Me, Kerouac and Frank

I can no longer remember what led me to the work of Jack Kerouac as a 15 or 16 year-old in an outer London suburb around 1960, though I think it was linked in some way with my addiction to jazz, and modern jazz in particular.

The old-fashioned Grammar School that I attended had a weekly lunchtime jazz record session for older pupils led by one of the younger staff and I became an avid fan, though it was a little later that I began to attend live music. But for several years the only record that I owned (and was very occasionally allowed to play on big sister’s record player) was the 1956 Esquire 7″ 45 rpm ‘The Mastery of Miles’, featuring The New Miles Davis Quintet, with Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Jo Jones. I still have it.

I can remember the look of disgust on my Headmaster’s face as he presented my prize for distinction in academic work for the year 1961/2 (we were allowed to choose books to a certain value), the Grove Press edition of Jack Kerouac’s ‘Dr Sax‘. It was a look repeated the following year when he handed over ‘Big Sur‘, with in an Andre Deutsch edition, its cover image of a man clutching a wine bottle lying on a mattress taken looking between the soles of his footwear.

It was of course Kerouac who wrote the introduction to Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ (the first draft is here) although only after Frank had been disatisfied with an earlier introduction by Walker Evans – and Delpire rejected both for the initial French edition, including instead texts by various authors which perhaps seemed to relegate the pictures to illustrations.

It was around ten years later that I came across ‘The Americans‘, possibly at Leicester University where I took a short and basic course in photography as a part of a teacher training year. A year or so later I managed to borrow a copy on inter-Library loan and later still I bought my own copy, probably from the ‘Creative Camera’ book room.

I still have that copy of the 1978 Aperture edition, possibly the best of many, but also the huge 2009 volume of essays edited by Sarah Greenough, ‘Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans: Expanded Edition’, a book too heavy to read but which includes much previously unpublished material as well as the 83 pictures in the original.

Frank took almost 28,000 pictures during his travels across America, and in 1978 sold his archive to pay for making films and living expenses. You can see a few in a New York Times feature, and at the Danziger Gallery, which also includes some earlier and later work. Although in 1976 Frank wrote in his volume in the Aperture History of Photography series:

1960. Decide to put my camera in a closet. Enoug of observing and hunting and capturing (sometimes) the essence of what is black or what is good and where is God.
I make films. Now I have to talk to the people who move across my viewfinder. It isn’t easy nor particularly successful.”

and continues in the entry for 1969, “Camera still in closet”, this doesn’t appear to have been strictly true. But I think for most of us what really matters about his work, and what remains his huge contribution to photography are those 83.


I’ll continue with some of my old essay on Robert Frank shortly – unless like today my mind gets diverted!

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