I published this piece in Dark Angels On Writing this year. I thought I’d post it here for you very, very few folks who don’t have the book.
What does it mean for a writer to pay attention?
“…if you love something enough and pay a passionate enough attention to it, the whole world can become present in it.”
~ John Jeremiah Sullivan
by Richard PelletierHere in my writing shed, under a starry night and an almost full moon, on the southern tip of this magical island in Puget Sound where I live, I imagine rummaging through a junk drawer. Amidst the rubber bands and the old paper clips, I am looking for a commemorative 1955 silver dollar that exists only in my dreams—heads on both sides. On one—the profile of the writer James Baldwin. I flip the coin. There is the curly-headed pate of my hero, the photographer Robert Frank. My America.
There was something on the wind in that year of 1955. Those two men, one black, one white, knew. Both were artists, both living in New York City. From the Village, came Baldwin with Notes of a Native Son. “The people who think of themselves as white,” he wrote, “have the choice of becoming human or irrelevant. Or, as they are indeed already, in all but actual fact, obsolete.” That same year, Frank, Swiss-born, celebrated here and in Europe, set out on a series of road trips in his 1950 Ford Business Coupe (Detroit, Savannah, Miami, New Orleans, Houston, Los Angeles) to document America in a book. The time was ripe.
The show-stopping cover of Frank’s book, The Americans, might well have flown straight out of James Baldwin’s tightly coiled rage. Five passengers sit perfectly and eternally framed in front-to-back order on a New Orleans streetcar. A white man, a white woman. A little white boy in a little white-boy suit. (Already impressive at white entitlement.) A little white girl, crying. A black man. A black woman. In a single photograph—a supremely complicated one-hundred and seventy-nine-year story. The Americans was a brutally honest chronicle. Look, it said. Open your eyes. Feel. It was the book that changed photography for all time.
Miner, shaman, brother, thiefWhy is this piece of writing about writing concerning itself with the double helix that is James and Robert? My brief is to talk about writing from the perspective of being a photographer. And, it’s because good writing always concerns itself with seeing. And seeing is what James Baldwin and Robert Frank did better than almost anyone else. Each man came to it in different ways. Baldwin’s gaze was unforgiving; ethical, moral and penetrating. Loving. It was psychological, spiritual, cultural, and personal. He was sort of an apostle of humanism. Frank’s seeing was psychic surveillance. Cunning and skeptical. Exploitative. Also loving. He was a miner and a shaman, a brother and a thief. What writer wouldn’t want to be all that?
There is no evidence that Baldwin and Frank knew or influenced each other. But they were working the same dark alleys—the twisted knot of American identity. “Our dehumanization of the negro then,” wrote Baldwin, “is indivisible from our dehumanization of ourselves. The loss of our own identity is the price we pay for our annulment of his.” I pause for a quick daydream where I see Banksy, under cover of darkness, spray painting those words on the side of Robert Frank’s New Orleans streetcar.
Frank showed us something we hadn’t seen before. America as a dangerous, nervous, deeply weird, beautiful and lonely place. Everything in conflict with everything else. Not the least of which was the story we were telling ourselves about who and what we were. (This was 1955, remember.) He tunneled down much further than was comfortable. His coda to fellow artists who might be paying attention to his work (and there were legions) was: go deeper. That is the single best piece of advice a writer could ever hope to hear.
I came to Baldwin much later. Born poor, black, and bi-sexual in Harlem, he told Life Magazine:
“An artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian. His role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are. He has to tell, because nobody else can tell, what it is like to be alive.”
It’s gray outside this morning—the sun is a half-lit, milky stain as it slides behind a bank of Douglas Fir outside my window. I am back at it, trying to stare down this dastardly task: to say something useful about writing and photography. So it occurs to me to talk about love. To say love is at the heart of all this. First, James Baldwin and Robert Frank both have said they loved America. Their love was complicated, but they were writing and shooting from that place. I loved—and still love—those Robert Frank pictures. They changed me from the inside out. I love them madly. I have never been the same since the moment I saw them. That body of work held me upside down and shook me until finally, I came to understand their code.
It is possible to make something beautiful and lasting and soul-shaking from the place where you—your heart and soul, your voice, your shame, your fear, your oddball ways—meet the world.
That changed everything. When you know something like that, down to the bone, all kinds of wonderful trouble is yours. Because now you believe. You believe in the premise at the root of all art making. Most worrisome of all, you now believe that you—yes, you aspiring writer, painter, musician, sculptor, playwright, might wear the hat, too. To coin a phrase, you are fucked. Which is glorious.
A secret at the bottom of a frozen lake
All this inconveniently dovetailed with my beloved, fiercely believing mother’s favorite Life Lesson: ‘You can be anything you want to be, as long as you want it bad enough.’ I confess that I thought I wanted to be Robert Frank. But underneath it all chained up and locked down like Houdini, buried six feet into the bottom of a frozen lake, was my secret. I only ever wanted to be a writer. Too dangerous, so I spent years taking pictures, and I still do. But it has taken me until this moment, on this gray, overcast November morning, to unlock a mystery. Robert Frank, photographer, was my first writing teacher. His courage gave me mine.
‘I worked myself into a state of grace.’ – Robert FrankThe lessons that Robert Frank has brought to my writing life are endless and ongoing. Pay attention. Go to those places—physical and emotional—that aren’t safe or comfortable and look. More important, feel. Bring your whole self. Believe what you see, but stay skeptical. Get ahold of it and report back. There are stories everywhere. An empty highway at twilight. The glowing jukebox in a dive bar. An empty café with Oral Roberts on the television. The cowboy on a Manhattan street. Gas tanks, post offices, backyards. Shift the background to the foreground. Break the rules. Do it your own way. Aim higher. And higher still. Get angry. The shadows are more interesting than the light, except for the times when a crushing daylight is the story. Keep your ear to the ground. Leave some work for the viewer or the reader to do. Find new ways to tell the story. When it comes time to edit, go deeper. Find the most ruthless, merciless, and intuitive version of yourself and go to work. Robert Frank took 27,000 photographs for The Americans. His book is just eighty-three pictures. It was during a year-long, deliberate editing and sequencing process, where the form and the idea and the structure became the thing that we know today. About the entire project, Robert Frank has said, “I worked myself into a state of grace.”
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” – Joan Didion
I was sixteen or seventeen at the time. My grandfather lived across the street from us. I would visit on a fairly regular basis—to bring over meals my mother had cooked, or just to check in. On one particular day, I gave a soft knock on his door, and let myself in. His apartment had that old-world, grandparent charm; a lot of wood and carpeting, built-in glass and wood cabinets. Dark and quiet. He was all alone those days, my grandmother had died some years before. His TV-watching chair was empty, the television was off. But he was there all right, in the room, seated at a card table. The table was crammed—set for six people. Plates, glassware, silverware, everything you’d need if everyone came to dinner. Everyone being himself, his wife, and his four children. But he was alone. Except that he wasn’t, not quite. On each of five plates, he’d placed a framed photograph. I scanned the table. There was my father, my two uncles, my aunt, and my grandmother. Everyone had come to dinner. My grandfather was in conversation with all of them. He turned to me—an actor breaking the fourth wall—and whispered that they’d all come, finally, and wasn’t it wonderful. He turned back to the play. He was wearing two pairs of pants—he’d nap during the day, wake up confused, and get dressed again. I willingly accepted the fiction—and the truth—of all that was in front of me. I may have become a photographer that day. Or, a storyteller. Or, a human being. Joan Didion was right, we tell ourselves stories in order to live.
A state of grace
Nothing prepares you for writing quite like being a photographer in the days of film. You’d find yourself out in the world—say, Chinatown in New York, or on the coast of California. Endless possibilities for making pictures. Your camera is loaded with Kodak Tri-X film, thirty-six frames. You’re in a bit of a zone, the light is beautiful, and you’re working. Two weeks later, after you’ve developed your fifteen rolls from that day, you have printed your contact sheets, and you find there is nothing. Five-hundred plus images and not a single image that is more than a humble, pleasing record or a dumb cliché. You will try to convince yourself otherwise. You will lie to yourself, possibly for weeks. Maybe this frame, maybe that one. But it’s all useless, there’s nothing there. There is no better training for the excruciating experience of writing first drafts.
So something happened in the relentless effort. In the absurd amount of failure. In the commitment to trying—and the occasional succeeding—that laid the groundwork for a step into the void. My wife and I spent the first two years of our life together on opposite coasts. We spent hours and hours on the phone. She knew me as a photographer. One night I said, “I’m going to say something to you now, and I ask that you say absolutely nothing after I say it.” “Okay,” she said.
I said, “I want to write.”
The sun has returned to its milky, half-hidden ways. It’s cold outside. The wind is up. The stand of fir out past my window is telling its proud, steadfast, multi-generational tale. Later this afternoon, Linda and I will travel to the north end of the island to visit a sawmill. On that hour-long ride—through stands of fir and cedar and small towns, I’ll be thinking about a photograph I saw the other day. It’s Robert Frank, 93 years old, sitting out in front of his home in New York City. The backdrop is gritty. A green metal door, a brick section of wall, a green metal screen. The paint on the door frame is chipped and worn. And there he sits, a little hunched over. Still has his hair. He’s an old man looking straight into the camera, a father who has outlived his two children, who both died tragically. His cane is at hand. I imagine James Baldwin sitting right next to him, the other side of the coin. If he were still here, he’d be 93 too. I imagine the two of them, finally having met, after all these years of crossing paths, comparing notes. If I were there, I’d be at a loss for words. What to say to the two storytellers who saw America, who told us everything. Who spoke of the things that were there, who told us of the doom and the glory of who we are. Who left us their songs to sing.
* From Robert Frank’s Guggenheim Grant application. “I speak of the things that are there, anywhere and everywhere—easily found, not easily selected and interpreted.”
Robert Frank died on September 9, 2019. Rest in peace, Robert Frank.