What Robert Frank Learned From The Beats

“Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

“Photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank recalls his experience as a young artist, picking up and moving from a small town and Switzerland to New York City. He describes his early struggles, his determination, and how Beat Generation writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac showed him a different way of life.”

(This video originally appeared on sfmoma.org as “Robert Frank as a young artist”)

“My name is Robert Frank, I’m a photographer and a filmmaker. It’s an experience to come to America and live here. When I think back on it, it’s more turbulent and more adventurous than I thought it was when I lived it, but it was worth it.

I photograph every day and I have a camera with me all the time. That’s a good time for a photographer, you know, you have to be young, and you walk around all day long. But I wanted to make a name for myself. I mean, I was aware of what you had to do to succeed. Well, you learned that, you’ve come here, and you.. you know, you’re a photographer, you’re just nothing.  So then you learn that you have to have pictures published and get your name next to the pictures, and you have to insist that they get your name right!  But being in America is an education, you know, and then, coming from that small country, you know, like Switzerland it’s even stronger. you know, but you find Kerouac and Ginsberg other people. It was lucky I found these people. They they showed me that there was other life, you know. Not everybody in America lived in a big house.

[voice of Kerouac from Pull My Daisy] – “He said “Did I tell you my poem about the Empire State building that had not doomed  the dumb eyes of New York all the time?”.  “That’s pretty good”, he says, “Hey, I’ve got a new poem. He says “Ol’ Ma Rainey, dying in an ambulance..”]


Ginsberg was a very intelligent man. He was kind of a prophet. The way he would read his poetry, you know, and.. that was his prophecy, you know, that his culture of gay people, or whatever, would be accepted then, and would be respected  for what they were. So they had a big influence on me.

It was not just Ginsberg, there were other people. Kerouac had a big influence on me. It was different then. Often I’d walk in the street with one of them, and, people would stop the car,  yell at you, “Cut your hair!”  You know, it was the time when there was no.. people didn’t like that spirit and disregard for the way things should be, and used to be. Yeah.

These people showed me that it was worthwhile trying to come through, and be accepted, and be read or be listened to. And I would live among them and I would be influenced by that attitude and that wish to be accepted for what they were – not to… compromise – and that was the word – not to compromise. Where I came from, Europe, there was no such thing. You did what you were supposed to do – find a place and then you get married and then, you know.. They wanted to have a different life and wanted to live in this culture but be different. And that was a worthwhile goal to have here – to be here but to be different.”

A poem/inscription to Robert from Allen:

“For Robert –

half moon & a small plane
blinking above the trees
flying over the bridge to Daytona Beach

Allen Ginsberg,
June 7, 1984

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