Robert Frank Collection
The MFAH remembers Robert Frank, who died on September 9, 2019.
The Museum began collecting his photographs in the early 1980s and organized the seminal exhibition Robert Frank: New York to Nova Scotia, featuring his photographs and films, in 1986. That same year, the MFAH and KUHT-TV produced the first documentary about the artist—Fire in the East: A Portrait of Robert Frank. Also in 1986, the Museum took on an active role in preserving and distributing the artist’s films. To date, the MFAH has circulated his films to hundreds of venues worldwide. In 2003, the Museum presented the exhibition For Robert: Images Given to Robert Frank by Other Artists. The MFAH Films fall calendar includes screenings of the new release Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank on September 20, 21 & 22.
The MFAH, since 1986, has served as the distributor of film and video by internationally renowned photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank (1924–2019). New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis has called Frank “one of the most important and influential American independent filmmakers of the last half-century.” Best known for his photography, Frank gained worldwide attention in the 1950s with his book The Americans. He turned to filmmaking in 1959, when he codirected the experimental Pull My Daisy with Alfred Leslie. The classic short film features narration by Jack Kerouac and a cast including Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso.
The Museum’s distribution of this prestigious collection has reached institutions worldwide, comprising retrospectives, as well as bookings of individual titles. The 2009 exhibition Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, organized by the National Gallery of Art, included a companion film retrospective that was also shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Recent retrospectives have been held in London, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, London, New York, Los Angeles, and many other cities. The Museum works with prestigious arts institutions that include Robert Frank’s films within exhibitions, in 2016 including the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, while CS Blues has screened at the Telluride Film Festival and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 2015.
Among Frank’s many honors are two Guggenheim Fellowships, the first awarded to a European photographer (1955, 1956); an American Film Institute grant (1970–71); the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Photographie Erich Salomon Prize (1985); the Friends of Photography Peer Award for a Distinguished Career in Photography (1987); the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography (1996); the Persistence of Vision Award from the San Francisco International Film Festival (1998); the International Center of Photography Cornell Capa Infinity Award (2000); an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Göteborg (1999); the Edward MacDowell Medal (2002). Frank's short film True Story was honored in 20019 with the Principal Prize at the prestigious International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen, Germany. Many of Robert Frank's films have been released on DVD via Steidl. A second edition of the book Frank Films, published by Sixpack Films in Vienna, was released in 2009. Robert Frank received a Lifetime Achievement Award in Bern, Switzerland with a film retrospective at the Kino Kunstmuseum (2012). In 2015, Australian film scholar George Kouvaros published Awakening the Eye: Robert Frank's American Cinema. Kouvaros surveys Frank’s films and videos and places them in the larger context of experimentation in American art and literature since World War II.
The Museum also maintains a research and study collection of materials about Robert Frank that is available to students and scholars. The MFAH owns over 350 photographs by Robert Frank, and the original maquettes for his seminal books, The Americans and Lines of My Hand. In 2003, Frank also gave nearly 200 photographs, given to him by other photographers, to the collection. This substantial archive surveys Frank’s career from his early photographs of Europe in the late 1940s, to his searing views of America in the mid-1950s to the late Polaroid self-portraits and prints of his family and homes in New York and Nova Scotia.
Robert Frank Collection: In the News
The insightful documentary Don't Blink – Robert Frank, directed by Frank's longtime editor, Laura Israel, garnered great reviews in screenings at film festivals and theaters across the country. Released through Grasshopper Films.
Don’t Blink – Robert Frank
Directed by Laura Israel
(USA, 2015, 82 minutes)
Robert Frank is among the most influential artists of the last half-century. His seminal volume, The Americans, published in 1958, records the Swiss-born photographer’s candid reactions to peculiarly American versions of poverty and racism. Today it is a classic work that helped define the off-the-cuff, idiosyncratic elegance that are hallmarks of Frank’s artistry. Director Laura Israel (Frank’s longtime film editor) and producer Melinda Shopsin were given unprecedented access to the notably irascible artist. The assembled portrait is not unlike Frank’s own movies – rough around the edges and brimming with surprises and insights – calling to mind Frank’s quintessential underground movie, the 1959 Beat short, Pull My Daisy (co-directed by Alfred Leslie). Don't Blink includes clips from Frank’s rarely seen movies, among them Me and My Brother and CS Blues. The soundtrack includes Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Yo La Tengo, and Tom Waits.
“An illuminating biopic of the game-changing photographer/filmmaker, made by his longtime moving-image archivist and editor, clearly with the full cooperation and enjoyment of its irascible subject.” —Amy Taubin, Artforum
“An informal portrait of Mr. Frank, in which the photographer and documentary filmmaker tells the editor-director Laura Israel his own story. Mr. Frank’s book, The Americans, his groundbreaking survey of everyday American faces photographed in the tradition of Walker Evans, remains his crowning achievement. Mr. Frank personifies a defiant individuality.” —Stephen Holden, New York Times
“Intimate, impressionistic, and irascibly entertaining. (A) life-spanning collage of creative passions, heartfelt memories, and curmudgeonly wisdom. The reclusive man-of-the-hour himself is our begrudgingly yet riotously no-BS guide.” —Aaron Hillis, Village Voice
“This is Robert Frank the funny guy, the experimental filmmaker, the fan of the ‘60s Beat scene. What also emerges is Frank’s embrace of creative work as the antidote to personal tragedy. Don't Blink features gorgeous full-frame representations of his still photographs and clips from most, if not all, of his movies, including the legendary CS Blues, commissioned – and buried – by the Rolling Stones, and Pull My Daisy, a silent film with voiceover by Jack Kerouac.” —Judy Gelman Myers, American Photo Magazine
“Reflecting Frank’s style, the unconventional documentary is a lively montage of images, sounds and memories from the photographer’s eventful life.” —Elsa Keslassy, Variety
Robert Frank Circulating Collection: How to Order
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Houston, TX 77005 USA
Pull My Daisy
(1959, b/w, 28 min.)
G-String Enterprises: Robert Frank, Alfred Leslie, Directors; Walter Gutman, Producer; Jack Kerouac, Writer; Robert Frank, Director of Photography; Leon Prochnik, Robert Frank, Alfred Leslie, Editors; with Richard Bellamy, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, Larry Rivers, Delphine Seyrig, David Amram, Alice Neel, Sally Gross, Denise Parker, Pablo Frank.
Pull My Daisy is a classic look at the soul of the beat generation, made with writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and painters Alfred Leslie, Larry Rivers, and Alice Neel. It was written and narrated by Kerouac, based on his unproduced play The Beat Generation. It tells the story of a bishop (Richard Bellamy) and his mother (Alice Neel) who pay a visit to Milo, a railroad worker. At the same time his poet friends, Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso, hang around quizzing the bishop about the meaning of life and its everyday relationship to art and poetry. Pull My Daisy is recognized as one of the most important works of avant-garde cinema.
The Sin of Jesus
(1961, b/w, 40 min.)
An Off-Broadway Production: Robert Frank, Director; Walter Gutman, Producer; Gert Berliner, Cinematographer; Robert Frank and Ken Collins, Editors; Howard Shulman, Script; with Julie Bovasso, John Coe, Roberts Blossom, St. George Brian, Telly Savalas, Philip Sterling, and playing angels, Mary Frank, Andrea Frank, Richard Bellamy and Jonas Mekas.
Robert Frank’s second film is one of his most stylized and reflects Frank’s increasingly sophisticated cinematographic eye. Based on a short story by Isaac Babel, this parable finds Jesus refusing mercy to a young woman, instead giving her a guardian angel that she seduces.
O.K. End Here
(1963, b/w, 30 min.)
September 20 Productions: Robert Frank, Director; Edwin Gregson, Producer; Marion Magid, Writer; Gert Berliner, Director of Photography; Aram Avakian, Editor; with Martino La Salle, Sue Ungaro, Sudie Bond, Anita Ellis, Joseph Bird.
O.K. End Here is about a day in the lives of a man and woman who live together in New York City. It is Sunday, a day without the distractions that keep people from facing each other and themselves. O. K. End Here won the grand prize at the 1963 Bergamo Film Festival.
Me and My Brother
(1965-68, re-edited 1997, b/w and color, 91 min.)
A Two Faces Company Production: Robert Frank, Director, Photography; Helen Silverstein, Producer; Robert Frank, Sam Shepard, Writers; Robert Frank, Helen Silverstein, Bob Easton, Lynn Ratener, Editors; with Julius Orlovsky, Joseph Chaikin, Christopher Walken, John Coe, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Virginia Kiser, Nancy Fish, Cynthia McAdams, Roscoe Lee Browne, Seth Allen, Gregory Corso.
Me and My Brother, Frank’s first feature length film, places documentary footage of poets Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Peter’s brother Julius within a fictional framework. Constantly delineating real and imaginary situations and moving back and forth between color and black and white, the film describes the inner and outer worlds of Julius, a catatonic, who silently observes the world around him. The film was re-edited in 1997 to mark the passing of Allen Ginsberg and also features the late Joseph Chaikin, founder of the revolutionary Off-Broadway company, Open Theater.
Conversations in Vermont
(1969, b/w, 26 min.)
Dielexi Foundation: Robert Frank, Director, Producer, Writer, Sound, Editor; Ralph Gibson, Photography; with Robert Frank, Pablo Frank, Andrea Frank, Mary Frank.
Conversations in Vermont is about Robert Frank’s relationship with his children Pablo and Andrea. Photographed by Ralph Gibson, it is his first overtly autobiographical film. He follows his children to school in Vermont and interviews them about their feelings, their upbringing and what it was like to grow up in a bohemian world with artists as parents. In searching for answers about his children’s lives, Frank is questioning his own world.
(1969, color, 37 min.)
Portola Institute: Robert Frank, Director, Photography; Stewart Brand and Hugh Romney, Producers; Danny Lyon, Sound; with Hugh Romney, Stewart Brand.
Whole Earth Catalog editor Stewart Brand and his friend Hugh Romney (Wavy Gravy) asked Robert Frank to document “The Hunger Show,” a week-long fast staged by the Portola Institute in California. This was a “happening” designed to make the problem of world hunger and malnutrition a personal matter for participants and observers. The film records the event which took place from October 11 to October 18, 1969 in a parking lot in Hayward.
About Me: A Musical
(1971, b/w, 35 min.)
American Film Institute: Robert Frank, Director, Producer, Writer, Editor; Danny Seymour, Photography; Robert McNamara, Sound; with Lynn Reyner, Jaime deCarlo, Totts, Robert Schlee, Sheila Pavlo, Bill Hart, Vera Cochran, Sidney Kaplan, June Leaf, Allen Ginsberg, Hugh Romney, Danny Lyon.
About Me: A Musical was planned as a cinematic study of indigenous American music. Robert Frank decided instead to make the film about himself. An actress (Lynn Reyner) plays Frank. He examines his life symbolically, questioning the personal toll his work has taken and the value of his contribution as a photographer. His search for freedom is represented by the music.
(1975, b/w, 30 min.)
Canada Council: Robert Frank, and Rudy Wurlitzer, Directors, Producers; Rudy Wurlitzer, Writer; Robert Frank, Photography; Charles Dean, Sound; with June Leaf, Joanne Akolitis, Richard Serra, Joan Jonas.
Keep Busy is a spontaneous, improvised story about a group of people living on an island off Nova Scotia. Obsessed with daily aspects of their lives and the cycles of nature, the group is subjugated by a lighthouse keeper and his messenger, who have access to the only radio and therefore control the news.
Life Dances On
(1980, b/w and color, 30 min.)
Robert Frank, Director, Producer; Robert Frank, Gary Hill, Danny Seymour, Photography, Sound; Gary Hill, Editor; with Pablo Frank, Sandy Strawbridge, June Leaf, Marty Greenbaum, Finley Fryer, Billy.
Life Dances On is Robert Frank’s most personal and emotional work because it deals directly with his family and close friends. The film is dedicated to his daughter Andrea and to his friend and collaborator Danny Seymour, both deceased. Life Dances On is composed of delicately balanced, intuitive moments that merge Frank’s own sense of loss for two people close to him with several filmed portraits of those who share his life, including his family and people on the street in New York City.
Energy and How to Get It
(1981, b/w, 28 min.)
Corporation for Public Broadcasting Anthropology Film Series: Robert Frank, Rudy Wurlitzer, Gary Hill, Directors, Producers; Rudy Wurlitzer, Writer; Robert Frank, Gary Hill, Photography; Leanne Ungeer, John Knoop, Sound; Gary Hill, Editor; with Robert Golka, Agnes Moon, William Burroughs, Robert Downey, Rudy Wurlitzer, John Giorrio, Lynne Adams, Alan Moyle, Dr. John, Libby Titus.
Filmed in Wendover, Nevada, in early 1981, Energy and How to Get It combines documentary and fictional ideas. What began as a documentary film about Robert Golka, an engineer who was experimenting with ball lightening and the development of fusion as an energy force, was turned into a spoof on the documentary form, inserting fictional characters into the story such as the Energy Czar (William Burroughs), and a Hollywood agent (filmmaker Robert Downey).
This Song for Jack
(1983, b/w, 30 min.)
Robert Frank, Director, Producer, Photography; Jay Markel, Sound; Sam Edwards, Editor; with Allen Ginsberg, David Amram, William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
This Song for Jack is based on footage Robert Frank shot at “On the Road: The Jack Kerouac Conference,” held at the Naropa Institute, Boulder, Colorado, from July 23 to August 1, 1982. The film is dedicated to Kerouac, Frank’s late friend and collaborator on Pull My Daisy and The Americans. Home-movie-like footage shot mostly on the Chautauqua lodge porch — the unofficial conference clubhouse — featuring Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, John Clellon Holmes, Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke, Michael McClure, Edie Kerouac, Carl Solomon, Kens Kesey & Babbs, Abbie Hoffman, David Amram, Ann Charters, Joyce Johnson, Jack Micheline, Andy Clausen and others.
(1985, color, 29 min.)
Robert Frank, Director, Producer, Photography, Sound; Michael Bianchi and Sam Edwards, Editors; with Robert Frank, June Leaf, Pablo Frank, Gunther Moses.
Home Improvements, Robert Frank’s first video project, is a simple and poignant diary of consequential events. It is about the relationship between Frank’s life as an artist and his personal life, and how the two are inevitably intertwined. It was made cheaply with a half-inch video porta-pak. Home Improvements takes place in New York and Nova Scotia and in the mental space between these two opposing worlds.
Fire in the East: A Portrait of Robert Frank
(1986, color, 28 min.)
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and KUHT-Public Television, Houston; Philip Brookman and Amy Brookman, Directors, Writers, Editors; Anne Wilkes Tucker and Paul Yeager, Producers; Babette Mangolte, Director of Photography; Paul Yeager, Sound; with Robert Frank, Allen Ginsberg, Rudy Wurlitzer, Emile de Antonio, Jonas Mekas, Duane Michals, Louis Faurer, Elliot Erwitt, Ed Grazda, June Leaf, John Szarkowski, Lou Silverstein, Walter Gutman.
Fire in the East: A Portrait of Robert Frank presents an intimate view of four decades of Frank’s life, films, and photographs. Many people with whom he has worked in the past are interviewed, including Allen Ginsberg, Emile de Antonio, Jonas Mekas, and Rudy Wurlitzer. Frank’s current thoughts on his life and art are also revealed.
(1989, b/w and color, 36 min.)
Kulturstiftung Ruhr/Kinemathek im Ruhrgebiet: Robert Frank, Director; Stephan Balint, Writer; Clemens Steiger, Director of Photography; Jolie Gorchov, Editor; with Stephan Balint, Gunter Burchert.
In the words of Robert Frank, “This is about a man whose destiny is -- not to find a destination. . . . A man who fears that he will never find what his imagination compels him to look for, a mystical traveler going by train and by car through . . . language and landscape.” The film was shot entirely on location in Germany’s industrial Ruhr region in September/October 1989 and is in German, Turkish, and English (with English titles where appropriate).
(1990, color, 60 min.)
La Sept, Prony Productions, Paris: Robert Frank, Director, Camera, Screenplay; Philippe Grandrieux, Producer; Michal Rovner, Assistant Director, Screenplay; Jerry Poynton, Assistant Producer; Dialogue in Diner, Mika Moses; Lines of Peter Orlovsky, total improvisation; with Kevin O’Connor, Peter Orlovsky, Taylor Mead, Jim, Odessa Taft.
A one-hour trip through New York City’s lower-east side, produced on video for French television without editing the narrative. It presents a startling juxtaposition of scripted fiction which appears to be drawn from real life and improvised documentation that overlays the story when Peter Orlovsky arrives to confront the filmmaker.
(1992, color, 52 min.)
Vega Film AG and World Wide International TV/BBC: Robert Frank, Director, Camera, Screenplay; Ruth Waldburger and Martin Rosenbaum, Producers; Sam North, Michal Rovner, Screenplay; Jay Rabinow, Editor; with Zohra Lampert, Bill Youmans, Bill Rice, Taylor Mead, John Larkin, Odessa Taft.
In an empty lot in Harlem, an elite group of New Yorkers prepares for a book-signing party given in honor of a writer who never shows up. Local residents, dealing with the practicality of life, look on as the guests obsess about identity, status, and success. Finally, the writer’s fears and doubts are understood, with ironic implications.
(1996, color, 27 min.)
Vega Film, Zurich, Ruth Waldburger, Producers: Robert Frank, Director; Robert Frank and Paolo Nozzolino, Cinematography; Laura Israel, Editor; Robert Frank, Sound.
Simple objects, photographs, and events prompt Frank to self-conscious rumination. From his homes in New York and Nova Scotia and on visits to friends, the artist contemplates his relationships, the anniversary of his daughter’s death, his son’s mental illness, and his work.
(1996, b/w, 5 min.)
Made for the lending out of the Hasselblad Award; Robert Frank, Director, Cinematographer, Producer; Laura Israel, Editor; Narrated by Miranda Dali.
Frank’s poetic diary (with voiceover narration) recording the construction of a new foundation for his house in a remote area of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia; it silently describes the need to keep working in the face of nature and time.
(1998, color, 7 min.)
Robert Frank, Director, Producer; Jerome Sother, Cinematographer; Laura Israel, Editor; with Robert Frank, June Leaf, Jerome Sother.
Frank narrates a charming re-enactment of his visit to the home of Alfred Stieglitz. The cast comprises June Leaf as Georgia O'Keeffe, artist Jerome Sother as Robert Frank, and Frank himself in the role of Stieglitz.
(2000, b/w + color, 27 min.)
Vega Film, Zurich, Paris: Yves Riou, Didier Fouquier, Producers; Robert Frank, Director; Robert Frank and Paolo Nozzolino, Cinematography; Laura Israel, Editor; with Nikolai Boldaïen.
Sanyu (1901-1964), an important Chinese artist, was a friend of Robert Frank's who died in anonymity in Paris. In this film portrait, Frank creates a requiem that includes dramatic and documentary scenes set in Paris, and a chronicle of his trip to Taipei to attend Sotheby's auction of the paintings Sanyu left him.
(2002, color, 23 min.)
Made by order of the Expo project “Le Cafard;” Vega Film, Zurich, Producers. Robert Frank, Director, Producer; Laura Israel, Editor; with Bobby McMillan.
The artist joins Robert MacMillan on a wintry, pre-dawn morning and accompanies him on his daily route delivering newspapers to towns in the rural Nova Scotia community where Frank has had a second home for many years. Chatting amiably in voiceover as his camera observes the landscape and MacMillan’s encounters with his customers, Frank conducts a rambling interview inspired by his own desire to better understand how people live their lives.
(2004/2008, color and b&w, 26 min.)
Editor: Laura Israel; Sound mix: Laki Fotopoulos; Online: Steve Covello; Photograph of Louis Faurer by Suzuki Risaku; Mr. Motomura in Mabou filmed by Yuichi Hibi; Albano Pereira reads from Neuf Paris #8, 1952; Voice of Nancy Fish from Frank’s film Me and My Brother (1965–68)
Speaking in voiceover, the artist narrates scenes shot in his homes in New York and Nova Scotia. His rambling commentary returns to familiar themes of memory, and the loss of friends and family members. Brief excerpts from earlier films are shown, along with Frank’s photographs, the art of his wife, June Leaf, and extraordinarily detailed letters written by his son, Pablo (1951–1994). Alternately poignant, reflective, self-mocking and angry, this candid autobiography reveals Frank’s late career preoccupations. Recipient of the Principal award at the 2009 Oberhausen Film Festival.
(2008, color and b&w, 4 min.)
Commissioned to premiere under the Swiss Alps at an event held during final blasting through the midpoint of the 21-mile Lotschberg Tunnel in 2005.
(2008, color, 12 min.)
An homage to Frank's lifelong friend Fernando, a Swiss artist who passed away.
Harry Smith at the Breslin Hotel 1984
(2017, color and b&w, 11 min.)
In 1984, upon learning that his friend Harry Smith was being evicted from the Breslin Hotel in New York City, Allen Ginsberg encouraged Robert Frank to document the move on video. The result is a time capsule that captures a touching and unique encounter between two iconoclastic artists. Over a one-week period, Smith shows examples of his abundant collection of art, books, indigenous recordings, and films, many of which were later donated to the Getty Research Institute, the Smithsonian, and Anthology Film Archives. Frank’s video footage remained unedited until 2017, when his longtime editor, Laura Israel, discovered the tapes, had them digitally restored, and worked with Frank to create his first new film in years.