Essays: Letters by Robert Frank

Robert Frank’s 1969 film Me and My Brother featured a very young Christopher Walken playing the film’s director. Walken appeared in the film directing the actors, but with Frank’s voice dubbed over his image.  So I thought it would be a quirky twist to turn it around for my documentary on Robert Frank. The idea was to have Walken read some of Frank’s writing and use it as a narration throughout the film.

To prepare the “script” for Walken, I turned to a column Robert Frank wrote in 1969 for Creative Camera magazine called ‘Letters from America’. In it, Robert shared his thoughts on photography, filmmaking and life in New York in the form of letters addressed to Bill Jay, the editor. Ultimately, we decided the film was stronger without narration so didn’t pursue the idea – but it was a blast to compile these pieces and I wonder how Christopher Walken would have sounded reading them.

– Laura Israel, Director Don’t Blink – Robert Frank

June 1969

Dear Bill,

Ten or twelve years ago I lived across a courtyard from Bill de Kooning. I could see him from my window; I’d see him with his hands behind his back, his head bent, pacing up and down. Quite often I think of that image now. That was the time when I was a photographer, doing jobs or going out on my own to photograph in the streets. Then it seemed to me I was making a big effort. Now thinking of de Kooning, I understand better what it is to face a blank canvas; to face something which does not respond to my movements, all will have to come from inside me. No help looking through the viewfinder and choosing the Decisive Moment. That’s where it starts, the difference between stills and doing a film. I find it very difficult to organize, to control and to discipline my thinking before I step into the doing of it. I feel a filmmaker must express first what he feels – what’s happening to him.

It took me years to understand that and some courage to really do it. And that’s where I am with my last film: Me and My Brother.

August 1969

Dear Bill,

I’ve just come back from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. To write about that, or some other shows I see, screenings I go to, books that get sent to me, etc… that’s already academic and right now I want to feel alive. It’s all too easy to be established and respected – besides for me there’s no money in it. What do I do? Well I keep my eyes open in New York. I have friends that I listen to, girls I’d like to make love with, drunks in the subway which amaze me, blind beggards which are not blind if you watch really carefully, taxi-drivers who drive around stoned, and the familiar sight of a car being towed away by the police who say: “ fuck ‘em twice, once for being from New Jersey and once for bringing their car into the city”. There is so much noise and so much heat in the summer, so much snow in the winter, so many people want to be Mayor… (If I had voted it would have been for Mailer of course, he must be ambition-unlimited. I wish him luck – an imaginative politician in New York would be a miracle. Anyhow, he can always use the experience for a film, a book, poetry or tax deduction.) So many people who try not to lose their minds. Encounter groups are very in now; it’s better to be miserable in a group on a weekly basis than to have to drag yourself through time and city alone. New York is full of Life. Sick? Yes sir, it’s sick all right; why do I stay here? Just to be in IT to see it coming and going, to let it drive me crazy if it hasn’t driven me half-crazy already.

October 1969

Dear Bill,

Now this morning I’m taking a walk on the Upper West Side where I live. A short walk. Suddenly I notice, and look at, what is lying in the gutters, on the sidewalks, in the street, stacked up against the garbage cans – everything that is made and sold and consumed. Here it is, broken – used up – smashed to pieces – thrown away – left to rot. Mattresses, record players, tv sets, bottles, glasses, clothes, toys, furniture, automobiles, photographs, Art. Food and dog shit all over the place. What a fantastic country. Neil Armstrong and Co. are going to open shop on the Moon; down here, more is produced than can possibly be consumed. They are yelling about birth control, Teddy Kennedy doesn’t want to give up, the Blacks want Retribution. If I was young, I’d want a revolution.

December 1969

Dear Bill,

In the shower I was thinking how slow it was and how long it took me to give up photography (it will take me less time to give up my wife, I speculate). A wife can stop loving you; photography? I loved it, spent my talents and energy on it, I was committed to it; but when respectability and success became part of it, then it was time to look for a new mistress or wife.

In 1958, right after finishing THE AMERICANS I made my first film. I knew film was the first choice. Nothing comes easy, but I love difficulties and difficulties love me. Since being a filmmaker I have become more of a person. I am confident that I can synchronize my thoughts to the image, and that the image will talk back – well, it’s like being among friends. That eliminated the need to be alone and take pictures. I think of myself, standing in a world that is never standing still, I’m still in there fighting, alive because I believe in what I’m trying to do now.

salut robert - trans - sm


Photo: Christopher Walken in the 1969 film Me and My Brother by Robert Frank