Smith on Robert Frank

In 1995, I made my first visit to the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, where I now work with the Jazz Loft Project. I went there on a field trip as part of Bill Bamberger’s documentary photography class at UNC to see a photography exhibition of Robert Frank’s The Americans. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is presenting these Frank photographs through January 3, 2010 as “Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans .” Frank made these photographs  from 1955-56 and Smith moved into the loft in 1957.   The Americans would make excellent prerequisite viewing before seeing and hearing Smith’s work as part of The Jazz Loft Project exhibition which debuts at the Library for Performing Arts at Lincoln Center on February 17, 2010.

Robert Frank’s photography comes up on a 1965 recording from the loft where W. Eugene Smith and Carole Thomas are discussing the possibility of creating a magazine called Sensorium with a potential partner and backer named Virgil Cory. Smith planned to publish a fully realized essay of his loft photographs with a flexi disc of loft recordings in the debut issue, but the magazine never came out. While elucidating his vision regarding the ideal relationship between photographers and editors, Smith compares Robert Frank to Franz Kafka. The following is a fragment from their dialogue, transcribed by yours truly, with an interpretative punctuation scheme based on how it sounds.

–Dan Partridge, Jazz Loft Project Research Associate

W. Eugene Smith and Carole Thomas talk to Virgil Cory about Robert Frank and Franz Kafka, with a nod to Norman Mailer (1965)

W. Eugene Smith: I simply will not, under no circumstances, accept the word “objective reporting.” A man can be as honest as he possibly can, and possibly he will be approaching the truth… maybe not, depending on his own abilities, his perception, his knowledge. I’m sure Norman Mailer, for instance, is an honest guy, but sometimes I think he blows the bloody truth, right out the… uh, exhaust pipe, just by the own intensity of his feelings on certain matters. And this is what I tried to point out, the difference in my opinion, one of the differences between the so called, (I phrased it once fairly well, but uh, I don’t think I can remember now) the so called, say “free artist” and the disciplines of the journalist. It’s not that actually, as for the ability of creating this final work, I think there’s an equal chance, but um, the artist, the free artist….gee, I can’t remember how I…

Carole Thomas: Well, I think the main point of it was that there is… it’s true there are certain responsibilities on both ends but when they’re presented, if the so called “free artist’s” work is presented as journalism…

Smith: …Thank you. Now, for instance, there’s a young photographer by the name of Bob Frank. I think one of the better photographers in the world that I know of, but he, he’s kind of a Franz Kafka.  Kafka, I don’t think, is a good journalist, if you’re presenting him as a journalist. And I don’t think you can present Bob Frank, say “here’s a journalistic, photographic journalistic report,” but you use these people for their qualities, you present them for what they are: “Here’s a very unique insight, a man of great talent and…” Present it. And use it that way, instead of…

Thomas: But without as much responsibility to his subject.

Smith: Yeah, you present it as the prejudices of a man. And you can learn an awful lot:  “Gee, I’m certainly glad we have a Kafka around…. I’m glad we have a Mailer around.” I think an editor’s job is to have the wisdom to use the greatness of others to create a totality of a magazine or whatever he’s editing into a greatness.

Thomas: And to know the difference between the two different aspects.

1 Comment

  1. keith Said,

    December 30, 2009 @ 11:30 pm

    Dan Partridge related to Rondal Partridge?