ROBERT FRANK at Stephen Bulger Gallery (1026 Queen West) to December 22. 416-504-0575. Films screen Saturday (December 10) at Camera (see Indie & Rep Film Listings). Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
After a few minutes with these Robert Frank works, you feel like you know him.
The Swiss-born photographer's acclaimed 1958 book, The Americans, offered a stark but touching version of American life, featuring faces usually excluded from the official portraits of U.S. post-war ebullience. As Jack Kerouac wrote in the introduction, Frank "sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film."
He later designed the iconic cover for the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street before coming to the vivid, emotional depths of the collage works titled In Canada. Set amidst the remote, rugged beauty of Mabou, Cape Breton, these scrapbook-like pages trace another sad poem written just before and after the tragic death of Frank's daughter in 1974.
The black-and-white landscapes of Isn't It Wonderful Just To Be Alive, 1971 predate the coming heartbreak. Two sets of horizons, assembled from numerous cropped photos carefully arranged to recreate an inlet, are fixed to a white background with masking tape. Handwritten messages convey Frank's joyful idle thoughts about the changing seasons and returning to New York.
Mailbox And Letters, from the winter of 1976/1977, documents daily life in Mabou. Ten small photos feature the ritual of retrieving the mail from the patient-looking mailbox. Frank's partner, artist June Leaf, trudges through the snow, and the frigid waters below can be seen. Frank glued these images, fittingly, to the very letters retrieved from the mailbox that winter. Though it's partially obscured, you can read a nice letter from the manufacturer of Lure Cameras, who made the small disposable camera Frank used, and a threatening letter from a lawyer in California. The joy of the earlier work seems to have chilled to resignation.
In Canada left me wishing I could see the originals in Ottawa's National Gallery, but these finely made limited-edition reproductions are certainly worth a long look.