Photographers on Photographers: Always Looking Outside: Poetics and Visuality in the Work of Robert Frank by Dawn Roe

I’m always looking outside, trying to look inside. Trying to say something that is true. But maybe nothing is really true. Except what’s out there. And what’s out there is always changing. - Robert Frank1
Now, that’s how the phrase is burned into my brain. Robert Frank utters this poignant passage in his film Moving Pictures, and sometimes the phrase is repeated and worded slightly differently – but in the spirit of Frank’s oeuvre, I’ll quote from my own memory, as that is the version that has stayed with me over the years, and continues to impress itself upon me. The evocation of "looking" in this scenario simultaneously suggests both sight and site, or space. To look is not necessarily to see. Perhaps it would be useful here to consider the process of perception as beginning prior to looking in the optical sense, and of originating from within. This seems to be part of Frank’s struggle within this metaphoric conundrum. The act of looking with and/or through a camera as an extension of your mind and body insists that you cast your gaze outside, and conjures notions of glancing or peering into an exterior world through an interior space – to what is out there, and beyond our control.

© Robert Frank, Mabou, 1977

This type of matter-of-fact philosophical questioning as grounded in everyday experience is what initially drew me to the work of Robert Frank, along with his perfect comingling of form and sentiment. Evidenced in all of his work is an authentic and sincere engagement with the world and the self, whether within a single photographic image, serial or collage works, film or videos. Equally present is a careful and critical attention to materiality and process – and a consideration of how these aspects are part and parcel of the poetic structure of his work, greatly contributing to the conveyance of meaning. I’ve been especially influenced by Frank’s persistent interrogation of the relationship between the still photograph and the sequential and/or moving image – mining his own archives and repurposing past images to form new narratives, combining multiple frames or reiterating imagery within and between cinematic and photographic form.

© Robert Frank, mabou, 1977

As a viewer, I have never responded to these tropes as an arbitrary formal device, but rather as an insistent visual strategy – one that challenges any sort of "decisive moment" and instead focuses on the inherent flux of ourselves in the world, and the inability of the camera lens to truly fix an instant in the form of a reproduction that adequately represents space and time as experienced. In an essay discussing the indexical nature of the photograph, Tom Gunning suggests, "the important relation that the photograph bears to a past moment involves more than an indexical relation, worthy of more in depth discussion" one that asks us to explore "further the actual visual experience occasioned by the photograph."2 Although at times coupled with elements of collage and drawing, it seems relevant that Frank uses the camera as his primary mode of expression, decidedly responding to the world through a lens, seeming to be very mindful of the photographic-ness of the world, and our relation to it.

© Robert Frank, Sick of Goodby's, Mabou, 1978

Frank’s image "Sick of Goodby's" serves as an apt example of the convergence of his varied methodologies. While seemingly dripping with sentiment, the image is equally cold and calculated in its rigid formal structure, and somehow simultaneously humorous, with the toy skeleton precariously held by a disembodied hand. Pressing together two instances into a single moment through use of the doubled frame is immediately counteracted by the inclusion of the mirror, which suggests a space that repeats itself infinitely, not unlike the world that continuously unfolds in front of us, the present instantly slipping into the past with each blink of an eye or click of the shutter. What is wonderful about this image is that another iteration of this moment exists in one of Frank’s films, wherein the wind-up skeleton vibrates and moves within the cinematic frame. The title of Frank’s monograph Hold Still/Keep Going is conjured here with precision – again through poetics as well as visual structure and mode of presentation.

What exactly is a photograph in-and-of-itself and how does that mode of seeing translate to film/video and our relationship to our selves and the world – regardless of subject matter?

Hollis Frampton speaks of this in, "For a Metahistory of Film: Commonplace Notes and Hypotheses" with his naming of an "infinite cinema."
A polymorphous camera has always turned, and will turn forever, its lens focused upon all the appearances of the world. Before the invention of still photography, the frames of the infinite cinema were blank, black leader; then a few images began to appear upon the endless ribbon of the film. Since the birth of the photographic cinema, all the frames are filled with images.

There is nothing in the structural logic of the cinema filmstrip that precludes sequestering any single image. A still photograph is simply an isolated frame taken out of the infinite cinema.3 
This image of a frame, any frame, being plucked from the flow lets us think of the instant or moment as a tangible object of sorts – one we can hold within our grasp. The still image stands as a stable relic of the past whereas the moving image simultaneously presses together past and present, continually replacing one for the other. Here then, perhaps, is the essence of time itself, as much as we can possibly understand it via a photographic (reproductive) thinking, if we can call it such.

© Robert Frank, London, 1951

And it’s interesting to look back at some of Frank’s earlier works through this mode of thinking as well. In doing a quick bit of research in an effort to find a particular photograph of Frank’s from London in the 1950’s, I found a version in the form of a diptych, which I had never seen before. Apparently this version was printed in the 1970’s and as you can ascertain from the print, it appears to be two, successive frames from a single contact sheet, illustrating that they were exposed in close proximity (in space and in time) to one another. And what a beautiful extended moment this becomes, so distinct from the image that so many of us know, powerful of course on its own, yet transformed through this simple act of extension.

And this suggests a duration – a consideration of time beyond (or within) the fraction of a second. Henri Bergson of course picks this apart in Matter and Memory when he suggests that, "The essence of time is that it goes by; time already gone by is the past, and we call the present the instant in which it goes by. …But the real, concrete, live present – that of which I speak when I speak of my present perception – that present necessarily occupies a duration. Where then is this duration placed? Is it on the hither or on the further side of the mathematical point, which I determine ideally when I think of the present instant? Quite evidently, it is both on this side and on that; and what I call ‘my present’ has one foot in my past and another in my future."4 Once again, back to metaphor and metaphysics in relation to these ideas as expressed in this particular diptych. The foreboding, matter-of-fact presence of the hearse in the left frame coupled with the suggestion of its open door with the young girl seemingly fleeing or escaping down the road in the subsequent image/instant suggests time in terms of both temporality and mortality. While the metaphoric aspects attached to the image come through in the single frame version equally well, the metaphysical notions of being are perhaps emphasized more strongly when the visual experience is prolonged in this formal manner, highlighting the act of perception as responding to the world as one, continual glimpse.

© Robert Frank, Studio, Mabou, 2002

And that’s ultimately what brings me back to Frank’s work again and again. "Always looking outside, trying to look inside." Seems simple, on the surface. But, as Frank said in 1951, ''When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice."5 Precisely.

Dawn Roe is a photographer and educator based between North Carolina and Florida where she serves as an assistant professor at Rollins College.

1See various reviews and articles on Frank, such as the following: http://cielvariablearchives.org/en/reviews-of-current-events-cv59/robert-frank-by-judith-parker.html, http://www.squarecylinder.com/2009/07/robert-frank-sfmoma/, http://spot.hcponline.org/pages/5_films_by_robert_frank_903.asp

2Tom Gunning, "What’s the Point of the Index? or Faking Photographs," in Karen Beckman and Jean Ma,ed. Still Moving: Between Cinema and Photography (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), 38 and 39.

3Hollis Frampton, "For a Metahistory of Film: Commonplace Notes and Hypotheses," in Bruce Jenkins, ed. On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 134.

4Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory (New York: Dover Publications, 1912 and 2004), 176 and 177.

5See various reviews and articles on Frank, such as the following: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/blog/2009/01/robert-frank-an-outsider-looking-in.html, http://www.brooklynrail.org/2005/03/poetry/brenda-coultas