It was fifty years ago that the greatest book of photography ever published made its appearance. To celebrate this occasion on May 15th, the same day that the first edition of Les Americans was published in France in 1958, Steidl and DAP planned an evening with Robert Frank at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade movie theater in New York City.
The scheduled festivities were to include a screening of Frank’s first film Pull My Daisy, followed by guest speakers including Gerhard Steidl and Sarah Greenough and a screening of short excerpts from a documentary by Philippe Séclier called American Journey which retraces Frank’s footsteps from his various road trips where he exposed the 28,000 frames that would later become his masterwork. The main scheduled event was a conversation between Robert Frank and the Pulitzer Prize winning writer/journalist Charlie LeDuff. The evening was to close with the composer David Amram who scored the music for Pull My Daisy.
The night started pleasantly enough with a wine and cheese VIP party that gathered the likes of museum curators (Jeff Rosenheim, Sarah Greenough), well-known photographers (Joel Sternfeld, Paul Graham, Tod Papageorge, Leo Rubinfein) and gallery owners (Peter MacGill, Howard Greenberg, Deborah Bell, Steven Kasher) as well as around 100 others who owe a debt of gratitude to Frank’s accomplishments in shaping the medium well before they were even born.
Once the would-be audience was called into the auditorium and the main event started -- so did the fireworks. Now I have to preface this with a note that the last time that Robert Frank spoke in public was the now infamous event at the NY Public Library in which he and the writer Howard Norman struggled through a difficult to watch 45 minutes of “conversation” (Frank can be evasive but Norman was completely incompetent as the interviewer) and that evening ended with a book signing that turned quickly into chaos and near fist fights as book dealers and collectors clamored for Frank’s autograph.
This time around it was the provacateur Charlie LeDuff at the helm and judging from his Vanity Fair article on Robert a few weeks earlier, we were in for a bumpy ride. Upon taking the stage, LeDuff cracked open a beer, tossed a tamboreen to Frank and started slapping away on one of Amram’s conga drums. When that embarrassing display fell flat he disrespectfully chucked the drum behind his chair and started in on his deep line of questioning. First question: “Bob, photography is not rocket science right?” Response: “No, photography is something visual.” Second question: “Bob, how’s your asshole?”
Needless to say that the audience quickly turned on LeDuff’s antics and phony hipster approach and rewarded Frank with a huge round of applause when he replied, “You don’t have to imitate Kerouac, he’s gone.” The “conversation” got slightly better but in the end every question from LeDuff came across as disrespectful to the point of the audience shouting for another interviewer to take over. Within the 45 minutes there were a few interesting revelations such as Frank’s favorite picture (the black couple in San Francisco who are looking back at the photographer) and that the most uplifting photo in the book is of the three Puerto Rican transvestites he happened across on the lower east side, “they were very happy to be photographed. I think it is strangely the happiest photo in the book.”
After what is now being referred to as “the train-wreck,” David Amram took the stage and thanks to his positive energy and humorous spontaneous rap celebrating Frank and his accomplishments, he cleansed the air of the negativity leftover from LeDuff‘s attempts to draw attention to himself. Accompanied by The Robert Frank World Tribute Vegetarian Orchestra, Amram finished off the program with an extended version of Pull My Daisy and left all with a closer idea of the freedom of the era past and the vast creativity that was mined.
Jeffrey Ladd is a New York based photographer whose work has been exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, Oklahoma City Musuem of Art, International Center of Photography, Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute, Museum of the City of New York and the Howard Greenberg Gallery among others. He splits his time between photographing and writing about photography. In 2007, he created 5B4 - Photography and Books, a website dedicated to discussing and reviewing photography and art-related publications.