Steidl The Masters, Göttingen, 2007. 64 pp., Boxed set of 3 DVDs with booklet of 16 tritone illustrations, 5x8¼". $140.00
50th Anniversary Edition of Robert Frank: The Americans, published by Steidl, 2008
For a long time it was said that anyone meeting Robert Frank would be well advised to steer clear of the subject of The Americans. It had a way of making Robert irritable.¹ But not anymore, not since Gerhard Steidl became involved in "The Robert Frank Project," featuring a celebratory fiftieth anniversary edition of The Americans, designed by Frank, with tritone printing from scans of the vintage images. Frank checked the proofs as they dried. Two negatives and the cropping of some of the images were reduced or eliminated. It is the finest edition possible. The advertising brochure from Steidl touting the project is itself an important publication, describing the full extent of The Project and including many photographs of Frank's "residency" in Göttingen, as well as photos of the different editions of The Americans, a short publishing history of the book with a set of illustrations of the cropped prints used to reproduce the first two editions of The Americans, and "Robert Frank in Göttingen" by Joel Sternfeld, a moving account of the moments around the completion of "the final edition," best described as the ultimate edition.
Surrounding the publication of this cultural monument are a treasure trove of other publications, ten completed bookworks (reprints of books, one of a kind projects, and new bookworks) and the first three volumes of what is slated to be a ten volume DVD set of the complete films. Additionally, Steidl is promising eight more publications in 2009-2010! A collaboration with Sarah Greenough at the National Gallery of Art will produce even another book, the catalog for "Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans," in January of next year and tour to New York and San Francisco.² Six of the latest releases are on the table in front of me. What a feast!
Zero Mostel Reads a Book by Robert Frank, published by Steidl, 2008
The reprint of Zero Mostel Reads a Book, originally published by the New York Times "for the fun of it" in 1963, is a particular delight. It is dedicated to The American Bookseller, an endangered species today. The text tells us "Zero Mostel is an actor, a comedian. And Comedians are the most serious people." A big man, like Jackie Gleason, capable of near balletic performances and a range of expressions that would excite even Charles Darwin, Zero Mostel is largely forgotten today. But the sheer joy of his performances leaps from the pages and grips us like Poe, Hitchcock, or Mad Magazine. This book is a movie, and it is also a book about books and their audience of one, the solitary, and reflective individual. It is a performance/improvisation of photographer and subject, it is simultaneously a portrait of Zero and a bibliophile, and it must have been a blast.
PERU Photographs by Robert Frank, resembles the kind of album that one can have printed these days by sending jpegs to an online publisher. It has the intimate feel of a small edition artist's book, which it is. Actually, it may be the "reprint" of a handmade bookwork/album done by Frank in 1949. (It comes with no information.) It is a slight, elegant volume of 38 photographs designed by Robert and Gerhard Steidl. It is published by Steidl in conjunction with the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., which will show the Peru photographs in the "roots" section of their four part homage to The Americans on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary. The only text other than title and colophon is: "Photographs taken 1948." So, the photographs speak for themselves.
Some of the images are familiar from appearing in various publications in the 1950's, and more recently in the autobiographical Lines of my Hands (1972), and in Story Lines (2004), the astonishing catalogue of a retrospective exhibition organized by the Tate Modern and beautifully printed by Steidl. (The Open Book, published by Hasselblad in 2004, includes a section on Robert working on Story Lines at Steidl, the beginning of this great relationship between artist and artist bookmaker.)
Peru by Robert Frank, published by Steidl, 2008
The front and back cover of Peru repeat the first and last images in the text and create a kind of cycle where the end and the beginning are continuous and time (modernity, European civilization) is virtually absent from people who live on the very margins of existence, and amongst whom we are one. To say that the photographs are up close and personal is to restate the obvious. They are, after all, Robert Frank's photographs, taken as if from the inside. Beautiful.
Paris: A Short Return by Robert Frank, published by Steidl, 2008
Robert Frank Paris is a substantial book, edited by Robert and Ute Eskildsen, with about 70 photographs spread across a wide variety of page design strategies, including multiple imagery (consecutive negatives). The wraparound cover image is of a movie poster on the wall of a public urinal in Paris. Below the poster we see the feet of the men using the facilities (pissing). The combination of pop art image and actual feet, is like the idea of Paris, City of Light, etc., contrasted with the real Paris Frank found, cold, dark, wet, hunkered down, enduring.
Everywhere there are obscuring mists, sideshow curiosities, horror and death, and the saving grace of love, if just a flower (in the wintertime). Frank's Paris is clearly not springtime. But the theme of flowers and that completely human need for contact with an other, or the beautiful natural world outside the city, for love, or some Eden outside of history and time, is there. I don't think I'm giving anything away if I tell you how the book ends, with a long shot of an old couple dressed in black walking off away from the photographer, followed by two pages of snow storms and some very chilly people in the market on a miserable day. Which is followed by a mercifully brief recent interview with Frank best left to another type of publication, journalistic or educational, and, perhaps, not included in this book of photographs.
Robert Frank: The Complete Films vol.1, published by Steidl, 2008
Frames from Conversations In Vermont.
When not looking through all the books, watch a film or two. I had forgotten how great a filmmaker he is. None of these films have been available for viewing here in Boulder for many years, despite the existence of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, located at the local Buddhist university. Seeing the films again is like breathing fresh air. The packaging is fun and functional, a box with three slim movie film cans is rather soothing for older filmmakers and makes the DVDs more user friendly.
The first three volumes of Robert Frank: The Complete Film Works released so far span 1959-1975, Pull My Daisy to Keep Busy, nine films in all. These are films that some of the generation of photography students who came of age in the 1970's might have seen. It is the complete set that I was able to see at a variety of ad hoc screenings over the years. Only the Rolling Stone's film, Cocksucker Blues, the REAL sex, and drugs, and rock and roll (and some violence) Rolling Stones style, is lacking from the set, for legal reasons. But it includes: S-8 Stones Footage from Exile on Main St. 8 minutes-1971, eight minutes of a home movie featuring Mick Jagger and the Stones—and a crazy black street person trying to wipe windshields of passing motorists like a punch drunk matador. This was footage shot in conjunction with production of the cover illustrations for the Stones' Exile on Main St. record, one of the great album covers of all time. The arrival on the world stage of Robert Frank, filmmaker, is long overdue. Gerhard Steidl has succeeded beyond wildest expectations in establishing the legacy of one of the great and largely unknown bodies of work by one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. So enjoy discovering Robert Frank—for the first time.
¹ Robert now lets his lawyer get irritable for him as well. One rather remarkable exception is a visual "discussion" of the iconic status of the images in The Americans, bookwork by Jno (John) Cook of Chicago called The Robert Frank Coloring Book. It has been allowed to stand as is for over two decades. You can see it at: http://jnocook.net/frank/rfcolor1.htm. Jno became somewhat obsessed with The Americans, as photography students sometimes do, and went on to author one of the better takes—a cross cultural look--in the book which the above link may lead you to. (Otherwise, try Jnocook.net and click on Aesthetic Investigations.) He also got his Dutch mother to translate the French text (mostly from English originally) back into English and published this as a bookwork titled Less American. We had hoped to re-publish this text in this issue of photo-eye Magazine, assuming most folks have never seen it, much less read it, but neither Jno nor I can put hands on a copy at the moment. There are however, some translations in his "review" of The Americans. The texts paint a rather harsh take on American reality mostly by famous Americans, although Simone de Beauvoir is also included. Alan Bosquet edited the texts for the Delpire edition.
² Sarah Greenough also produced Robert Frank — Black and White Things (1994), a "reprint" of a handmade 1952 book in an edition of three. I assume this "catalog" celebrates Frank's gift of his copy to the National Gallery. If so, it is a very original publication. Hopefully Steidl will do the re-print.
Alex Sweetman teaches at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he has helped assemble one of
the largest and most comprehensive collections of 19th and 20th century photography books in the
world. In 1985 he mounted the first comprehensive exhibition of photography books, "Photographic
Book to Photobookwork," nearly 400 books and 100 photographs at the California Museum of