Three Photographs by Robert Frank

Its October, 2017. My trip to Mabou to visit Robert Frank happened more than thirty years ago and I’ve forgotten parts of it already, but more importantly, even those parts I do remember are starting to fuzz a little, so I want to try to write this down before I lose it altogether….


The photograph is titled “Washington DC on a Monday Afternoon ca. 1952.” It presents an enlarged three panel strip of 35mm negatives depicting a car passing in front of an American flag painted on a brick wall, framed on each side by a half-image of the photo taken before (front end of car approaching) and then afterwards (car gone, small group of people walking by and looking at the wall – probably because the photographer was photographing something strange), with 35mm negative socket holes included on bottom of print. The title is hand-written by Mr. Frank in black ink under the bottom margin and “For Bill on a wonderful October Sunday in Mabou in 1984, Robert Frank.” is inscribed in green ink in the print. The print has irregular burned edges, which Mr. Frank informed me were created on one lazy, but bright, afternoon in Mabou by focusing the rays of the sun through a beer bottle to burn a line of holes around the edges of the print.

I was to fly from Boston up to Halifax, then drive a rental car across and up the long narrow spine of the Nova Scotia peninsula to Mabou, where Robert had his summer home, to spend the weekend talking together and observing him in that space, and then return home. As I was doing this as part of the long-term experimental collaborative exhibition project with the four photographers Robert Frank, Dave Heath, Robert Heinecken, and John Wood, which Eelco Wolf, at Polaroid, was backing; the technical details of the trip, the plane-tickets, car rentals, etc. had been organized by his very efficient secretaries in his office, as was the customary practice.

Susie and I had already been working on and off with Robert Frank as part of this collaborate project. We had visited him in his New York loft to explain the project to him and to ask him to participate. Robert had come to Rochester, NY to meet the other artists and participants, and to decide whether to participate in the project, and there had been some further meetings in our apartment in Belmont, Mass. And I had spent several times observing him at various other points – most notably when I had functioned as his temporary assistant and observer during a commercial “photo shoot” in Boston, after Frank had been asked to make photographs for an album cover for the J. Giles Band. (I have attempted to describe this event in one of the Knute Rockne Oasis Newsletters that Susie and I published for the project’s participants as the project developed.)

I had always loved Frank’s photographs and had been impressed by his reputation; but “reputations” can be problematic and I had attempted to maintain some distance as an “objective observer” throughout these events. But frankly, in an early visit to his New York apartment I had seen some of his entirely new, post-The Americans photographs, which had not yet been published anywhere and were not known to the public at that time; and their beauty and power had simply blown me away. And observing Mr. Frank over the course of earlier meetings and events I had come to believe that he was perhaps the smartest, most instinctively intuitive individual I had ever met. I was, I’m afraid, swept away and a little bit in awe, in spite of my efforts be a neutral observer, and when he invited me to come up to spend a week-end in Mabou I was keyed up and had had little sleep for several nights before the trip.

But the trip started off poorly, in a small twin-engine airplane, which probably could hold about twenty passengers, but which had only about a half-dozen seats filled on this flight. The flight was supposed to leave Boston in the morning and arrive in Halifax by mid-afternoon. But there were mechanical difficulties and we sat in the plane at the airport for several hours while a couple of mechanics peered at its innards and pounded on this or that until they felt that it might make it all the way to Halifax after all.

After we took off I don’t think we flew more than a few hundred feet above the ground, hugging the coastline all the way up to Canada. I remember flying over mile after mile of heavy dark-green forests, only broken up by sheets of dark-grey, deeply-scored rocks abruptly abutting the foaming waves of the blue sea. This is a brutal coastline that clearly shows the weight of geological glaciation as it projects the determinative forces of nature forcefully to the eye. There were few sandy beaches on this coast, and the human footprint seemed tentative at best. There had to be people living somewhere in the hundreds of miles we flew over, but I saw very little sign of them. A poor traveler, and already tired, I must have fallen asleep for the end of the trip.

In any case when we arrived at Halifax I seemed to be in a slightly muzzy haze. We arrived at the Halifax airport in the evening, long after the last flight was due, and several hours after the airport and its car-rental booth was scheduled to close for the night. The other five or six passengers, all apparently native to the area, quietly scattered and disappeared, leaving me in the virtually empty airport, where I didn’t even know how to find the exit to the street. However, I spotted the car-rental desk, where what seemed to be pretty much the only person in the airport, and for all I knew, the only living person in Canada, was quietly puttering around in a desultory way while preparing to go home. Rushing over, I told him that I was the individual that was there to pick up the car rented by the Polaroid Corporation; only to find out that Eelco’s normally impeccable secretary had screwed up and there was no record of any such rental agreement. After some discussion, I was somehow able to convince the man to rent the car to me anyway. (My story must have seemed so outlandish that it had to be true, and it may have been his only business of the day. And besides, aside from a tiny neck of land hundreds of miles to the north-west, Nova Scotia was virtually an island anyway – so where could I go in a stolen car?)

So the long autumn evening was turning dark as I left the airport, armed with verbal directions to Mabou from the agent, and with a map provided by him in the car. It should be easy. There was only one major highway that ran through the middle of Nova Scotia from Halifax up to the west coast of Cape Bretton where Mabou is located. I was to leave the airport, turn right, and then drive north for three or four hours for about 200 miles, then look for signage for Mabou. I left the airport and the scatter of Halifax lights disappeared behind me, the rare highway light-poles ran out, and I drove straight down the emptiest highway I had ever seen, fronted on both sides by a serried rank of dense foliage, into the heart of darkness.

Now, I am no stranger to long lonely cross-country drives. My father had worked for an oil-well servicing company then based in Oklahoma; and he had moved our small family – himself, my mother and me, – from oil-field to oil-field as they opened up. My family was from Oklahoma, but I was born in Effingham, Illinois during the Centralia Oil Field Boom in the early 1940s; then, in succession, the family moved to and lived from six months to two years each in Ohio, West Virginia, Texas, Peru, Venezuela, Columbia, Texas again, Alberta, Canada, and then Ohio again; all before I had reached high-school. And always in between these trips, we came back to my grandfather’s farm in Oklahoma to rest for a few weeks to several months and wait for the next assignment.

As a child, I had been driven cross-country several times, spending the long nights staring up out of the back window of the car at the amazing river of stars in the Milky Way and the very occasional fairy-tower of lights festooning a functioning oil-rig, the lights visible for miles on the high prairies of the Great Plains. Or on one trip from Edmonton, Alberta, driving even further up north to the edge of the Arctic Circle, with a day and a night of driving through mile after mile after mile of burned-over forest. And as an adult I had driven from Massachusetts or New York to Oklahoma, or Arizona, or California and back again more than once. I once calculated that I have driven through every state in the contiguous United States except Washington. I am very aware of the great distances and massive scale of the natural features to be found in our country, and I am experienced at driving through them.

But this drive up the Nova Scotia highway was spooking me. After driving in the dark for the three required hours without seeing, if I remember correctly, a single car, a single dwelling, or even a single road-sign, I stopped to read the map. And here I received an even more unnerving shock. The map, incredibly, had been printed in light green and yellow ink and I literally could not read it by the interior lights of the car. No matter how hard I strained, I simply could not discern the route or puzzle out the map at all, which seemed to me at best to be a badly faded piece of paper. I stopped in the middle of the highway and got out of the car and tried to read the map in the headlights – no fears of anyone running me over as I had not seen a living soul for more than three hours. But no matter how hard I tried, squatting and squinting, moving the map back and forth in the headlights, I was not able to read this map in these circumstances. Complete failure, I was shocked, feeling a new awareness of my failing night vision and a having very unnerving glimpse of my own mortality.

I started driving down the empty highway again, attempting to follow the half-remembered verbal directions and counting on my good directional sense. I decided if I just turned left at the first available exit (incredibly again, not marked with any signage. Apparently in Canada you should know where you are going, or you shouldn’t be there.) and kept driving down what by now were two-lane gravel backcountry roads, still without a single dwelling or shed or any other sign of human occupation. I estimated that if I kept going straight ahead I would eventually run out of land and there would have to be some sort of habitation on the coast.

By now it is very late at night for a rural area, but my strategy actually worked. After driving through all these interminable trees for another half-hour or so I saw the headlights of another car coming toward me and I pulled my car into the middle of the two-lane road, then got out and stood in my own headlights in as unthreatening a posture as I could find, until the driver slowly rolled up and I could ask him were I was and how to find Mabou. Extraordinarily, and fortunately, all of my guesses had been good, and I was only about 15 minutes away from Mabou.

Wikipedia tells us that Mabou is a “…small Canadian rural community located in Inverness County on the west coast of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island. The population in 2011 was 1,207 residents. During the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century Mabou’s primary economic activity was underground coal mining with several collieries located in the surrounding area. The Inverness and Richmond Railway opened in 1901 to connect the mines in Mabou and Inverness to wharves in Mabou and Port Hastings. Mining activity ceased following World War II and the railway was abandoned during the late 1980s. Today Mabou is primarily a fishing port for a small fleet of lobster boats. It also hosts a high school serving central Inverness County. It is also a very strong community with many farms….”

But these events happened before home computers were commonplace, or before the internet, Wikipedia, and cell-phones existed. Back then all I knew about Mabou was that it was too small to even have a drug-store, as I remembered that Robert had taught photography to a group of women in a local adult-education class, and they had had to send their film to a drug store in a larger town down the road to be developed. That night as I drove down the main street of Mabou, there was no neon signs, no stop-lights, no roadside motels, or gas stations, very few commercial signs, or any cluster of commercial buildings as you would find in any American town of comparable age and size. Just a scattering of dark, mostly wooden, poorly lit buildings; reminding me again of that other trip that I took as a child to the far north of Western Canada, where we drove to a Hudson Bay trading-post at the very edge of the penetration of European civilization into the northern wilderness.

Everything in Mabou was closed at that time of night, but following Robert’s written instructions, I found the correct street signs and then found the road his house was supposed to be on, and I followed it for a mile or so while driving out of the town again. The omnipresent trees had thinned out, thank God, but it is still so dark I could not see anything on my left side at all as I passed the occasional farmhouse on my right. Then, just as I had driven what seemed too far and I was beginning to feel lost again, I came to a brightly-lit house backed up into a hill, with five or six cars scattered along the driveway leading up to the door. It was about 3:00 a. m., and anything going on at this time of night felt a little dodgy, but I drove up the driveway, and following fragmented memories of back-country protocol, I got out of the car, walked up to about ten feet from the front door and called out to the house.

A long pause, and a young man finally opened the door. The living room was full of six or seven other men, all apparently drinking beer and watching television. Checkered shirts, work-boots, gimmie-hats; this was a fairly rough-looking group – and with fragments of Deliverance flashing through my mind, I apologized for disturbing them and very politely asked if anyone knew of someone named Robert Frank and where he lived. Another very long pause, while the man at the door was clearly making up his mind whether to answer me or tell me to fuck off. Then, finally, with what seemed to be great reluctance, he told me Frank lived in the next house, about a half mile further down the road.

I thanked him, got back into the car, and drove up to Frank’s house. Frank was still up and waiting for me in his kitchen. As he welcomed me, I apologized for being so late, but just said that the flight had been delayed and mentioned something about his neighbor being helpful. But I was clearly spooked, tired, and hungry; and without much conversation, Frank quickly cooked me some delicious bacon and eggs on his cast-iron wood-fired stove, then showed me to a bed in a small upstairs room, where I immediately fell into an exhausted sleep.

I woke up the next morning, in a plain, dun-colored room; almost empty except for the bed and in the middle of one wall a luminescent, brilliant blue abstract rectangle, which as I muzzily watched, seemed to be in a slow motion; with irregular lacy white bands appearing at the top of the frame, then calmly and steadily rolling down the picture plane and disappearing out the bottom edge. I lay there mesmerized by this visual wonder that Mr. Frank had somehow provided for my morning entertainment, before my sluggish wits kicked into gear and I realized that I was watching waves lazily rolling on the bay that Frank’s house looked out on. From the position I was at in the room, the window framed only a patch of constantly moving water, without any horizon or shoreline to situate the image. Last night had been so dark and my attention so focused on finding Frank’s house on the right side of the road that I had driven past several miles of open water on the left without consciously realizing it. Even as my rational faculties worked out what was happening, my sense of wonder at this rhythmically calming, quietly beautiful, visual event kept me attentive and appreciative of the beginning of this new day.

Windows have somehow always held a vivid place in my memory. Long before I became a student of photographic practice, (Where I learned that the frame — what to leave in, what to leave out, how to balance the shapes and spaces within the picture against its edges — is a most, perhaps the most, important tool for a picture-maker.) my strongest recollections of childhood were frequently focused around a window.

And all echoes of my past resonating through last night’s drive brought back one of the most vivid memories of my childhood to me. Our family had travelled widely through the United States, Canada and South America when I was a child, but we always went back to my mother’s father’s farm in Oklahoma between these assignments, and that was, I suppose, where it most felt like home. This was in the 1940’s and 1950’s, but my grandfather’s farm still had many of the characteristics of an earlier age. My grandfather’s farm was in south-central Oklahoma, a little south of the small town of Comanche, literally located on the old Chisum Trail where they had driven cattle up from Texas to the Abilene, Kansas stockyards from the 1860s to 1880s. Later a branch of the Kansas-Pacific railroad had been built along that route and my grandfather used that railroad to deliver his own cattle to the stock-yards. When my grandfather was younger he ran cattle; apparently (From an old photograph I once saw.) enough cattle to rent cattle-cars on the railroad every year, hire some boys or young men to ride on top of the cars to poke them through the slats with long sticks to keep them safely on their feet during the ride, (Hence, I assume, the terms “Cow Pokes,” or “Cow-punchers.”) and deliver them to the stockyards in Kansas. By the time I was growing up all this was reduced to a herd of about twenty head — not a lot by local standards, and the homestead was more diversified, growing corn and other crops. Each time we came back to the farm, it was reduced or changed a little. More acreage sold, the remaining fields rented out to younger farmers, the horses gone, then the mules he used to plow the cornfields and haul his wagon disappeared, the pigs replaced by easier-to-manage chickens, etc. The farm was coming close to the end of its natural cycle, as was my grandfather; who had raised a family, kept everything going and together through the Great Depression as so much of Oklahoma dried up and blew away, then lost his wife, and was himself grown old. His children, or all the sisters, including my mother, were patiently waiting for this natural event to play out, but I was, of course, too young to know what was going on.

My grandfather built the first brick private dwelling in that part of the world, the bricks brought in on the new railroad. Almost all the other farm houses then, ranging from shacks to larger well-built dwellings, were made of wood. Again, unusual for the place and time, the farmhouse had two stories and a round tower with deeply curved, now irreplaceably expensive windows that were a constant source of worry for my mother (and me, just a little) that I would somehow break them or shoot them with my Daisy Red Ryder bee-bee rifle. (I had already shot out the large plate glass window in the front door, while attempting to demonstrate that the gun was absolutely empty and therefore not dangerous in the house.) Curiously, no one took the gun away from me, or even punished me, as it was clear that I had already manifestly learned the lesson not to point any gun – even an unloaded gun – at anyone for any reason. In fact, I can’t remember ever being physically punished for anything, just a long quiet talk from my mother if I had done something wrong. From what I’ve since read or heard, that seems to be a very “Indian” way of doing things. (My grandmother was part Choctaw.) On the farm there was a telephone, but no electricity, so at night the house was lit by kerosene lanterns, cleaned and filled every day by my mother – a chore she had had since childhood.

My bedroom was upstairs, and the only occupied room on that floor at that time. Every day, just before dark I climbed the stairs, scurried through the windowless dim hallway with the mysterious and scary black stain on one wall, and reached the safety of my bed, eventually to go to sleep to be wakened by the sunlight coming through the window the next morning. The single window faced the back of the house and my view took in the various structures of a working farm: outhouse, sheds, pig pens and the stable and corral and then the rolling fields of the “back forty.”

Most of the time my grandfather’s farm was a place of tans and duns. Red earth, gnarled grey-brown Post Oak trees, seared yellow grasses were the colors dominating the hot, dry summers and the cold, dry winters. Not a barren or ugly land, but it provided only a spare and contained beauty to the eye most of the year. But in the spring, if we had been lucky with the rain, the land could briefly blossom. Burned in my memory, much more strongly than more consequential things from that time, is the spring day that I woke up and saw the window frame a vivid rectangle of verdant green. The rains had brought the grass into life again overnight and meadows behind house presented a startlingly vibrant, almost pulsating, landscape so different from all those views that had presented themselves through the long, grey winter. The brightness didn’t last for long, a day or so before the colors muted down and the dust took off the bright edge, but those few days were enough to build the strength to get through the summer once again.

Waking up again to another vivid landscape somehow wiped out all the frustrations and anxieties of yesterday and I felt calm and positive as I dressed, went downstairs and found Mr. Frank quietly engaged in the household economics of gradually battening down the hatches of his home before the winter weather closed in.

As Mr. Frank cooked up another breakfast I looked around his house. I was again forcefully reminded of my grandfather’s farm. Frank had electricity and running water, but much of the house resembled my grandfather’s. The furnishings were utilitarian and rather spare, a bit worn with age and usage. An old wooden-cased clock on the mantle and a few knickknacks, which had drawn a momentary attention or embodied the memory of some small event, were randomly scattered about. Most notably, there were no photographs on the walls, none by Mr. Frank or by anyone else. I don’t remember any specific pictures at all, but if there were any pictures, they would have been inexpensive commercial reproductions of mundane scenes by anonymous painters. The radio, critical for the weather and the news and entertainment through the long winter nights, was in the kitchen, which would be the warmest room in the house, which was also occupied by a sink, the cast-iron stove, a small table and a few chairs and a scattering of useful or needed tools or utilities, such as a shovel or heavy boots close to hand in some corner.

We sat down to breakfast and loosely planned out the day’s activities. And this new day was glorious: a light-filled day – sparkling, with crisp, bright, autumn weather, the sky a deep blue from horizon to horizon, so clear that you could see Prince Edward Island across the Bay – something that happens about once every forty years, or so Mr. Frank told me. It was a wonderful day, and far too nice to spend it inside huddled over a tape-recorder asking and answering arcane questions about almost forgotten past events. After breakfast and a short, desultory interview, Mr. Frank and I played hooky.

I began to help him with some of the endless chores attendant to rural living, such as splitting wood for the stove, etc. To my chagrin this skill, which once I had mastered fairly well, had eroded so that I was clumsy and awkward with the axe, and after a while Mr. Frank politically and gracefully got it out of my hands before I did some damage to something other than some chunks of wood. Then while Mr. Frank worked on some more of his chores, I spent some time wandering around the homestead; hiking out of the yard and uphill into the trees behind the farmhouse, just scouting around, taking in the general lay of the land. I later tried to write about this experience, but never really got it down on paper to my satisfaction:

“Robert Frank lives in Nova Scotia, a few miles outside of Mabou, in a farmhouse half way up a hillside facing the sea. The hill slopes fairly steeply down to the sea in front; behind the land continues several hundred yards higher to crest, then breaks into dips and rolls, with the interior hollows filled with heavy timber. At another place you would want to head upslope to go over into the woods nestled behind the first hill, but at Mabou your gaze is always drawn out to the sea, and it takes an effort to look behind you and up.
This farm was once an early settler’s homestead, a narrow frontage extending back from the ocean for several acres into the woodlands. At some point the acreage facing the ocean was cleared for farming, then later, when the farm was abandoned, let go back into scrub brush. Frank told me he accidentally set a blaze while burning garbage when he first moved in years ago. The quick winds up there immediately whipped it into a dangerous grass fire. Everyone for miles around turned up to put the fire out, just before it reached the next farmstead – an effective, if embarrassing way to meet your neighbors.
Now the ocean-facing slope is covered with tall grass and a scattering of younger volunteer evergreens. The heavy woods behind the first hill sit there quietly accruing beauty and value, as Frank doesn’t do any serious logging. There isn’t a lot of money to be made in Mabou now anyway – the mines are played out; the farming, on this cold, rocky land, is at a sustenance level; the logging is exhausted; the sea provides some fishing, but not enough for heavy industry, and it’s just a little too far off the beaten track for Canada’s tourism promotion to be all that successful. The people who do manage to make a life up there seem to know each other fairly well, and they hold to a sense of community which seems left over from an earlier time.
Frank is considered to be a valuable member of this community, although probably not for the same reasons he is accorded value in the world of art – even though he once did teach photography to the ladies who signed up at the local adult education program; using Diana cameras and mailing the negatives off to be developed in a bigger town forty miles away. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Frank finds this acceptance both valuable and nourishing to his own sense of worth. That nourishment, and the nourishment he takes from looking out to the ocean, have kept him at Mabou, a place not easily hospitable to outsiders, for many years now.
Another nourishment sustains Frank at Mabou as well. Robert is quietly competent in the ordinary skills common to a rural economy – cooking on a wood stove, chopping the wood to fuel the stove and heat his house, repairing the house, and rebuilding the homestead. These skills are everyday fare to his neighbors, but represent hard-learned lessons, learned late in life by the city-dwelling son of a wealthy Swiss businessman. I think Robert’s competence in the complexities of living in a hard land helps him feel closer to the kind of reality he prefers to inhabit, which he finds in Mabou.
His wife, June Leaf, has built a fine forge on the farm, where she can create those wonderful metal sculptures which are so full of grace and power, and size them to any scale she chooses – not like the loft in New York, where she has either to paint canvases or work small.
Robert has also made sculptures in Mabou, though he won’t admit it, preferring to identify them as collections of found driftwood logs and rocks, which he has simply piled together at scattered spots around his homestead. Robert doesn’t have a philosophy about these structures, he just likes to build them from time to time. But, in a place where very little is wasted or in excess, they do seem to provide several valuable services. For one thing, they offer surfaces for the eye to focus on at a near distance and so provide some relief from the constant draw of the water. Then again, the seemingly random scattering of these structures around the house and outbuildings of the farm is deceptive, for they are actually sited like rifle pits, commanding and protecting all the entrances to the homestead – talisman barriers designed to deflect or impede malevolent invasion. These constructions are a realized metaphor for what Robert readily admits – that Mabou is the place where he and June come to rest, away from the other, more modern complexities of the outside world.
There is a small outcrop of rock a few hundred feet upslope from the house and off to the left. One of June’s drawings, of two hands flexing open into wings, is cut into the rock, along with Robert’s daughter’s name and the dates of her birth and death. It’s really just a boulder about the height of a man, neither very noticeable nor prominent, which has broken through the scarf of the soil at that spot. But there you will always find a clear, unbroken view of the sea.”

From: “Souvenirs. Mabou.” The Pictures are a Necessity: Robert Frank in Rochester, November 1988, edited and published by William S. Johnson. “Occasional Papers No. 2.” Rochester Film & Photo Consortium. University Educational Services. International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, Rochester, NY: 1989.]

Later in the afternoon we got into Frank’s car and drove around a bit, to see the countryside and meet some of the people who lived there. Mr. Frank would occasionally stop the car at a chance encounter and introduce me to someone that he knew. The most vivid of these in my memory now was a man walking down a back-country road. He was probably in his seventies or eighties, with a full white beard and matching head of wild white hair capped with a Scotch bonnet, and dressed in a kilt. We stopped the car, Frank introduced me to him and offered a ride, which the man politely refused in a Scottish brogue so thick that I couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying. After all, Nova Scotia does mean “New Scotland,” and apparently there was some history that was now embodied by this individual.

As we drove around in that still, pellucid, crisp, amazing afternoon, briefly meeting a few people here and there, (All of the others spoke an English I could understand, and all of them commented on the gift of this amazing day.) I noted but was not shocked by the spareness or even poverty displayed by some of these farmhouses in Canada. The country just seemed to me, perhaps inaccurately, to be just a few decades behind the United States in its evolution into the contemporary world, although my own experience of moving through a rural world into urban America may have buffered the disparities that Frank was displaying to me. A more “sophisticated” big-city resident might have been shocked by the stripped, hard lives that I was being shown. As we drove around I gradually understood that Mr. Frank was showing me the wonderful diversity and character of the people living in his rural community. Frank would later bring the characteristics of this landscape and its peoples into creative play when he made the film Candy Mountain which was shot in and around Mabou, with a mix of amateur actors and local characters.

Then we drove into Mabou to the Co-op (a square wooden barn of a building, mostly empty, but with a scattering of foodstuffs and household supplies) to pick up some groceries, and then down to the local docks to meet the lobster boats which were just coming in with that day’s catch, to buy some fresh lobsters for dinner. There, while giving a brief explanation as to why a stranger was with him, Robert introduced me, ironically, as “Mr. Polaroid” to the captain as he was tying up his boat. The captain, flushed with what seemed to be a combination of native pride and a distain for large American corporations, impetuously handed us a brace of lobsters and, over our protestations, refused to take any payment. Back at his house, Robert built a fire outdoors and set up a cookpot to steam the lobsters and then we sat in the gathering dusk, eating lobster and corn and watching the sun set “…on a wonderful October Sunday in Mabou in 1984,…” The day had been so extraordinary, the clusters of small meetings and events so mundane yet so absolutely meaningful, that the day seemed complete and whole in itself. I didn’t attempt any more questions, went to bed early, and slept through the night. (Unusual for me).

The next morning Mr. Frank dug up this photograph from somewhere, wrote the note commemorating the wonderful nature of the previous day, and gave it to me as I left to return to Boston. The trip back to Boston was routine, without incident, allowing me the time to depressurize and return to the concerns of the everyday.

As so often with Mr. Frank, the gift of this particular print to me represents a metaphor about our relationship at that time, as it references the ideas I was attempting to identify and feature within the body of his work in the exhibition – his breaking the tyranny of the perfect Modernist frame and also of the photojournalist’s “decisive moment” through his use of sequence, fostering the idea of the photograph as a crafted object rather than a “window” as Mr. Szarkowski had put it. Frank’s restructuring the medium so as to deliberately bring abstract concepts like memory, loss and longing, hope and hope deferred, into the operative emotional range of a still photograph and developing a style which could create types of emotion and feeling that extended beyond the subject content of traditional photographs. All issues which have been thoroughly discussed in the critical literature during the past 30 years, but which, as far as I know, had not been mentioned by anyone at the time. I was struggling to develop a coherent understanding of some of these ideas about the work for myself during this time, but Frank summed them up in one quick intuitive act and gave me the present of the photograph to memorialize the issue.


“U.S. 90, en route to Del Rio, Texas, 1955-1956.” Three image strip. (Frank’s wife and children sleeping in car at the side of the road in first two images, truck stop sign in third image.) Reproduced on p. 53 in ARTFORUM 33:3 (Nov. 1994). Our copy has the following inscription: “Dear William and Susie and Bethanie and Joshua. Wishing you good luck – wherever it goes…. from “old man” Robert.”
I can’t remember the exact circumstances of Mr. Frank’s gift of this photograph to us, but it must have been during one of his stops in Boston during the time of the project. Susie and I were living in an apartment in Belmont, a suburb of Boston, and Mr. Frank visited us there several times during that time, stopping over when flying up or back from Mabou, or coming to Boston in response to some aspect of the project.

The dedication on the photograph names “Bethanie” and “Joshua.” “Joshua” is Susie’s and my son, who was born in the mid-point of the project, and who was bundled up and carried around by either Susie or me to a lot of these meetings, and so was well-known to everyone involved. “Bethany” is the youngest of my three children from a first marriage, then living with her mother and brother in Austen, Texas; but who was staying with us at the time. She would have been about 13 or 14, and in her “punk” phase. She has a strong, smart, creative personality and she and Mr. Frank got along very well, which is the reason for his dedication on the photograph.

The following information is not directly associated with the photograph, but of collateral interest, in a sense. A year or so later Bethany ran away from her home in Texas, somehow got to New York City and lived there on the streets for some time – for about six months. She refused to let her mother even know she was still alive and kept only the most tentative contact with me, and only if I promised not to tell her mother where she was. I did not know any of the names of her friends, or where she was living – only that she seemed to be based somewhere in the Greenwich Village area of Lower Manhattan. Literally the only person I knew in New York City at that time was Robert Frank and I knew that he spent a lot of time walking around in his neighborhood, and so I asked him to just keep an eye out for her. It seemed highly improbable that he would ever find her, but he promised to keep a watch. And they did run into each other. Bethany also knew Mr. Frank and found out that her knowing him gave her some sort of street credibility among the people she was with, as they knew he was a famous artist. So Bethany and Robert would talk from time to time and Mr. Frank would call to let me know she was still alive and healthy. This most fragile of connections was what sustained our hopes for her safety during this period. Finally, Bethany relented a little, came to live with us in Belmont for a while, and eventually went back to Texas to stay with her mother.


“Mabou, 1978.” [Clock reflection in window looking over Mabou landscape. Reproduced on p. 143 in Robert Frank, Moving Out. with inscription “For Bill Johnson – Robert Frank, 1991.”

The end point of the collaboration project between the four photographers and Susie and me was to have been a major exhibition and a book. We later published a document of the project, (Horses, Sea Lions, and Other Creatures: Robert Frank, Dave Heath, Robert Heinecken and John Wood, by Susan E. Cohen and William S. Johnson. Belmont, MA: Joshua Press, 1986. 242 pp., 36 35mm slides bound‑in. Limited edition, 16 copies, printed on an IBM‑AT computer, with WordStar 2000 software.) on a very early desk-top computer. That book explains the conception, process and aftermath of the project in greater detail.

The exhibition was to include the work that the artists had each generated for the project as well as a targeted selection of their retrospective work. To that end the photographers had each sent their collaborative work as well as a selection of 50 or 60 of their earlier photographs which we had selected together to the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY, which was to be the venue for hosting the travelling show. The exhibition was laid out and in the process of being framed when administrative changes at Polaroid, the parent company funding the project, caused the process to pause, and later to stop. We held the photographs at the Workshop for almost a year and a half, until it was absolutely certain that the funding for the exhibition had failed, and then I returned all of their photographs to the artists; then bundled up the other materials and leavings, put them into my closet, and tried to come to grips with the waste of essentially two or more years of work. What was and still is amazing to me was that the artists, who had freely donated their own time and energy to the project, had not turned sour or vindictive during this fraught and uncertain period of delays, and that they were all, each in their own way, extraordinarily supportive and generous to Susie and me throughout the process and even after its failure.

After we had acknowledged the end of the project, we then all turned to the business of living and earning a living, and went our separate ways. I had received a ridiculously small NEH grant to write a “guide” to photographic literature, which enabled me to buy one of the first commercially available desk-top computers (with a 20 megabite hard drive, – my God, the power!) on which we then – probably illegally in terms of the grant – wrote Horses, Sea Lions, and Other Creatures:… and on which I started compiling the bibliography for what would later become the 962 pp. Nineteenth‑Century Photography: An Annotated Bibliography, 1839‑1879., which is acknowledged to be a major reference resource by those people who care about that stuff. So the NEH never got its 90 page “Guide” but it did fund some other interesting stuff, and the poor harassed fund manager eventually got his taxpayer’s money’s worth after all.

Susie and I then moved to Rochester, NY for me to take up the newly created position of Director (later Coordinator) of University Educational Services at the George Eastman House. In that position I organized a variety of projects and programs for the consortium of universities that funded the position. Among these projects I initiated and coordinated a semester-long seminar on Robert Frank and, using my same computer, – computers were still not common and the Eastman house didn’t yet have any except in their Financial Office – put together and published the Occasional Papers No. 2. The Pictures Are A Necessity: Robert Frank in Rochester, NY November 1988. Edited by William S. Johnson. Essays by Susan E. Cohen, Jan‑Christopher Horak, William S. Johnson, Tina Olsen Lent. Bibliography by Stuart A. Alexander. (Jan. 1989) which has been described as: –“This scarce and much sought-after volume is the result of a film festival, seminar, and workshop with Robert Frank. It includes original articles on Frank and a lengthy interview.”

The seminar, open to anyone in the three consortium schools, consisted of showing all of Frank’s films throughout the semester, combined with lectures on the politics, culture, and the arts of the 1950s by various faculty members from these institutions, then capped with a two-day, all-day long meeting with Frank, who talked to the group about some photos taped to the walls and responded to questions from the well-informed and primed seminar audience. All of this was videotaped and transcribed into the self-published Occasional Papers No. 2, which was distributed free to the consortium members. Much of the materials in Susie and my essays were taken from the earlier Horses, Sea Lions, and Other Creatures….

Then, as happens, I didn’t have much to do with Mr. Frank for a while, although he had rather tentatively inquired at one point about the possibility of placing his archive at the George Eastman House and even wrote me that if he died tomorrow his lawyers had been instructed to do so, but I suggested he wait on the notion, as the institution was going through some tumultuous times and seemed to be facing an uncertain future at that moment. I knew that he had offered the materials to MOMA at one time and possibly elsewhere as well, and then changed his mind, so I did not take the offer that seriously anyway. I believe he finally wound up placing these materials at the Smithsonian in Washington.

However, sometime around 1991 I had to go to New York City for some other reason I now forget and I called Mr. Frank up and arranged for a visit. From time to time different people who had known about the “Polaroid Project” had suggested I try to get the book published separately, but I had resisted the idea of returning to that failed project. However, I had finally gotten over my own negative feelings and decided that I should at least get the permission of the artists before I approached anyone else. My purpose for the visit was to ask if he would mind if I approached any publishers with the book.

When I got to Mr. Frank’s Bleeker Street loft I found that he had cleared the afternoon for me, but it was apparent that he was very engaged in other projects; one of which was selecting the photographs for the forthcoming book Robert Frank, Moving Out, and there were dozens of beautiful prints leaning against the walls all around the perimeter of his living room. After he agreed that it would be O. K. with him if I tried to get a publisher for the “Polaroid Project” book, he walked over to the far wall and picked out two photographs, brought them back to me and said “Choose one.” Both of the prints were new to me, and neither had yet been published. I was completely surprised and a little flustered, but instantly decided on the following print, which I immediately and have always thought was both beautiful and profound.

However I did not select the print immediately, because the other print held a personal echo for me. I will have to describe the other print, for, as far as I know, it has never been published. It, like the clock reflection, was a vertical print, and also an interior at Mabou, depicting a corner of what may have been the same mantel that is reflected in the clock-window photograph. On the otherwise spare surface of the mantel a small cluster of nondescript items – a ceramic figurine, perhaps a postcard, or one of those glass balls with snow that you shake – sort of a small litter of tourist memorabilia – were casually gathered together. The framing was casual, the view slightly tilted, the focus was softened, and the image was printed in a muted monochrome, the actual subject of the items not important, so much as the mood of the photograph. The personal echo for me came from the fact that I had written about something like this before, and I knew that Mr. Frank had read what I wrote, because he had referred to the statement in a later conversation -something he otherwise never did during the period of our interviews for the project.

“Not too long ago a small work appeared on the wall of the kitchen of Robert Frank’s New York City loft. Tucked between the coat-hooks and the corner, yet somehow fitting in, the piece consisted of three small pictures grouped together. The first was a small, – perhaps six to nine inch – square, oil painting. It was a portrait of a woman, it was obviously European, it was obviously old and it was set into an elegant, deeply—flared gold frame. Under this lovely miniature portrait was another small painting. This one was an unframed landscape – cruder, the work of a charming amateur. Tucked together with these two paintings was a snapshot photograph of an older woman.
These three items seemed almost casually placed together, but they were so arranged that they presented themselves to the eye as one visual unit. And somehow the same casual deftness that had created a sense of unity among these three items had also set up a kinetic or spatial or spiritual dynamic on the wall so that in a mysterious sense these pieces took on an iconic feeling. In some undefinable but definite manner that corner of the room held the flavor of a simple, unobtrusive shrine. Shrine is too strong a word – rather the place gave the sense of the French souvenir – a memory, a recollection, a remembrance.
I can’t explain how Frank tucked these items together so that they were able to establish this emotional aura; all I can do is report that they did so. Separately presented, each piece would have roused a sense of curiosity about the subject and possibly a note of interest in the individual work. Placed together as they were, the separate items conjoined to establish an associative context, create a chord of feeling, build the possibility of a history, and allude to a sense of a past and of memory.
When pressed, Frank admitted that the photograph was a portrait of his mother, that she had painted the landscape, and that the older canvas had once belonged to her. Frank had brought these three small pieces back with him when he returned from his mother’s funeral in Switzerland not long before.
This particular creative statement by Frank was essentially a private act rather than a public gesture. He put this piece up on the wall of his kitchen for his own purpose and to meet his own needs. And, given the fluid nature of the objects that inhabit the New York loft space, this souvenir may not stay where it is for very long. Yet bound up in this simple, unpretentious work are many issues of importance to Frank’s strength as an artist.
Frank must have brought a mingled body of attitudes and sensibilities into play while he was putting this piece together. By creating this little memorial he was enacting a small act of veneration, or at least acknowledging the reality of the emotional power that this subject held for him. (Since the subject is his mother and his own past that’s not at all unusual.) Frank was spiritually acknowledging his sense of loss at her absence and the paradoxical presence of her in his thoughts in a specifically physical way, through the creation of the souvenir. At the same time the act of energy and emotion directed toward the creation of the souvenir also allowed him a means of directing and controlling the larger, more diffuse emotion of his loss into some more coherent and manageable pattern.
Robert Frank lives very close to his emotions. He doesn’t seem to box them out or damp them down as far as many people do. He inhabits a terrain that would be too tough for many and which is, I suspect, very tough for him from time to time. He has often stated that his real work can only come out of what he knows. The implication, not hidden very deeply, is that his best work can only come out of what he feels. On occasion Frank expresses some distress that his work is so much based on his own self, so tied to his own biography; but, in reality, he fully understands that the singular power of his work is based in precisely this area.

“Souvenirs. New York.” The Knute Rockne Oasis Newsletter & Journal of Critical Opinion. 1:7 (July, 1984): 1-2. Republished in The Pictures are a Necessity: Robert Frank in Rochester, November 1988, edited and published by William S. Johnson. “Occasional Papers No. 2.” Rochester Film & Photo Consortium. University Educational Services. International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, Rochester, NY: 1989.

So I stood there holding the two prints and pretending to choose between them, while, in fact, looking at the one photograph for as long as I could, because I suspected, (correctly, as it turned out.) that I would never see it again. After attempting to memorize the print for what seemed to be a very long time and what may have actually been a couple of minutes, – which was a very long time under the circumstances – I handed the other, better photograph to Mr. Frank. The memorabilia photograph was not a bad photograph, but it just did not have the power of the one I chose. I felt that Mr. Frank seemed slightly disappointed at my decision to ignore the implied personal reference in the one photograph, as was I; but he put the photograph I chose in a protective package and we went out to lunch and then over to browse in a bookstore before I left to return back to Rochester.

Earlier in the day Mr. Frank had told me he was starting to put together a new movie, and the only other interesting thing that happened that day was that he saw a young woman in the bookstore and he approached her and asked if she had been able to talk to her boyfriend about meeting with Frank to talk about playing the lead role in the movie he was starting to put together. This seemed to me to be a very casual way to organize a film, but one that seemed to work for Mr. Frank.

I suppose that for the conclusion of this narrative I should say that, other than getting the permission of the other artists as well, I actually never did approach any publisher to try to get the book published until one day in 2014, as Tate Shaw, the new director of the Visual Studies Workshop, and I were having a casual conversation, he brought up the subject again and volunteered to try to find a way to get the book published. After some research, Tate realized that the Workshop did not have the resources to fund this large an effort, and then, with Nathen Lyons, he helped introduce the idea of the project to Jessica McDonald, curator of photography at the Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin.

Jessica responded in a positive manner, and, after a little time, the “Polaroid Archive” of research materials, notes and correspondence, and artworks associated with this project, which had languished in banker’s boxes in my closet for so long, was, to my gratitude, transferred into a public institution where it could receive proper care and be made more accessible to people in the future.

It was only then, years later, while going through those materials to prepare them for the Ransom Center that I found a notecard from Mr. Frank (He sent notes or short letters to Susie and me from time to time long after the “Polaroid Project” officially ended.) which had been tightly folded and which I had failed to open properly , which stated that he “owed” me a photograph. I now assume that he thought I had come to visit him to pick up the photograph, when in actuality I had not known anything about it. That was the last time I actually met with Mr. Frank; both he and I had gone on to other things and, except for an occasional Christmas or birthday card, we never really interacted after that. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t even know his son had died until several years later.

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