Book review by Steve Harp •
Good Days Quiet, Robert Frank’s final book – or the final book he would have made editorial contribution to – continues the series of books published by Steidl “organizing” Frank’s archives in the twilight of his career. Subtitled “memories from Robert” the book alternates photographs (interior and exterior) of his home in Mabou, Nova Scotia with portraits of family and friends.
Primarily set up as full bleeds with the left page remaining blank, there are five double page spreads. The book indeed exudes quiet – devoid of text other than name (but not date) identifiers for the portraits and the texts hand-scrawled across eight of the Mabou photo – an elegiac quality runs through the entire book in the roughness of the black & white polaroid images and the presentation of the book-object itself with the exposed stitching of the spine and the slipcase sleeve.
There seems a sense of unfinishedness if you will in the presentation of the book-object which might at first seem at odds with its being Robert Frank’s “last” book. But there is something perfect (and certainly beautiful) in the idea of “unfinished.” As if there can ever be a “finish” or summing up of Robert Frank’s work. The book (and much of Frank’s work overall, I think) suggest that from a certain perspective, these might be seen as indecisive moments. The beauty of the exposed spine imparts a hand-made quality, as if the book is a personal gift. I am reminded of a line from Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
As I sit with these images, I am increasingly taken by the tension between transience and – if not permanence, then – stubbornness. The interior photographs speak of age, use, a familiar comfort. The exteriors juxtapose the harsh, bleak beauty of the northern Nova Scotia landscape with the forlorn human interventions of roads, fences, poles, structures. Nearly as forlorn are the linguistic gestures scratched across several of the pages.
Most poignant for me is the penultimate image in the book, WATCHING THE CROWS – a view through a window, the landscape blurred and overexposed. In the foreground what looks like two vases – one holding a glove on a stick – and what appears to be a telescope. No crows are visible, but we watch. At almost the exact midpoint of the book is an image of a downed pole extending diagonally across the frame. A rope is tied around it and two small patches of snow lie in the overgrown grass. Scrawled across the frame a single word: MemoriaL.
The entire book, of course, is – intentionally or not – a memorial. As a preservation of memories, it is, I think, inevitable that for those of us who have never personally known Robert Frank, we cannot help but conjure memories of encounters with Frank’s work and reflect on what his work has meant to so many on so many levels – artistic, emotional, dare I even say spiritual? Frank showed (at least to me) what photography made possible expressively and what photography rendered unnecessary visually. The beauty of these images and Frank’s work as a whole is its vulnerability, its embrace of the transitory, the ephemeral. The photograph, rather than being a means of preservation, is more accurately a record of absence and loss.
And that awareness of immanent and inevitable loss permeates these pages. I am not familiar with the subjects of all the portraits in Good days Quiet, but when I got to the photograph of Frank’s son Pablo (“Pablo and Rhonda”) I instantly thought of Roland Barthes’ phrase from Camera Lucida, “He is dead and he is going to die.” A sense of which, of course, tinges the entire volume, knowing it is Frank’s last work. “I shudder,” as Barthes writes, “like Winnicott’s psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred… every photograph is this catastrophe.” We might then look at Good days Quiet as a book of catastrophes, beautiful catastrophes.
Good days Quiet, Robert Frank
Robert Frank, 1924–2019. Born Switzerland, had resided New York City and Mabou, Nova Scotia.
Publisher: Steidl Publishers, Gottingen, Germany, 2019.
Softcover book in slipcase. Exposed sewn binding. Printed by Steidl, Gottingen.
Designed by Robert Frank, A-chan, and Gerhard Steidl