My friend over at The Landscapist recently posted a quote from Jack Kerouac which is, I believe, part of the introduction to Robert Frank’s “The Americans” (both the book and the photographer are viewed by some as a turning point in American photography). If you missed it, and don’t feel like going over for a visit, the quote goes like this:
Anybody doesn’t like these pitchers don’t like poetry, see? Anybody don’t like poetry go home see television shots of big hatted cowboys being tolerated by kind horses. Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the poets of the world. To Robert Frank I now give this message: You got eyes. – Jack Kerouac
Mr. Hobson apparently feels that the very essence of photography (both “good” and “bad”) is embodied in that quote. Personally, I very much doubt it, but the reason Mark picked this quote probably lies in the last 3 words: “You got eyes”. Since Mark has told us on countless occasions that he too “has eyes”, he apparently feels that Kerouac is speaking directly to him and his particular brand of “poetry”. Perhaps that’s true. But the interesting – and revealing – part for me is his choice of “artists” here. Both Frank and Kerouac are, to say the least, “on the fringe”. While Mark has talked about and quoted Frank a number of times, I think this might be his first reference to Kerouac. So it’s “fringe times 2”, so to speak.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Kerouac was a drunken hack. I remember having to read “On the Road”, his most famous work, in a college English class (I think in 1969). I hated it (as did most of the rest of the class). I think the only reason we had to read it was because the instructor was a wannabe Kerouac, “beat generation” groupie. I also remember being very thankful that we didn’t have to write a paper on it. It would have been tough to be honest, knowing how the instructor felt.
Kerouac, by the way, was one of those “artists” who loved to tout his independence from all things commercial. He was his own man, he said, and didn’t care what anyone else thought of his work. Gee, where have I heard that before? The reality was something quite different. The man was constantly rewriting his own stuff – stuff that had been rejected – trying to get some publisher to buy it. I don’t blame the guy for that. Everybody’s gotta eat (or in his case, drink). But then the “I’m my own man” act comes across as a just a little hypocritical. Kerouac died at 47, having literally drunk himself into the ground.
Frank is a tougher nut to crack. One is almost compelled to feel bad for the guy – his daughter died tragically and his son committed suicide. If you listen to him speak, you get the distinct impression that emotional instability is just a stone’s throw away. And unlike Kerouac, he appears to honestly not give a rat’s ass what others think about his work or about him. Personally, I think his photographic work is singularly pedestrian (his “movies” are just plain bad). I get the impression that most of it – including “The Americans” – is little more than an extension of Walker Evan’s work (his former mentor). An extreme extension perhaps, but an extension nonetheless.
I do, however, have a quote of Frank’s that I like. If you do a search on Youtube, you can actually hear him say it (it’s from a program put on by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston). When asked to describe his work, he says:
I’m always looking outside, trying to look inside, trying to find something that’s true. But maybe nothing is really true, except what’s out there, and what’s out there is always different.
I think that says a great deal about a man who has spent most of his life trying to understand his own personal tragedies, his own angst, his own existence. If he “sees” at all, as Kerouac said he did, he sees those things that relate exclusively to his own experiences. There is no artistic objectivity. The melancholy and the emptiness that so many see in his images is nothing more than a reflection of how he views his own life.
If Frank sees anything clearly, it is the idea of “Truth”. He seems to understand that truth is a phantom, a mental mirage, a concept that is in constant flux. There are no absolutes in life.