the whole thing? Because that would have been ridiculous too. “Maybe we can work on an idea together, set old pictures in a new light.” Next year it will be four decades since the legendary 1962 “du” entitled the photographer robert frank, and we hadn’t published anything by him in the years since, not his serial works and not the Polaroids of the seventies and eighties. It was our duty, I protested, to prove to our readers just how false it was only ever to present him by way of his Americans, only ever to harp on his connection to the mythical Beatniks. Why didn’t we attempt a contrary presentation, and interrogate a life of visibility all over again, and from the opposite perspective? I wondered if he was still on the line: he was. I asked if I could call him back in a few weeks, and give him time to think. He agreed: “I don’t want to do anything I’ve already done. That doesn’t interest me.” Then came September 11, and for a while everything seemed lost: I couldn’t imagine Robert Frank worrying about the plans of a Zurich magazine at a time like this. And I was right, he had retreated with June to the peace of Mabou. But at some point things started to sound hopeful again. “You make beautiful issues. I’m astonished at the things you think of. 1962 was good work, you know. And I can tell you want something from me.”
Come November 9, 2002, Robert Frank will be 78. In 1941, the year in which this magazine was founded, Frank was 17 and just beginning a practicum with the Zurich photographer Hermann Segesser. Since then he has spent 60 restless years on the road, trying to get a sense of the world and its inhabitants, searching tirelessly for quiet, human moments, “a little bit of truth.” Frank’s second master, Michael Wolgensinger, acquainted the young artist with the formal and aesthetic demands of a “new photography” trying to hold its own against classical modernism, and attempting to distinguish itself by means of its objectivity and faithfulness to truth. Hans Finsler, a photography instructor at Zurich’s School of Commercial Arts, spread this creed to generations of Swiss disciples. Arnold Kübler, meanwhile, played a role as well, first as editor-in-chief of the “Zürcher Illustrierte” and then as founder of this magazine. Kübler demanded of his photographers more than simply craftsmanship and narrative precision: he wanted a journalistic directness that went beyond the merely documentary. The young Frank came to know the most prominent figures in the contemporary journalistic photography scene, Staub, Senn, Schuh, Tuggener and Bischof, to mention only a few. But Frank was neither acolyte nor epigone, he never professed his attachment to any particular school: “I’ve been an outsider for so long already, it seems to have been decided before I could walk. I knew it intuitively and I have never forgotten it.” As Robert Enright recently said of him, he has the gift of turning everything he takes on into an instant classic.

One of the articles in the 1962 “du” devoted to Robert Frank was Hans Finsler’s study of the photographer Edward Steichen, the creator of the legendary “Family of Man” show and the long-time head of the photography department at the moma in New York. But why an article about Steichen in a Frank issue? Well, Steichen’s last show at the moma, mounted when he himself was 83 years old, had been dedicated to a certain young photographer named Robert Frank, not yet 30.

Barely grown, Frank had left Switzerland for the first time in 1947, and made the jump to New York for good three years later. There he encountered the leading exponents of the contemporary movement in photography, the fashion photographer Alexei Brodovitch of “Harper’s Bazaar,” then Steichen and Walker Evans, among others. Steichen, together with his older contemporary Alfred Stieglitz, had been struggling to have photography accorded the status of an art. The two were influential from early on in accentuating style and authorship, as well as warning artists away from all forms of narrow totalitarianism, whether political, commercial or aesthetic. The true artist, according to Steichen and Stieglitz, was an outsider, and Frank seems to have grasped this with his flight out of a very narrow homeland indeed. Switzerland had become stifling, its postwar politics, its petty bourgeois self-satisfaction, the formal severity of the New Objectivity. His father had hoped that he would follow in his footsteps professionally, that Switzerland would become a more tolerable home to its Jewish citizens. “All I wanted was to get away,” Frank wrote to me, in his mix of German and English. “The beginning – full of joy – energy for intuition. I learned to treat intuition as a trusted friendŠ on the road and inside me and in the dark-room.”

It was spring of 2002 and we were telephoning gain. “Well,” he said at some point, “we’re back in New York. Come and see us. We’ll see what we can do.” So a few weeks later, on a brilliant late-May day, I found myself at 10 a.m. on the dot outside the green house at the eastern end of Bleecker Street. I was early. Now I rang the bell and no one appeared. Were those Chinese characters inside the entryway behind one of the two doors?

Then I heard a voice from within, and suddenly he was in front of me, Robert Frank, barefoot, in loose trousers and a green shirt half tucked into his waistband. He grinned mischievously as he remarked on my punctuality and inquired after my journey. His mood seemed to darken slightly when I asked how he was. He didn’t lead us back into the house but rather around the corner. “I want to show you something.” There was a gigantic hole behind the Franks’ building, where the neighboring house had once stood. Now one of his back rooms was threatening to cave in because the wreckers had destroyed a portion of the shared fundament. Old people were particularly vulnerable to the construction mafia, he explained later, once we were seated at his kitchen table. He would far rather be in Mabou. All the same, he said with that same mischievous grin, the room’s pending collapse meant that he would have to clear out its contents, and we were sure to find something suitable for the planned issue among all the debris stockpiled there. And so we sat there for two or three hours, looking through the 1962 “du,” silent for long stretches of time. He was complimentary about the magazine’s layout, which had influenced so many other periodicals. We hardly looked at any photos during that first visit, limiting ourselves to a first tentative foray into the volcanic chaos of the room and its layers of postcards, Polaroids and jottings. We chatted about this and that, Bush and 9/11, and visited his wife June in her workshop downstairs. We went out to eat together, I met Peter MacGill, the gallery owner, and I saw a few potential images. And then I was on my way back to Zurich, unsure what would become of the project but satisfied all the same. “It will all come out perfect,” MacGill had reassured me: “Don’t forget that he’s Swiss!”

Exactly three months later and I was back, pencils in hand. Ten o’clock on the dot. It was now or never: the issue was in the works and we had no substitute. Again no answer at first, then his appearance from within and the same remarks about my punctuality. In the meantime I had decided to accept a job in television, and was worried that this might jeopardize our project. “Good for you,” he had written, allaying my anxieties: “you’ve struck out in a new direction.” And then began four days of work I can scarcely do justice to: in his kitchen, his workshop, his living room, amid cartons of material and drifts of photographs. Spontaneous editing, you might say. Salad lunch at the Colonial, then back to work sketching out pages, searching for a dramaturgy, choosing among images. What emerged were 54 pages of layout, every photograph meticulously positioned and annotated, plus some of Frank’s own favorite texts. I had been witness to a tremendous spectacle of self-examination, by turns melancholy and sentimental, fantastical and optimistic. We had assembled classics, new works in Polaroid, traces of his intellectual process, collages, film sequences, diary entries. This issue constitutes the next phase in the development of an uncompromising contemporary and his quest to dissect the conditions of his own visibility. Through the artist’s untiring eyes, we are reminded once again of the timeless humanity of the moment.

Sentences from his gracious letters continue to resonate: “Today – my life with June, from whom I have learned so much: courage curiosity and her unwavering belief in herself – continuing every day.” For my part, the work with Frank has been one of the high points of my life, and I thank him for this gift, which has restored to me the reality of my own existence. Consider this my last prank, my final student exercise: robert frank. part two. As of January 2003, Christian Seiler will be taking over the rudder here at this journal of culture, one of the last of its kind. Congratulations!

Published 28 November 2002
Original in German
Translated by Rafael Newman

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