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!”

Starts Nov 10, Gartenbau. 1., Parkring 12. gartenbaukino.at

Photographic Exhibition: Through Jan 21, Albertina. 1., Albertinaplatz 1. albertina.at

Retrospective: Nov 10-27, Filmmuseum. 1., Augustinerstrasse 1. filmmuseum.at