60 years ago, Swiss-American photographer Robert Frank’s photobook The Americans was published in the US. A series of striking images shot on the road, Frank’s collection cut through the country’s supposed post-war prosperity to show a side of American society ridden with anxiety, despair and loneliness. Jack Kerouac, the Beat poet who wrote the introduction to The Americans, put it thusly: “To Robert Frank I now give you this message: You got eyes.”
Frank himself may have had eyes, but the irony was that American publishers and critics did not – his photos, technically characterized by their street photography style and atypical cropping, were initially dismissed as “meaningless blur”. One year after the photobook’s first publication in France, it was picked up in the US; it took many more years for its contents to be seen by a wider audience.
Yet not all of Frank’s photos have been seen by the public. C/O Berlin’s current exhibition Unseen presents a selection of his lesser-viewed works, including early material and unpublished pictures taken in Switzerland, Europe, the US and South America. Art historian Ania Diduch and photographer Wojtek Wieteska talk with Martin Gasser, a long-term collaborator of Frank who has curated several of his exhibitions, including Unseen.
Wojtek Wieteska: What was your first thought, as a curator, when you found out about Frank’s death three days before the opening?
Martin Gasser: Robert Frank’s passing did not come totally unexpected for me. I have known him for more than 30 years and I was in touch with him all the time. I knew he was getting weaker and slowly losing his zest for life – no wonder, at almost 95. Of course, I was very sad to hear the news, but at the same time happy that he could pass away in his summer home in northern Canada, the place he had loved most in the past years. In any case, Kathrin Schönegg and I decided that the last thing we could do for him was to put up a great exhibition.
Anna Diduch: Why is there no additional acknowledgement about Frank’s passing; no ‘goodbye’ note on the exhibition itself?
At the opening, it was of course mentioned that Robert Frank had just died and that the exhibition therefore had become a sort of last testimony to the life and work of an extraordinary artist. The exhibition texts needed to be adjusted slightly, but other than that we did not think it necessary to focus more on this. All the media worldwide had talked about it, and I am sure that a lot of newspaper clippings can also be seen on the bulletin board of C/O.
WW: Who came up with the idea for the show?
The idea for the show was basically mine. It was conceived for the Robert Frank exhibition (then called Sidelines) at the Arles Photo Festival 2018, in the context of the 60th anniversary of the publication of Les Américains. It is comprised exclusively of photographs from the collection of the Fotostiftung Schweiz (Swiss Foundation for Photography) in Winterthur, Switzerland. It shows the development of Robert Frank’s visual language from his earliest photographs (1941) to the work he did in the 1950s in the US, leading up to his seminal book Les Américains (French edition, 1958; American edition The Americans, 1959).
AD: Who was responsible for the selection of works for the exhibition, their juxtaposition, etc.?
I was responsible for the selection of works, it’s essentially the same as for the Arles exhibition in 2018. The sequencing and juxtaposition of works in the C/O exhibition loosely follow Arles, but were sometimes changed or adjusted on the spot together with Kathrin Schönegg, the curator responsible for the project at C/O Berlin. The idea with the enlarged contact sheets was hers, they structure the exhibition very nicely.
WW: Was Robert Frank personally involved in the process of preparing the exhibition? What was it like to work with him?
I have made several exhibitions with Robert Frank’s work and he was always interested in them, but never interfered with what I wanted to do. The only thing he always had a very clear opinion about was which photographs were used for publicity and how they were used. He made sure that some of the more important and therefore famous photographs were not being over-used.
WW: Who was responsible for making the ‘later prints’ displayed at the show? When were they made?
In the exhibition, the term ‘later print’ means that the print was made more than just a few years after the picture had been taken. They are still Robert Frank’s prints – i.e. if he did not print them himself, they were always made under his supervision and signed by him. When exactly those prints were made is in most cases very hard to tell. Frank never made editions of his pictures and did not keep a record of his print production.
AD: Do you think that the Unseen exhibition will start a process of showing more unseen photographs by Frank?
Unknown work tends to show up at auction once in a while, but I don’t think that this trend will increase now. And I don’t think that there are a lot of ‘unseen’ photographs in private collections. Moreover, it is virtually impossible that posthumous prints will be made from existing negatives, because Robert Frank has given his archive to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where his work will be kept and taken care of. But do we need more? What is known is already an exceptionally rich body of work (including the films), proving that Robert Frank is undoubtedly the most innovative and influential photographer of the 20th century.
C/O Berlin, Germany
Until 30th November 2019
Curators: Kathrin Schönegg and Martin Gasser