Over the weekend we went to Robert Frank exhibition "Paris" curated by Ute Eskildsen at the MFC in Cinisello Balsamo, Milan. Photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank selected the 80 photographs with the curator Ute Eskildsen. Is the first time that a significant body of photographs from Robert Frank period in Paris have been brought together. Some of the work was printed in the sixties by the artist and the rest was made on purpose for this exhibition. The photographs were taken in 1951 during the artist second return to Europe after he had settled in New York City in 1947 . His work clearly focuses on human activity using city’s streets as his stage, a post-war Paris seen by an experienced Robert Frank from the "new world" with a nostalgic almost sentimental view of European city. A book catalogue published by Steidl is also available.
Robert Frank ©
Robert Frank has always been avoiding the public and interview of him are very rare. Ute Eskildsen, the curator interviewed him on January 30, 2008 in New York and this is the conversation:
Ute Eskildsen: Robert, we’re sitting here overlooking the “New World” and looking a photos from the “Old World”. I’d like to know how you put together your image of America as a young man. Did you read books and watch films?
Robert Frank: I can remember it quite clearly. I was out for a walk with my father when I saw some stills in a shop window. They were of a strong-looking hobo. I’ve never forgotten that picture of him.
Was it a film poster?
Yes, and I can remember that it was a window of a shop for special effects. You never forget that sort of thing. At the time Munchhausen was playing in the cinema, that was around 1945. I thought that it must be a fantastic country, and then you heard the music…
Did you meet anybody who had been to America?
Only once, a businessman, Mr. Callaher from Chicago. He came over during the war to talk about a radio that he had bought in America. He really impressed me because he was a big man and he spoke English with my father. And he had dinner with us and that was really special because we never had guests. After dinner he lay down and went to sleep immediately. And I thought that only my father did that sort of thing. That was the businessman Mr. Callaher from Chicago. That was my first link with America, apart from films.
Did you read books on America?
No, but I read some English detective stories, but translated into German. I can remember them quite well.
You then emigrated in 1947, with all the paperwork. Or was it at first just a change of scenery?
No, no. it was one or the other. You had to register, there was a waiting period, but you knew that you could come back. All of them, my cousins or other relatives, always came back, none of them stayed. At the time, emigration meant that you could work here.
Unlike today, right?
There was a waiting period, then you got your papers and could begin to work immediately. You had a successful start.
You got a job right away and found people to help you. How did that happen?
It was luck, finding the right people. I looked at some magazines and under the credit line was the name Paul Himmels and I thought Himmel, that’s a good word. He helped me a lot. He was a German who had already made it here. He didn’t have a job for me, but he gave me some addresses and so on. The Swiss graphic artist Herbert Matter was also here already. Yes, but I only met him later. At the end of 1948 you took a trip to South America.
Did that have anything to do with the fact that “Harper’s Bazaar”, who you were photographing for, closed its studio?
When I left the studio was still open and when I came back it was closed. But we could have continued to work. It’s just that it wasn’t as easy.
That means that your decision to go to Peru was a decision to follow up your own ideas?
After you came back, from 1949 to 1952 – that is for four years – you commuted between America and Europe?
I often went back, to Paris. I had memories of Europe and knew that there was a life there that was more pleasant.
Does that mean that you were constantly wanting to make sure? Yesterday evening I reread a letter that you wrote to your parents in which you wrote, for instance “It’s not that, money is so important here.” And in 1953 you wrote “This is the last time I’ll come back to New York and try to get to the top with my own work.” I was very aware that things don’t last if you’re not at the top. That was very clear. But I also knew that here you had the possibility of doing your own work.
Did your first months in the USA show you that there were greater opportunities for a photographer there than in Europe?
Yes, absolutely, clearly.
And why was it so clear?
In Paris I tried to get newspapers or illustrated magazines interested in my own work, but there was nothing doing. It was the same in England. In the end, the “Observer” bought one or two photos, but I knew that the chances of working as an independent photographer in Europe were really limited. But you didn’t find any magazines here either that bought your work as an independent photographer. “Harper’s Bazaar”. But that was contract work. In the end it’s all the same. It was easier to earn money in American than in Europe. In Paris it was hopeless.
My question is about your free-lance, independent work as a photographer.
I think I had the feeling that here people weren’t afraid to try something out. In Europe I had seen that it didn’t work that way: “We’ll see”. There they want to see diplomas and that sort of thing. In America there was another way of thinking: “We’ll give it a try”. Like when I got that job at “Harper’s Bazaar”. The Art Director gave me a shoe and said; “Photograph this green shoe and then we’ll see how it goes;” And that was a job. It was a big moment, when you think about it. And things didn’t happen so quickly in Europe. On top of that, there wasn’t anything like a Guggenheim grant that allowed you to work on your own ideas for a year or more.
When I look at your photos of Paris, I have the feeling that you found a special view of the “Old World” with the experience of this “New World” – this modern New York – so that you feel the atmosphere in this romantic old town especially clearly when you came back.
Yes, I think you’ve read that in the photos correctly. But I did it intuitively. I didn’t know that it would be the last time and that it would all go by.
Had you become particularly sensitive to the things you had left behind.
Maybe. Yes. I had already been in New York for two years. And in two years you become harder and you know that the beautiful and old and romantic, you don’t find it here, it doesn’t exist here. And then there’s the ambition to overcome everything and get rid of the old. That’s the voyage through America.
When you were planning to leave Switzerland, did you think about London or Paris? Or was America always your goal?
No, first it was Paris. I had a cousin there, I had connections, and I spoke French. Going to London would have meant learning English. In Paris I worked for myself. Good, I tried to get a job, but I didn’t work. At the same time you were in Paris, a lot of artists were living there – writers, painters and photographers. Christer Strömholm and Ed van der Elsken worked in Paris and found their themes there. That was the idea of Paris. To work in Paris. And I tried it twice. A first time and then a second time when I had the idea of swapping studios with a Chinese friend: I took his studio in Paris and worked there. But it was difficult to earn money in Paris.
Does that mean that Paris was more of a closed society?
Yes, quite the opposite of America. An irony of history: You tried to establish yourself in Paris, then went to America and there received a grant for a major project.
And then, it was a French publisher which first brought out “The Americans”.
Yes, there’s no logic to it. You have to profit from the situation. I was very happy… You have to be lucky, to make the connection at the right time and then use it.
When you came back to New York, after having photographed in Paris for weeks, did New York seem to you to be the city of the future, of progress?
Yes, but not inside. The people here are always in movement, they move to Los Angeles, walk across the river to New Jersey, there’s always movement. In Paris, the people live in their apartments and die there too. The people I met here had left the army and didn’t know what they were going to do.
You arrived here at a time when many emigrants were moving here, having had to leave Europe.
Yes, and you had to have somebody who could pick you up from the boat. The authorities required that you had somebody you could live with so that you didn’t need any government assistance. And these agents, they were Germans who had emigrated here and lived in Queens. And an agent immediately took me to one side and said he would help me. We went to a café and sat down at a table. No tablecloth, a black table. The waiter came and put the cutlery down on it. That really impressed me, this very different mentality.
You mean, this dispensing with conventions?
And the speed – not taking a long time to choose, but ordering immediately. I learned that right away.
Did that still impress you later? Or did you, at some point, find something missing in this culture of efficiency?
It was an adventure. I was young. I didn’t think that I would suffer when they took something away from me. The idea was only freedom. You didn’t have to worry about who was sitting next to you or whether you were wearing a tie or not. That was freedom, something I noticed immediately. In Switzerland, you never saw a black or people who looked different. In Paris things were different, but here in New York they were radically so. You could see that the blacks were treated differently from the whites; it was immediately noticeable and tangible, but everybody was in the same subway. And everybody spoke the same language. And even if you only spoke English badly, it didn’t matter.
When I look at your New York photos from the end of the 60s, I get a feeling similar to that when I look at your Paris photos.
But New York can’t be old, in the USA rejuvenation takes place ceaselessly. In Europe they save everything, everything is protected and preserved. That’s why people stay in their apartments and die there too. Here people aren’t sentimental about an old house. Although you just said that Bleecker Street has been given landmark status. Its developing slowly. It’s because of tourism. They want to see something old and there’s not a lot of that left.
You said that for you the photos of Paris have a certain sentimental quality. Is that only now, looking back, that they seem sentimental today?
Could well be.
The conversation took place on 30 January, 2008 in New York and was sent to us by MFC