How many of us silently bless Robert Frank when we see or remember his photographs?

I’m sure that the answer is: huge numbers of photographers – and ‘photo-maniacs’ as Henri Cartier-Bresson called us – all around the world. And why do we feel such gratitude, which goes beyond mere admiration? I think that it is because, when we recognise Robert Frank as a visual poet, he makes poets of us all. Bill Brandt is among the photographers who offer us the same gift. It is hardly surprising to find that Frank admires Brandt enormously. It is thrilling to read Frank’s impressions of the Bill Brandt retrospective curated by John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1969. At that time, thanks to the boldness, flair and enthusiasm of Bill Jay, Frank was writing a regular ‘Letter from New York’ for Creative Camera magazine.

In December 1969, in the last of his five letters to the magazine, Frank wrote about the opening of Brandt’s exhibition. He was deeply moved by the exhibition and especially the nudes. When he bumped into the photographer Gjon Mili, who said he didn’t ‘buy that stuff’ (the nudes), Frank reflected that many photographers remain mediocre because they fear commercial failure. He memorably remarked that ‘There is all the time in the world in Brandt’s photographs… This time the viewer makes the decisive moment’. For Frank, ‘Brandt is one of the few photographers who maintains a standard in his work as time goes on’.
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Photographers, like the rest of us, often reveal their deepest beliefs when speaking of someone else, particularly someone they admire. When Frank spoke of Brandt as being ‘straight-backed’, i.e. having backbone, we recognise Frank himself in the description. He too kept on keeping on – remaining personal and experimental rather than opting for the commercial marketplace as the arbiter of ideas and performance. However, there is perhaps more to it than that. When Frank said that Brandt’s photographs allow the viewer to select ‘the decisive moment’, he referred to the theory so memorably formulated by Cartier-Bresson. Brandt’s aesthetic is the antithesis of HC-B’s, but how does Frank’s relate to the Parisian master? It is true that Frank, a Leica user, could produce a perfect ‘decisive moment’ photograph. The most famous example is his picture of a little girl who rushes, fearfully it seems, past the opened back door of a hearse in a smoggy London street in the early 1950s. A road-sweeper watches her from the opposite side of the street. All the lines in the picture drag the child into the hearse. Frank’s contact sheet shows him working, HC-B style, towards the moment when narrative, symbol and form converse and converge. The child’s gait suggests that she is very deliberately not looking towards the hearse. Beyond her is the London smog that is so subtly rendered in vintage prints of this photograph. The pearly smog recalls Brandt’s characteristic mists, fogs, gloamings and twilights.

Although Frank could produce such perfect essays in the decisive moment, he chose a different way of making photographs. In his most typical photographs the world has not arrived at formal pattern but is raw and unresolved – like his subjects. Even his Hollywood starlets are out of focus, overpowered by the hard lighting of celebrity, while his true heroines – the waitresses and elevator girls – are glimpsed in the obscure lighting and awkward angles of their workaday roles. I’m reminded again and again of Brandt’s profound respect for his subjects – and not just the British miners, whom both of them photographed.

I started thinking about this piece at the same time that I interviewed Martin Parr, for Aperture, about his forthcoming double-volume work on the photobook. The first volume, co-authored by Gerry Badger, will be published by Phaidon in November. The first photobook Martin every bought for himself was The Americans, the second American edition published by Aperture. He bought it in 1972, inspired by a recent lecture given by Bill Jay at the then Manchester Polytechnic. It became not only a holy book for Martin but the beginning of his long and fruitful study of the photobook. We will be able to look up precisely how Les Américains, published by Robert Delpire in Paris in 1958, differs from the first American edition published by Grove Press in 1959, etc.

Incidentally, the first expensive book I bought for the V&A library was Les Américains, which I picked up in Paris around 1980 for I think £50. I was probably inspired to do so by the first Robert Frank exhibition in Britain, which the late Richard Hough curated at Stills, Edinburgh, in 1980. It reappeared in an enlarged form at the ICA, shown in the Nash Rooms upstairs, with an eloquent catalogue by Peter Turner. The V&A began buying Robert Frank photographs at the time of those shows. Our small collection of eight prints, from 1949 to 1988, embraces subjects from Paris, London and the US, and is buttressed by an important collection of books by and about Frank in the National Art Library.

I have only met Robert Frank once. The Berlin photographer Michael Schmidt arranged for us to meet over breakfast when he was staying with Frank in New York – sometime around 1990 I suppose. Michael had thoughtfully told me over the phone, or while we were waiting for Frank to join us, that ‘Robert doesn’t like curators’. Naturally I took this as my cue to try to behave in as un-curatorial a manner as possible, with results I don’t care to dwell upon, although I think I also somehow gabbled out my admiration. After breakfast I walked with Frank into SoHo. I remembering him waving at the building where Stux and other galleries were located – Stux represented Andres Serrano and the Starn Twins at that time – and talking gloomily about commercialism. Then he saw one of those fabulous 18-wheeler trucks parked at the kerb and drew a finger reflectively down its side – as if reminding himself and me of the real America. The one he photographed for all time in The Americans.

Published in Photoworks Issue 3, 2004
Commissioned by Photoworks

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