Born in 1924, Robert Frank will be 84 years old on November 9, 2008. Kerouac will have been dead for 39 years from "the drink." While Kerouac never learned how to live with notoriety, Frank spent a lifetime avoiding notoriety's corrosive effect.
Frank joined Kerouac's marvelous use of language and Allen Ginsberg's penchant to play the lead in front of a camera in the 1959 film Pull My Daisy. Kerouac wrote the voice over and Ginsberg acted with fellow poet Gregory Corso, art dealer Richard Bellamy and painters Alice Neel and Larry Rivers, with a wonderful score by David Amram.
Pull My Daisy was co-directed with artist Alfred Leslie. Many of Frank's films were done in collaboration with others – Rudy Wurlitzer, Danny Seymour and Gary Hill come to mind – yet in the end they are all Robert Frank films. While collaboration is important to Frank as a filmmaker he would never use collaboration to dilute the message, only strengthen the brew. (Wurlitzer's films, Two Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Candy Mountain, Walker and others he scripted also carry a unifying thread.)
"There were moments working with him," Wurlitzer wrote in an e-mail, "that were totally and spontaneously pure and rare, as long as one sublimated oneself to his relentless will, and managed to sneak in a few contributions along the way. Not easy, but I'm grateful for the time we spent together, traveling and working.
"Robert always held to his own integrity," Wurlitzer continued. "He took no prisoners and dealt with the shadow world, loss and despair, friend and foe, with romantic and sometimes ruthless passion. One way or the other, he survived. Not a small feat given the casualty list in this end-times culture we're experiencing."
Robert Frank has lived the majority of these "end-times" on the Lower East Side. He escaped to the then desolate area – first the Bowery and then just a few buildings off the Bowery – after the dissolution of his first marriage.
Frank fit in to living on the Bowery, where restaurant supply houses stood next to hotels for the homeless and the alcoholic.
Walking along the street one day a Bowery resident approached Frank, who was eating a sandwich.
"Where are they giving away sandwiches today?" the man asked Frank.
"I'll give you half," Frank replied realizing the similarity of their dress.
Years later, as the neighborhood began to gentrify, Frank began to be recognized.
"Hey," the garbage man said to Frank. "I saw you on TV last night. You're famous."
"So what?" Frank replied.
"Yeah, but you got a full half hour," the worker responded as the truck pulled away from the curb.
Robert Frank's films – About Me: A Musical and Billy of the Bowery – captured something of Bowery life. Many of his other films used the Lower East Side – One Hour, Candy Mountain – for primary locations. One of my favorites, OK End Here, was shot at the then new NYU housing on Bleecker Street off Mercer.
In still photography, Frank's images often capture the awkward moment in life, at a fork in the road, before a decision is made – 4 AM Make Love to Me – and at other times capture his own deep romanticism as in Sick of Goodbyes or Look Out for Hope.
"You cannot compromise," Frank told me while filming Candy Mountain. "You compromise once and they (the producers) will come back and ask for more."
Another time during production a location scout brought a selection of location photos for Frank to choose from for a scene scripted to take place in a lawyer's office. The locations were uniformly clean and sterile. There was a Wall Street office, a corporate boardroom office, a lawyer's office lined with books, etc.
"I have no objection to using a cliché," Frank said, flipping through the pictures, "but you have to give me a reason for it."
Every artist is exploitive of his own life and Frank's life is a document of both hope and sadness evidenced in the death of his daughter at an early age and his son's decades of living in a dark swirl of schizophrenia which impacted every facet of Frank's family and professional life. There is probably no other artist who unabashedly looked inward to capture the intimacy of his life under such heart-wrenching circumstances.
Frank is a romantic in reverse and a consumer of non-consuming. He has the decadence of someone who can spend, but doesn't. He is a harmless man equipped with a flame-thrower, surrounded by parched earth. Frank's landscape is littered with singed court documents. Law suits. Judgments against adversaries and the many who have tried to rip him off. He once drilled holes through a foot-tall stack of his own prints, bound with wire, to settle one contractual agreement. The bundle of prints sat as a footstool in his basement for years. Later, he incorporated the bundle of damaged prints into a wall hanging.
Frank does not ponder to reconsider. He does not entertain the same question twice, particularly when it is rephrased. Artistic pathways do not cross his path; they end. The dark side of Frank is a blistering belligerence.
Frank is unafraid of conflict or upheaval. It is in the conflict, somehow, where he finds solace. At least one can see the problems – and photograph them if need be.
One day walking up 2nd Avenue in the early ‘90s with Robert Frank and Herbert Huncke we stopped at the corner of 4th Street. An old Chevy was waiting by the curb for the light to change. The springs were gone and the shocks were shot – the muffler couldn't be heard over the din of music coming from the dashboard radio. It was a warm day and the car windows were rolled down. Inside, six Puerto Rican girls sat, three in the front seat and three in the back. They were the living, bouncing spirit of freedom teenagers have their first time out in a car without their parents.
We were standing on the sidewalk looking down into the car. Huncke was on one side, Frank in the middle and I on the other. The music had a steady beat and the car, an urgency of youth. Something all of us have felt once and then it is gone.
As the light turned green, the teenager seated in the middle of the front seat leaned over her companion's lap to the passenger side window and looked directly at Frank.
"Make a picture," she said. "Make it international."
With that comment the light turned green and the car roared through the intersection.
"She saw something," Frank said.
She didn't know who he was but she saw his eyes – and how his eyes looked – as if through a lens – ready to capture – the beautiful, the innocent and the broken in all of us.
Jerome Poynton is a producer and writer living in New York City. "Robert Frank, Gunslinger with Camera", will appear in the forthcoming book, Jewish Artists on New York's Lower East Side, scheduled to be published by Seven Story Press.