An Interview with Robert Frank – “If An Artist Doesn’t Take Risks, Then It’s Not Worth It.” (2007)

Parade – Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955


“So you go out on a more different road. There is a risk involved in that. And I think if an artist doesn’t take risks, then it’s not worth it.”
– Robert Frank


By Jiang Rong, An Exclusive Interview with Robert Frank, Robert Frank’s Studio, New York, July 22, 2007

RJ: How did you start to have that idea of traveling around the United States and doing this project of The Americans?

RF: I had been in the States for 8 or 9 years already and then I had never seen much other than one day trip to New Jersey and one trip to St. Louis. So I was naturally curious about the country, knowing how big it was, one ocean to the other. It was the curiosity and the energy I had then to just go and get into the car and drive across the country. I did it in two parts, I think the first part was to Detroit, and came back to New York. And then I went with my family to Texas from New York. And from Texas I went on alone to go to San Francisco and to Los Angeles.

RJ: Walker Evans has been regarded by some people as your mentor. And he also helped you apply for Guggenheim grant for doing this project. We all know that back in 1938, he published this seminal book “American Photographs”. So to what extent Walker Evans has influenced you, especially in doing this project “The Americans”?

RF: I think, he was certainly an inspiration. But the trip didn’t have much to do with Walker Evans. It was simply to produce memorable photographs like the ones that I have seen of Walker Evans. So the trip across the country really has nothing to do with Walker Evans. It has to do with my curiosity. But it was the way he photographed people that influenced me, because I did work with Walker Evans. Sometimes I helped him make some images near New York or mills. I still remember certain mills he photographed. I was really impressed by the way he worked and the results of his works. That was the inspiration.


Trolly – New Orleans, 1955


RJ: As you know, Walker Evans explored the possibilities of how ordinary things or vernacular things like a car, a barbershop and a sharecropper’s rural house can provide authentic images. You also said in 1961, “You can photograph anything now.” What did you mean by that?

RF: At that time, I meant in 1960s, there was real freedom and new people came on the scene, including new painters, new writers and new poets. Also, you could make new films. There was more freedom. So I felt the same applied to photography. And I felt it was up to me to be true to whatever I saw. I felt it was important that other people see it.

RJ: Of course, your way of taking photos is different from Walker Evans, mostly he used large-format camera while you used Leica, 35mm camera. And your photographic style is more spontaneous while his photos are more formal. And some of your photos are even out of focus. Technically speaking, some people think your photos are badly framed. But I think in a way you purposely wanted to do that to break away from the formalities and the conventions of the traditional way of taking photos. So what do you think is the most important thing when it comes to taking photos?

RF: You are free and you risk something by taking a photograph. It’s not taking a snapshot of your sister. You risk because this is maybe not the way people think one should photograph. So you go out on a more different road. There is a risk involved in that. And I think if an artist doesn’t take risks, then it’s not worth it.

RJ: In think every generation in this country had someone who would go on a trip across the country. Back in the 1930s, it was Walker Evens. In the 1950s, it was you. And in the 1970s, it was Stephen Shore. And of course, some other photographers also did the same, like Mexican photographer Pedro Meyer and some young American photographers. What do you think of Stephen Shore’s photos? He also went to Texas and Detroit. But his photos are very different from yours and he mostly focused on places or street scenes without people in them. Of course, he used color films to take his photos.

RF: Well, I don’t know that much of his works. Whenever I see it, it’s a very clear work and very clean. And he seems to be very sure of what he photographs and what is published by him.


“I simply think I have better moments than Cartier-Bresson or anybody else.”



RJ: You once said, “There is no decisive moment. You have to create it.” But I also think that in your photos of “The Americans”, I could also see a lot of important moments. I don’t call it “decisive moment”. I would rather call it “off moment”, because they are more like the moments before or after the so-called decisive moment by Cartier-Bresson. I think Cartier-Bresson’s moment is more about the geometrical precision of a moment while yours is more about capturing a stance, or an alienated and empty expression on the faces of the people you take photos of. So how do you define the moments in your photos?

RF: I simply think I have better moments than Cartier-Bresson or anybody else. You put together your photographs in a book. They may be 8 or 10 photos or more. So it makes an impression on you to look at this book full of pictures. You don’t think so much about the moments. You think of what this photographer feels about what he sees. It’s less an aesthetic look of something that is well-composed and well-lit. It doesn’t go about that. I think in a way Walker’s photographs always have that built in. It’s a perfect look of having taken it at the right time, straight on and sharp. For me, I worked much quicker and less reflected on what is a possible perfection of a photograph.


 New York City

RJ: You participated in the curatorial team headed by Edward Steichen of the show “The Family of Man”, but you left the team well before the show opened. You started out doing your own project of “The Americans” in the same year of 1955 when the show was opened in MOMA, New York. And why did you decide to leave that curatorial team that you were involved originally?

RF: Because I didn’t want any sentimentality.

RJ: The book “The Family of Man” has been reprinted many times until today. It has been regarded as one of the most popular photo books in the world so far. Do you think that photographs have to be beautiful in a conventional sense or morally uplifting to have values?

RF: Not at all. They have to make an impression on the on-looker, and if possible, stay in his memory longer than a newspaper photograph or an image coming on TV would have.

RJ: It has been said that your book “The Americans” is like a parody of Edward Steichen’s 1955 catalogue for the exhibition “The Family of Man”. They say there are clear parallels between these two books, including the introduction of your book by Jack Kerouac, which has been said to mock Carl Sandburg’s introduction to “The Family of Man”. Do you agree with this assessment?

RF: I never made that comparison to Sandburg. “The Family of Man” was published in a different time. It came out in 1955, I think. It’s true. I was on a different track. I was interested in a different light shining on the country or in the absence of the light of “the Family of Man”.

RJ: You have often been regarded as belonging to the “Beat Generation”. And your book “The Americans” has been seen as a visual expression or text of the values promoted by the “Beat Generation”. But you said before that you were different from them, because you had family responsibilities. You had kids and you didn’t share their way of life. Did you know any of the “Beat Generation” before doing this project of “The Americans”?


“I mean it’s just an individual’s statement.”



RF: I had a group of friends in New York that I knew. I don’t know to what group they belonged. They were simply poets, painters and photographers. You know, later on, the word “Beat” came up. I don’t know who invented it or how it came about. But to me, it was just a group that had similar interests and enjoyed each other. Maybe in a way, they were against the general rules of that time. And they felt that they could differ and do it differently. And they didn’t have to work on a job necessarily to be a member of society. At that time, it was like you didn’t have to work like other people. There were other possibilities. Dreams were possible.

RJ:You met Jack Kerouac in 1957 and you asked him to write an introduction for your book. You also made a trip with him to go to Florida. When was that trip made?

RF: I don’t remember exactly when, but it was made after I met him. He wanted to take his mother back from Florida to a house he bought in Long Island at that time.

RJ: You also said that you liked Albert Camus’ books and Bob Dylan’s songs and poems. Do you think existentialist philosophy was also expressed in your photos? And in what way Bob Dylan has influenced your works?

RF: I think certainly so in my personal works, especially when I used words in my photographs or scratched words into negatives. There was a try and attempt to make them more direct. And maybe it is an influence of Dylan’s songs and voices that make me feel more sure to do something like that.


 Indianapolis, 1955

RJ: It is also said that because of the way you took this series of works called “The Americans”, you have changed the aesthetics of photography and you have changed the way people look at photos. When it comes to designing your book, it is also very unique that you didn’t put the captions next to the photos when you published “The Americans” in this country back in 1959. You put all the captions at the back of the book. This was also an innovation.

RF: There are two things you have talked about that changed the way people would look at photograph. I didn’t change it. But I think I set out other possibilities of making reportage or talking about a trip. You don’t have to follow a journalistic prescription to do something right. And it all comes down to a young photographer taking a risk to say that I want this book to consist of 83 pictures of my choice. And they are not the editor’s choice. And they are not the choice because I wanted to be in line with Walker Evans or the book they have made of “The Family of Man”. I mean it’s just an individual’s statement.

RJ: Some people think that you are “a Swiss photographer, but an American poet”. In other words, you took your photos from European point of view rather than from a traditional American point of view. But you had also been living in this country for 8 or 9 years, as you said earlier, before doing this project “The Americans”. So do you think that when you took the photos of “The Americans”, you used more European perspective?

RF: If you come from Europe and you come as a young man, and you see America, slowly you would become an American. It’s a good way to travel across the country and to photograph and tell the people this is America and this is what I feel about it and this is what the country has done to me.

RJ: So you do think as a young man who just came to America, you still had some influence of a European perspective. But since you had been living in this country for a while, you also tried to adapt to the American way of looking at things.

RF: I think my European education or ways of seeing have nothing to do with it, because I adopted this country very quickly. My background never came into play. It was the uniqueness of America that came into play, including many cars, many people, terrifying cities, hard-working people and this big country where all speak in one language. It seems to be the uniqueness in the country that I think it’s just the intuition that made me concentrate on that aspect of America. It’s a kind of ordinariness.

RJ: Also, your photos have been regarded to be very narrative, just like movies. And after you have done your project “The Americans”, right away you started to literally reinvent yourself. You started making movies. And in 1959, you made, together with others, this important movie called “Pull My Daisy”, which is still being regarded as one of the classics of independent film. Why did you want to start making movies?

RF: It is a logical step. When you have been taking still images and looking through viewfinder and choose moments to make a picture, then you think that there is more to a picture both before and after. So you do think of a movie right away. And also you can express more, because there can be a voice in a movie.

RJ: In 1970s, while continuing to be interested in making movies and videos, you also returned to still images. In 1972, you published your second photo book called “The Lines of My Hand”. What is the meaning of “The Lines of My Hand”?

RF: You could compare to it when you look at a human face and you could see the lines in a face. Then you sort of could feel what life has done to that person over the years. “The Lines of My Hand” is an easy metaphor.


 Candy Store, New York City, 1955

RJ: Why did you decide to go back to still images in 1970s?

RF: If you have made a real effort to make movies and you may be disappointed in making movie after ten years, and you said, well, it’s time to return to something simpler.

RJ: When you started to do still images again, this time your images were really different from what you used to do in your project “The Americans”. I think you called that project “the last project in photography you would ever do.” As for the later works you have done starting from the 1970s, they are more constructed images, as you said, with words inscribed or scratched on a negative. For example, like “Tired of Goodbyes” and many others.

RF: They have to do with changing formats. I didn’t repeat the use of 35mm camera. I chose to use a bigger camera, a Polaroid camera. I used a 5×7 camera. I wanted to be very careful not to repeat myself and used a camera that would certainly put a break to my 35mm images.

RJ: And you also started to use several images and put them together. It’s more like an art work rather than straight photography. You also used paint to write words on your photos. And the words would drip down. This is a very contemporary way of doing art work. Even nowadays people are still using it. Do you think they could be regarded more as art works rather than photos?

RF: I just wanted to change my way of working. It didn’t matter to me whether it was art work or it is called collage or graphic. I just wanted to change my way of creating images.


“If you want to talk about your life you have gone through, you can do it with writing or with photographs. Maybe you can do it. Some people cannot do it, whether with the one or the other.”



RJ: Your later works have been very personal with intense and painful emotions and feelings. On a more personal and private note, I venture to ask you whether it has something to do with the untimely and tragic death of your daughter.

RF: You don’t have to ask very specific questions. If you want to talk about your life you have gone through, you can do it with writing or with photographs. Maybe you can do it. Some people cannot do it, whether with the one or the other. For me, I could do it with certain photographs and with some writing. If I had been a writer, I would have probably written a story or a book. Photography allows you in a relatively short time to say what you have to say and then go on with your life.

RJ: Going on with your life seems to be a major theme in your later photos, because you have these titles of “Moving Out”, and “Holding Still, Going On”. So is moving forward one of the major goals you want to achieve in your photos?

RF: Well, I think life moves on. So if you stand still, you sort of can afford it by standing still and just continuing on the works you have been doing and making it more perfect and making it bigger, that, for me, is a dangerous situation, because you loose the energy to create something new.

RJ: In 1971, you moved to Nova Scotia and wanted to be left alone. Most of the times, you have refused to be interviewed. You don’t want to be in the limelight. You also said in the past that to be a creative photographer, you have to be able to work alone. So do you think that being alone is so important for an artist?

RF: Well, when I left New York, I put a sign out. “Back in ten minutes”. Yes, it’s good to be alone. It can help sometimes. You know.

RJ: You also said before, you always look outside to be able to look inside. So I understand that for you, you basically try to express yourself and your inner feelings by capturing what is going on in the world. Looking back on more than 60 years of creating art works and taking photos, what would you want to share with younger generation of artists? What do you think is the most important thing an artist should try to do?

RF: (A long pause of more than ten seconds) I think you should all have the courage to go on and to go further. To go further!





(Brought to ASX by Jiang Rong. Text @ Jiang Rong and images are @ Robert Frank)

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