Flamingo, by Robert Frank

Flamingo cvr

Flamingo was produced to accompany an exhibition celebrating the award to Robert Frank of the Erna and Victor Hasselblad Foundation’s Hasselblad International Photography Prize for 1996.  Given annually since 1980, it is highly prestigious, and Frank joined an illustrious roster of photographers so honoured.  He donated the prize money to the University of Göteborg, to establish a scholarship in his name.

Frank is probably as well known these days as a filmmaker as he is a photographer, not least because of his first film, Pull My Daisy, featuring Alan Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, and narrated by Jack Kerouac, and the controversial Cocksucker Blues, his documentary of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 Exile on Main Street tour.  While covering his career from the 1940s, Flamingo emphasises more recent work, and although a slim volume (even with the introductory matter and a bibliography and filmography it is only 52 pages), it helps to emphasise what a varied range he has had since producing the documentary photography in the 1950s which resulted in The Americans.  A key to understanding his approach is provided in the chronology at the end which shows how peripatetic much of his life has been, and his restless travelling is reflected in the images.

The book begins with ‘Mabou Footage, 1979’, a series of images of an eye peering through a hole, occluded to various degrees by reflected light.  Reminiscent of the seeing eye/seeing I in Dziga Vertov’s 1929 Man with a Movie Camera, like Vertov Frank immediately announces the reflexivity of vision, we observing the observer observing us.  This is further explored in ‘Washington, 1961’.  Photographs of photographers taking group pictures are superimposed on newspaper sheets alongside a couple of a man with a (still) camera, one of these a photograph of the photographer photographing the photographer of the photograph at which we are looking.  It is a hall of mirrors and an ambiguous one: the presence of the newspapers as a background indicates that photographs too are important social documents, but suggests that photographs, like newspapers, are ephemeral and become harder to interpret as time passes.

Emphasis on reflexivity may seem trite these days, but as the bulk of the photographs highlight, an image is not a slavish reproduction of an external reality.  Frank’s aesthetics can be gritty, by virtue of the graininess or by the addition of writing, limited contrast, or the combination of multiple images.  The result is a distancing effect, reminding us, if we needed it, that this is an artefact, not an unmediated window.  In ‘Pablo, Santa Cruz, 1979’ Pablo, his son, holds a book, magazine and newspaper (the last actually seemingly suspended on his stomach showing that he is not, as first appears, standing up) but because of the mirror writing it is easy to see that it is reversed.  Complicating the presentation is the fact that Frank has roughly scratched the words ‘Pablo/March 1979’ above and below Pablo’s portrait so that he cannot be shown the ‘right way’ round, because now there is no ‘right way’.  Something is always out of joint whichever way it is turned, an impossibility of seeing that perhaps hints at Pablo’s schizophrenia.

Mikael van Reis’s all-too-short introduction likens Frank to a poet in the way he intertwines life and art, shifting from moment to memory and creating ‘fragments of living’.  van Reis quotes Wordsworth, referring to Frank as a ‘pensive traveller’.  Even the documentary work is more than simple reportage but is in van Reis’s words ‘social reality as an enigma’.   Frank reminds us though that it can lie as well as reveal – a dark bird, strongly contrasting against a white background, is shown three times, the first time seeming about to plunge into the ground, the second taking flight, and it is only in the last that we realise it is hanging by a string attached to a claw.  By manipulating framing and orientation we can easily be misled, what we thought was alive is really dead.

There is a surrealist element to some of the images, not least the titular flamingo, ‘Mabou, 1991’, a murky print showing the bird imprisoned in a milk bottle (birds do not have a good time in Frank’s universe).  We are used to ships in bottles, and can see how it is done – but a flamingo?  van Reis too is puzzled, but draws attention to the light in the bottom left-hand corner, linking it to a photograph of Frank’s family in their car in The Americans where a headlamp shines through the murk.  Much has occurred in Frank’s life between the two, separated by thirty-five years, however there are constants which are linked by memory.

Possibly Frank’s long-term reputation will rest primarily on his early documentary surveys rather than the emphasis on the image as construct.  The rather butch-looking women sitting at a lunch counter smoking in ‘14th Street, New York City, 1948’ cross time in a way that some of the newer photographs do not.  Three of the women stare directly at the camera, and thus the viewer.  They catch our eye and make the spectator also into a ‘pensive traveller’.  The introspective artworks lack that spark.

With exceptions the overall impact of this tiny selection of Frank’s oeuvre is one of chilliness, even in what should be intimate portraits.  In ‘Henry Frank, Zurich, 1976’, a snapshot shows his father sitting at a table, hands folded and looking away, the lack of engagement palpable (it is a surprise to learn that Frank Senior, who died the year this was taken, was a talented photographer in his own right and that Robert produced a book of his work in 2009, surely an affectionate tribute).  In ‘Tokyo, Hokkaido, April 1994’ two young women are caught off-guard, the closest one with her eyes shut, the other wary.  Frank’s hand reaches out from the bottom of the frame and this reminder of his presence could be bringing the pair closer, by bridging the subject/object gap, or he could be pushing them away, keeping his distance from them.  Is he being empathetic or exploitative?  It may depend on the interpretation of that hand, and there is no easy answer.

My favourite here is one of the early ones, ‘London, 1951’.  It shows a foggy day in the City, office workers walking down a narrow lane mostly away from the camera.  In the foreground a man is approaching, wearing a top hat, headgear outdated even in 1951.  The low light and the anonymity of the pedestrians give an everyday scene an uncanny quality (the version in Flamingo is darker and gloomier than other reproductions of it, the figures less defined, enhancing the mystery).  The result is poetic:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not though death had undone so many.

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, 1922.

Those city workers are probably all dead now, but live on in the half-light of a foggy London day in 1951.

NB These notes are based on the original 1997 edition.  A second edition was published shortly afterwards with apparently a different selection, which is rather annoying.

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