June 29, 2009

Robert Frank: Say Goodbye

Robert Frank is sick of goodbyes and is perhaps more entitled than most, with the whole weight of America on his shoulders and the weight of his own history – that burden of vision, the sheer restless energy of the man refusing to be contained, at first by the expectations of his respectable upbringing and later by the conventions of the medium he would so fundamentally make his own, changing it irrevocably in the process, bending its forms to his own secretive will, using the camera to conjure up shadows in the brightly lit world of America’s post-war social conformity and later, rejecting what had at the time seemed like his most profound achievement, perhaps from an instinctive reluctance to accept any easy definition of his art and of himself.

So he abandoned it and in retrospect it’s perhaps easier to see the development of Frank’s films in his earlier work, the books seeming to unroll like a series of stills, fracturing cinematic time. But it is his return to photography, where his use of the medium was utterly transformed (and indeed, transformative) that now seems the more radical departure, rejecting every tradition, walking the high-wire between confession and sentimentality, he goes to the heart of photography’s conflicted nature, its broken grammar of seeing, rendering the very surface of his images, their skin, permeable to language, and to autobiography. Those expecting the dark lyricism and near musical control of structure found in The Americans were no doubt surprised by the aggressive, almost violent tone of this work, to say nothing of its fierce inwardness – Frank had, in the meantime, become a studio artist. There is perhaps no other image that embodies this late blooming of Frank’s own particularly wayward genius (and arguably on other word seems more apt) than  Sick of Goodby’s from 1978.

The tremulous space within the frame just barely manages to hold the contradictions that have come to define all of his late works in photography – the blurred and the angular, the public admiration and the private grief, the word and the image, all come jarringly together – all that is known and unknown about Frank as an artist and as a man boil under the clotted surface of this photograph. Actually, there are two photographs within the frame, so maybe Frank is telling a story after all – a story that is formed in the dialogue between these two frames (and the frames within them, looking out and looking in), that bloody smear of words overlaying them both, unified in fracture, carrying the weight of the image, if not its meaning. There is so much here we could never hope to describe it all – the distant horizon, tilted down, a world come off its axis. The repeated motif of the telephone poles, seen indistinctly, is a communication that cannot be realised, never made to come into focus – these are all the things we didn’t say, the words that choke us, that make us sick.

Then that little dancing figure in Frank’s own claw-like grasp, his actions, his very existence, what moves him, tossed on the sea of fate, his animation at the whim of sources outside his control, dancing on the edge of an unknown horizon. His predicament is ours and Frank’s, mocking our own helplessness, acting as both the hand of fate and its subject (in the form of his surrogate self). The mirror reflects nothing except the blank indifference of the sky; it arches blindly over Frank’s play-acting and his despair, offering neither consolation nor the promise of escape – his games seem futile in comparison. But, of course, he knows that and it’s why they matter, his awareness, how he challenges the silence. Spaces over-lap, what’s inside and what’s out. This is his view, one illuminates the other, retreating to the particular confines of a room and of a window, to try and understand what he has seen and where he has travelled. The view out must inevitably be the view in – to look in is to confront the world and here Frank confronts the eternity beyond that tilted horizon, just out of view, but oppressive none the less, in that it colours everything, the forces that shape our lives, outside of comprehension and which are lived as something that feels perilously close to chaos.

His use of the medium is nearly brutal, willfully deforming the material in such a way as to expose its weaknesses, its laboured surfaces and false confidences, making what had seemed a refined, oh-so-seductive whisper in his other work appear now as a free-form, manic rant, forever asking the same questions and facing the same void in return: no answer. But that’s to be expected. The lines are broken, all the maps rendered meaningless and he finds himself out on the edge of everything, tired of loss, but unbowed, angry even. His distrust of language is just as deep, rejecting its easy consolations, its way of working all the angles. Here language is confrontation, it is rejection even, making language reject itself (that missing “e” for example); having to say it makes him sick – maybe he can’t, even if he wanted to, whatever it is; goodbye. Yet in bringing the words and the images together, forcing their mutual awkwardness to interact, they become the catalyst for some otherwise intangible truth, crossing the horizon, dancing in the grip of fate, when the mirror can’t even show him what he looks like – would he even recognise himself?

All the things that should be self-evident are no longer so, but Frank marshals those same impossibilities, those absences, to make something wholly complete in its understanding of what absence can mean. This is not a comforting art, some wounds run so deep they never heal. Frank is living with infirmity – whereas death is never lived through, it is only accommodated. So here we find ourselves, trying to face the broken horizon, the empty sky, our words insubstantial as dust and the most faithful seeming images just shadows that linger a bit more convincingly than the rest. You can say goodbye of course, but it’s still hard to mean it…