I came to Robert Frank not through photography but via my interest in the Beat Generation, reading about the short film, Pull My Daisy that Frank directed in 1959, and starring Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky. At the time I was doing my thesis for my major in history and my subject was Kerouac, Ginsberg, and their contrasting relationships to America. I was young and in love with the Beats, but it would be many years before I would be able to watch Pull My Daisy. And by the time I finally did I’d moved on from my youthful exuberance for Kerouac and Ginsberg to photography where I got to know Robert Frank better as how most people remember him.
When I was putting together my first photo book, Sunlanders, Frank’s seminal book The Americans was something of a work-in-progress blueprint for me. Firstly, I felt a certain kinship in that we were both operating as emigres adapting to new lands, he coming from Europe to North America, myself from Los Angeles to Japan. And like Frank, I wanted to go deeper into culture, beyond accepted cultural fact into something much dizzier and stranger. Nation-states have a certain image, assembled politically and culturally, especially in their articulated international facades advertised via mainstream news, diplomacy, and entertainment outlets. Frank sort of torpedoed American 1950s righteousness by photographing the characters behind America’s showtime curtain. In Frank’s photographs of segregation, poverty, and sadness, the book reminds us this was America, warts and all. I remember seeing it for the first time, thinking, “This is a statement!”
In the first few minutes of Pull My Daisy, you see Frank’s son, Pablo, getting ready for school, and later near the end of the film, again there’s Pablo being carried up to bed. I hadn’t known until recently that Frank had lost both Pablo and Andrea, his daughter, to premature deaths. As a father, I cannot begin to understand how painful that must have been for Frank. But to witness the love showered upon Robert Frank at his passing, we’re reminded that his influence is ubiquitous and heartfelt and that we street photographers are all, in one way or another, children of Frank’s.
In these days of appreciating a departed man’s life and work I also recall a Japanese female friend, a very good photographer, who loved him madly. I don’t remember how she pulled it off but she did a studio visit to Frank’s while he was based in Seattle about ten years ago. She spoke no English or German and Frank, of course, spoke no Japanese. This friend told me she and Frank spent all day at the studio, speaking here and there (incomprehensibly) but mostly they just stared into each other’s eyes. She swears there was an understanding between them. And I believe it.
Words: Sean Lotman
Image: Robert Frank – Pull My Daisy