Don’t Blink is an insightful gaze into the life and mind of iconoclastic photographer Robert Frank
The camera zeroes in on an unkempt, disheveled elderly gentleman; a question comes from off screen: “What makes a good photo?” The old man breaks out into a smile, and says, “It should be sharp!” The grin widens.
Meet Robert Frank, legendary photographer, filmmaker, artist and the subject of the new documentary Don’t Blink, directed by his longtime collaborator Laura Israel. Like Frank himself, her portrait is fastpaced, shifts direction and is never dull. Undergoing a minor renaissance in Vienna, Robert Frank is everywhere at the moment – there’s a photo exhibition at the Albertina and a retrospective of his entire filmography the Filmmuseum.
Today at 92, Robert Frank looks far younger: impish, intense and far from retired, he has the energy of someone half his age. Even now, Frank is constantly shooting pictures, often from the hip or overhead, liberally giving technical ad vice to the crew and quick to say so if he feels a scene isn’t working. On this occasion, Israel even cuts filming abruptly on his request.
Originally from Switzerland (he’s kept a very faint German accent), he moved to the U.S. in 1947, redefining photojournalism with his seminal book The Americans in 1958, the result of a twoyear road trip through his adopted homeland. In it, he portrayed the country exactly as he saw it, rife with inequality, boredom, despair and hope. Fascinated, Jack Kerouac wrote the introduction, and later would narrate one of Frank’s films with freeverse poetry.
Witness to the Zeitgeist
Drawn to outsiders and the fringes of society, Frank documented regular Americans, the beat generation and the counterculture, later venturing into film and art and working with Allen Ginsberg and Patti Smith, even covering the 1984 Democratic National Convention.
Ironically, his bestknown lm was never released: Cocksucker Blues was Frank’s documentary of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 U.S. tour supporting their album Exile on Main St., for which Frank created the cover art. Approaching the Stones as he did every thing else – honest, blunt, warts and all – Frank showed them bored and behaving badly, mounds of drugs in their dressing room, groupies in tow, throwing TVs out the hotel window. The Stones loved the film, but Mick Jagger felt that if shown in public, the band would never enter the U.S. again. The Filmmuseum has announced a rare screening in January.
Slice of Life
Frank’s films were usually more lowkey and often deeply personal. In Conversations in Vermont, he awkwardly communicates with his two teenaged kids, trying to recon struct a past that each remembers differently. Paper Route has Frank follow a Nova Scotian neighbor on his predawn winter circuit, delivering the local newspaper. Abstracted almost to the point of existential ism, it’s poetry in small things.
Perhaps that is Robert Frank’s secret: He treats every person and situation equally, with respect and an unflinching eye. A street vendor has the same potential significance as a celebrity; coffee at a diner can be as powerful as a parade. When he’s not a fly-on-the-wall, his unpredictability forces people to adapt to him. Flustered, they drop their guard, allowing a natural spontaneity to seep through from behind their masks.
Above all, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. In the final scene, Israel asks how he thinks the film will end. He surveys the gathering dusk over Manhattan, and that familiar, devious grin comes out. “With bad light!”