Robert Frank, still taking pictures at 91. Photo by Lisa Rinzler. Courtesy of Grasshopper Film.
July 10, 2016. In this day and age in which people are constantly documenting themselves and putting their pictures, writings and videos out for the world to see, it is interesting to take a look back at the work of photographer Robert Frank. Frank is known for documenting the lives of ordinary Americans through his stills and filmmaking. The new documentary, “Don’t Blink – Robert Frank” opens at Film Forum on Wednesday, July 13.
The last time Film Forum showed a documentary about Frank was in 2009. The film was called “An American Journey,” by French filmmaker Philippe Seclier. The premise for that documentary is that Seclier retraced parts of the cross country car trip that Frank took across America, in the mid-1950s, during which Frank photographed people representing all levels of American society. The trip resulted in Frank’s iconic book of photographs “The Americans” (1959). My criticism of “An American Journey” was that it was missing a very obvious and crucial element – namely, Frank himself.
Now, in “Don’t Blink – Robert Frank,” filmmaker Laura Israel has corrected the error of the earlier documentary by putting the iconic, now 91-year-old photographer, front and center. For those who may know Frank only from “The Americans,” Israel begins with summarizing the cross country journey Frank took in order to capture the images for “The Americans” – nine months, 10,000 miles, 30 states, 767 rolls of film, all resulting in 27,000 images. After this, Israel takes off into other areas of Frank’s work and life as a photographer, filmmaker, husband and father.
Frank is a man still practicing his art. He is always in search of capturing a telling image regardless of whether he is capturing it with a Polaroid camera or a disposable film camera (the film does not say if Frank has discovered the iPhone). Frank’s influences range from the Beat Poets of the 1950s to the look of Movietone newsreels and include the social realism of photographer Walker Evans.
The structure of “Don’t Blink – Robert Frank” is a bit, well, unstructured, which, given its subject, is appropriate. Frank’s creative method includes a lack of structure and the idea of getting lost. Israel has structured her film to reflect Frank’s style. To this end, the story travels back and forth through Frank’s life, as opposed to using a more traditional, linear structure.
Frequently, “Don’t Blink – Robert Frank” sends forth kaleidoscopic floods of images, film clips and time shifts which can be disorienting or, to quote Frank, “Just let it roll and go and do it.” For example, we see a sequence from one of Frank’s films in which he asks people on the street what his film should be about. He captures a variety of interesting faces offering equally interesting answers. Perhaps Frank offers the best advice about being an artist when he says, “It’s better to do something than to do nothing.” Agreed, but director Israel has done much more than that in creatively capturing a personality that is both intriguing and artistic.
Film Forum is located at 209 West Houston Street. For more information visit http://www.filmforum.org.