Robert Frank–Poet with a Camera–Passes

Robert Frank, the master photographer who taught us to see photography and America anew, died on Monday in Inverness, Nova Scotia. He was 94.

Below, I reprise a former post on the this artistic giant:

The other day The New York Times covered the announcement of a treasure trove of images from the work of Robert Frank, one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. The National Gallery of Art has released a comprehensive archive of Frank’s work, including contact sheets and work prints, much of it never before seen by the public. It all comes in advance of Frank’s 90th birthday, in November.

As The Times says in it’s Lens Blog:

The cover image for the U.S. edition of The Americans, Robert Frank’s epochal book, spoke volumes about the state of the nation in the mid-1950s. The tightly-cropped photo shows passengers in the windows of a New Orleans trolley assuming their place in the social order of the Jim Crow South — progressing from a black woman in the rear to white children and adults up front (slide 4).

The contact sheet that contained the image showed that Mr. Frank had photographed the city from multiple perspectives, but he ultimately selected the frame that most dramatically and symbolically captured New Orleans’ racial hierarchy. Learning this photo’s backstory would be impossible without the ability to view Mr. Frank’s contact sheet. Now, such important archival material, typically reserved for scholars and curators, is just a click away.

Born in 1924 in Zurich, Switzerland, Frank took pictures in Europe and South America during his early career, but it wasn’t until he crisscrossed the seductive roads of America that Frank felt he was finally making art with his lens. With his U.S. travels in the mid-1950s, his work reached a new level, and 83 of his road images were arranged into the book The Americans.

It’s no surprised that Jack Kerouac wrote the introduction to the first U.S. edition of The Americans. The 1959 edition raised eyebrows in the media for its brute black and white candor. But The Americans, like Kerouac’s own masterwork, On the Road, opened the door to the loneness of the country’s heart and spirit and, together, they inspired a generation of artists, musicians and thinkers.

It’s interesting how foreign image makers like Frank, Mechelangelo Antonioni (Zabriskie Point, 1970), Louis Malle (Atlantic City, 1980) are able to capture the essence of the land better than most native auteurs. In fact, with the stir made by The Americans, Frank was compared to America’s original outsider observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, whose 1835 book Democracy in America helped to define the young nation’s unique character (Is it what America brings to you or what you bring to her?).

I believe a great artist is a conduit for “place.” His subject somehow finds him, speaks through him. The artist ultimately “sees” through time as the French photographer Eugène Atget once described it. I believe such artists also see through other dimensions, some of which elude us, some of which speak through intersections of light and shadow, artifact and art, quietude and cacophony, moment and mystery.

It’s hard to describe The Americans. Language could illuminate it, could degrade it. Perhaps it’s like the stuff of dreams, the magic of which begins to disappear upon transfer to the conscious mind. So much spills from the bucket on its ascent from that deep, dark well.

I was surprised and pleased when I discovered Frank himself had linked the worlds of photography and poetry in his description of his work:

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.

‘The Devon’ Published

Following is my most-recently published poem. It appeared in the literary magazine Waymark.

The Devon

The cup dropped from
the machine and teetered
till the syrup and
the seltzer mixed
and the cowboys
came around the bend
again and again
rifles erect
Indians on the run

My chin on my knees
skinny arms lashed
eyes ever wide
two Saturday matinee features
broken only by coming attractions
that would have to be seen
the war movies the dramas
the beach blanket bingos

I emerged from the slanted foyer
to the blinding afternoon
unsure who I was
knowing only
I wouldn’t always have to return
to the kasha-scented Bronx building
I would live in California someday
in the wild fake sunlight
I would I would

‘The Dream’: Poem Meets Painting

As part of Emerge Gallery’s upcoming “Art & Words: Ekphrasis” exhibit — a combination of art and poetry inspired by one another — I penned the poem “Dream,” which was inspired by Loel Barr’s painting “Leaving Kansas.”

THE DREAM

The dream that
comes in the barn
in the night
with Marie
and travels the road
when no one else
is admiring the purple heaven
thinking how someday
someday it might
part for us
might take us
yes just like that
everywhere and nowhere
all at once
the dream
the dream that is Kansas

Barr_Leaving Kansas

I will read the poem at a preview of the show, slated this Saturday, May 22, at 2 p.m. at the Saugerties Library, at 91 Washington Ave. The show, which opens May 6 at 6 p.m. at Emerge Gallery, 228 Main St., Saugerties, N.Y., will run through May 29. A special reading will be held at the gallery on Saturday, May 20, from 6 to 8 p.m.

‘Poet in the City’: the Lost Gem

The following is from Mat Danks’ Excavation Tape Project, which attempts to unearth previously undiscovered musical gems:

Excavation Tapes #267: ‘Poet in the City’ by Allen Shadow

kks-album-cover Wow, this is dark. And very cool. Listen here.

It’s a creeping, haunting yomp over some brilliantly bleak, industrial clangy instrumentation. Perhaps, like a gothic take on John Cooper Clarke with some pretty obvious touchpoints of Nick Cave and Tom Waits.

It’s from a 2002 album called ‘King Kong Serende’ and a bit of digging into Allen Shadow (see his blog here) suggests he’s a bit of a renaissance man. His Twitter bio states: “Novelist Allen Shadow (aka Allen Kovler) is also a music artist, poet, journalist & PR pro (APR) who blogs on writing, music and politics.” Which is what we like here on the Excavation Tapes.

If this project is all about unearthing really interesting and brilliant material lost in the banal mainstream crossfire, then we’ve got ourselves a gem here.

–Mat Danks

‘July Arrested Me’

Studebaker_53

Big July arrested me
the little kid
with the skinny arms
urging the steering wheel
alone in the unlocked Studebaker
the sun exploding
off the taillight chrome
of the fat Buick parked ahead

Wanting so bad
to roll out into the world
I had only imagined
how it would feel
like sex probably
which I also
did not know
or flying

And I did somehow
when the brake released and
I began rolling backwards downhill
and for a long moment
was on a fear-struck joy ride
maybe the last of my little life
but I might see the farms of Iowa
wild horses
and the TV sunlight of California

If a rear tire hadn’t kissed the curb
setting me down hard from my cloud
back to rest on the East Bronx street
to the cry of “supper”

‘Wrecked Nash’

Upon viewing this beast, this tank, this dream of a car at a local auto show, I knew it was time to reprise this poem from my recent chapbook, “America, I’ll Have My Way With You,” followed by a rumination on the original experience, which appeared in a post here on 3/9/10.

Nash_Full Car

In the Wrecked Nash

Big stand of day lilies
in the July morning
the time when the trees
begin to hang
 
the country taxi
takes a bend on 23A
headed up the mountain
 
I was nine the summer
in Mahopac when the ambulance
came and took old man Figarelli
the guy who threw
hot water on the dogs
humping on the gravel roads
of the bungalow colony
 
later me and Leif
sat among the hornets
in the wrecked Nash
that listed in the weeds
 
we had the front seat
and the world
all to ourselves
the huge plastic wheel
the split windshield
the hot seats
 
we could make up anything
excursions to distant states
being Audie Murphy
home runs a mile high
deadmen flying through the trees

From ‘The Hot Ride’ (3/9/10)

A heat bomb hit me when I slid into my Chevy today, a welcome rapture after an icy winter in upstate New York. It took me right back to the tireless Nash that was heaped among the weeds in my boyhood, nested among toads and copperheads in a bungalow colony in Peekskill.

A James Deanish boy named Leif was my summer partner in crime. He was the true grit country boy, I, the city kid learning the ropes. We were just short of teenage, and that mechanical skeleton was our rocket to the moon.

We sat in the stultifying July sun, hornets circling; our souls exulted from the dusty upholstery scents as we took turns behind the hot steering wheel, the battered speedometer feeding our imaginations. The cracked and crazed sheet metal became a time machine, taking us on far journeys through states that were as yet unknown. Our young hearts baked and burned. Turn after turn, we explored, as if mapping out the rest of our lives.

I have no idea what happened to Leif after that summer. Year after year, my own soul baked on: in my father’s Studebaker, Dodge; in my first car, a 1948 Cadillac hearse. That black monolith took me to California and back twice, tracing every road I had imagined in that magical Nash.

It persists. I’ve since traveled the back roads of most states. I continue the journey every chance I get: Cross Creek, Savannah, New Orleans, Pueblo, Greensboro, Kansas City, Staunton, Barstow, Albuquerque. Somehow, it’s always just beginning, when the sun enwraps you behind the wheel.

America is in my blood, my bones, as evinced in my writing.

Windy Hill

There was the country road
went on forever
me and Leif hurling rocks
swinging sticks
on the way to town

Weeds all sweated
gravel in our sneaks
Fords occasionally
even a Packard
long enough to make us dream
would the girls all be pretty as Renee
would we fly

Dusk back at the bungalow colony
Pete the jockey took us out on Thunder
bareback in the fields
nothing but the night birds now
Vesuvius beneath us
and the orange sun

Note: Windy Hill is part of my poetry series on summer.