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Best known to young students of photography for his then-controversial but now-classic 1958 book The Americans, Robert Frank went through several other artistic phases in the ensuing decades, some in collaboration with Beat poets and some in isolation. Documentarian Gerald Fox’s intimate Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank made its premiere back in 2005, playing the Rotterdam festival as an “unauthorized” doc, despite being constructed almost entirely of interviews with Frank himself. Fourteen years later (and after the release of a similar film, Laura Israel’s Don’t Blink — Robert Frank), the artist has reportedly given his blessing for an American theatrical release, which begins at Film Forum before expanding to Los Angeles and perhaps beyond.
More than anything, the doc lives up to its name as a portrait of the photographer in his old age. An octogenarian at the time of filming, he spends one scene toward the film’s end listing the many pains and indignities he endures. The challenge, he says, is to accept them without bitterness.
Frank is less accepting of the afflictions faced by his adoptive hometown. Even 14 years ago, the Swiss-born artist saw moneyed newcomers transforming the Manhattan whose streets once gave him a rich variety of subjects. “The Yuppies,” he laments, “they have a right to live, too. But I don’t want to live amongst them.”
The studio and loft Frank has had for decades is at the epicenter of that change: On Bleecker Street, a few steps from the Bowery, it’s in a neighborhood artists once shared with tradespeople and the homeless; now, it’s all trendy hotels and expensive restaurants. Still, Frank’s building remains a lively studio shared with his second wife, artist June Leaf. Sitting or working alongside Frank as she talks, the good-natured Leaf (Fox’s only interviewee aside from the photographer) paints a more spirited picture than the sometimes cantankerous Frank.
Not really trying to be a comprehensive portrait — and hardly at all interested in the technical aspects of his work — the doc mostly collects personal impressions of various episodes in Frank’s career. Breezing quickly past his early work for American fashion magazines, it highlights personal photographic missions abroad: He shot flower merchants in Paris, bankers in London, miners in Wales.
Then there was The Americans, a collection that, to Frank’s surprise, was seen by many critics as a condemnation of this country. Alone and with his wife, Frank traveled across the U.S., having his eyes opened to the way black people were treated. The resulting collection is one of the most famous photo-books in history, but you’ll need to go elsewhere to hear critics or fellow photographers discuss its impact.
After The Americans, Frank embraced experimental moviemaking. Made with Alfred Leslie and poets including Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, 1959’s Pull My Daisy remains the most famous of these works, but Frank continued making films throughout his life. This doc’s midsection draws heavily on personal films, shot from 1969 through the 2000s, that touch on his home life and the deaths of the two children he had with first wife Mary Frank. Frank worked through grief in some of these, but they don’t seem to have given him peace: He confesses to Fox that he doesn’t think he gave enough love as a father.
Much of Frank’s reputation as a recluse owes to his move in the 1970s to Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, where he and Leaf would work much of the year in isolation. Leaving Home visits that lovely part of the world and listens as Frank describes the more complicated forms of non-movie art he embraced in later years — manipulating old negatives in the darkroom, combining and scrawling words on them to create raw-feeling personal collages. “You have to make a tremendous effort not to repeat,” he says of his attempts to forge paths away from the work that made him famous. This loose but occasionally penetrating film conveys that spirit, even if newcomers will need to do their own further research in order to really know Frank’s oeuvre.
Production company: London Weekend TV
Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment
Director-producer: Gerald Fox
Executive producers: Gillian Greenwood
Directors of photography: Robert Hannah, Kyle Cameron
Editor: Steve Scales
Venue: Film Forum
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