For the longest time, I thought The Americans was Robert Frank’s only photography book… smh. Shows what I know.
Sure, Frank switched to filmmaking after making arguably the best photobook of the 20th Century, but he returned to the still image later on, albeit by combining images with text and creating collages and things. The lines of my hand is, as far as I know, the only fairly easily-obtainable book to feature this later work, and my interest in collage-y, image/text type work drove me to track down and buy this horribly beat up copy.
The lines of my hand first appeared in 1972, in an edition designed with Kōhei Sugiura* and featuring Frank’s early work, through The Americans, and up to the point where he started working with moving images. Frank revisited the concept in the late 1980s with Walter Keller, and together, they created this expanded version, which adds both film stills and reproductions of Frank’s later image/text work.
The earlier version is somewhat harder to find and slightly more expensive than the one I have, and both are easily obtainable. I’m not sure how much overlap there is between the two books. It doesn’t matter much, for me, since I already have a copy of The Americans and most of my interest is in the later work. Anyway.
The book is loosely chronological, and organized into periods or sections. Brief statements by Frank and selections from Jack Kerouac’s introduction to The Americans separate and punctuate the different facets of his work. I found the opening phrase rather devastating and was prepared for (and sorta looking forward to) more of the same, but the rest of the text hits different for me.
I have come home and I’m looking through the window. Outside it’s snowing, no waves at all. The Beach is white, the fence posts are grey. I am looking back into a world now gone forever. Thinking of a time that will never return. A book of photographs is looking at me. Twenty-five years of looking for the right road. Post cards from everywhere. If there are any answers I have lost them.Frank, Robert. The lines of my hand. Random House, New York. 1989. unpaginated.
Somehow, I’ve seen almost all of the earlier work, though I’m not sure where. I shouldn’t be surprised, as there’s only so much early Frank work out there, and still. The Americans section includes some of the more obvious choices—the suspicious couple in the park; the wan-looking elevator attendant—and some that I think are out-takes. There are four images of the young men hanging by a car, under a tree in Mississippi, and, unless my memory is faulty, only one of these appears in The Americans….
And, yes, my memory is faulty. There’s no such image in The Americans… maybe I remember it from Looking In… That, or, more likely, from my first flip throughs of The lines of my hand. Eh. Anyway.
The section covering Frank’s moving image work is a bit hard to read, for me. Six, eight, ten image clips of film in three or 4 columns, some with specific text, some with cropped bits and single frames blown up, come one after another, and there’s both too much of it and not enough. The layout and all is very much 1989 and it works, I guess; maybe it looks a bit dated or something; it’s probably just me.
For me, after the great early work and brilliant Americans period, the later work is sort of a let down. Maybe I don’t get it. I probably don’t get it. The work is obviously personal, and so maybe only Frank really got it. It’s obvious that Frank loved his children, Pablo and Andrea, and that he struggled with Pablo’s illness and was absolutely devastated by Andrea’s untimely passing, and rightly so. (I’m reminded now of something I don’t want to revisit at present, and maybe I’ll talk about it one day…. Anyway.) It’s also obvious that Frank didn’t consider negatives or photographs to be precious and inviolate in the same way that I do, and I wonder what he knew from his lifetime of photography that I’m missing from mine?
There’s the sorta famous picture that I’ll call the “words” picture. Do I even need to describe it? The setting is a backyard clothesline, probably out back or to the side of Frank’s home in Nova Scotia. Two photographs, one the Tuba picture from The Americans, the other a black frame with “words” on it, maybe a film still or something, hang from the line, swinging in the breeze. Someone, somewhere, spoke about this photograph, about the, if not disrespect, the seemingly laissez faire attitude Frank had about the work that made him famous. I don’t remember what whoever it was said, but they went on to talk about the image/text work and I jumped into bookfinder immediately.
If I say that I was, and am, disappointed, would you hold it against me? I hope not, and I’m not, not really anyway. It’s not work that I would make, and of course not: it’s work Robert Frank made. It’s all obviously deeply personal in various ways, from big events—his daughter passing away in a plane crash; time in a hospital for an operation—to smaller scenes—a friend visits and chops some wood. Frank scratches words into the emulsion, paints fixer or something onto prints, makes grids of photographs that echo the earlier filmstrips, and essentially moves from being the Street Photographer par excellence to becoming a proper, capital-A Artist. I can’t blame him. If you had just made The Americans, would you continue with the still image?
Me… well, I’ll never make anything like The Americans. You won’t either, I’m sorry to say. And if I did or could,** I’m not boring enough to just keep on making the same images over and over again… I mean, I already stopped photographing because I only shoot the same pictures over and over again: these days I mostly play with guitars and synthesizers. Anyway. I don’t begrudge Frank moving away from decisive moments and first embracing, then manufacturing sequences and flows that show the full messiness of life, all the indecisiveness of moving through the world.
Honestly, that’s what The Americans revealed too.
Anyway. The lines of my hand is a decent book. If I’m honest, I’m not the hugest fan of Frank’s films—try as I might, I’ve sadly never seen Cocksucker Blues, but, then, virtually no one else has either, as far as I know—but his work in that medium entered the pantheon and ushered in or signaled new forms of cinema. I suspect he did the same for collage and art photography. And The lines of my hand gives a nice sampling of all of it. The only thing that lets the book down is the horribly fragile—and after 35 years horribly frail—vellum dust jacket. It rips if you look at it wrong. My copy was listed in “good” condition and the silly thing came all taped up and horribly cracked.
Overall, The lines of my hand rates a solid 4 stars. If you’re a Frank fan, don’t miss it.
The book is only available used, and copies are more than 30 years old now. Thankfully, Random House printed them in large quantities; at time of writing—December 2022—they’re fairly cheap. If you don’t have a copy of The Americans, get that first and maybe skip this one: The lines of my hand isn’t required reading in the way that Frank’s masterwork is. I strongly recommend the 2008 Steidl printing, which you can find for less than the cost of dinner for one at a mid-tier chain restaurant off the highway. Once you really get and understand The Americans, and then only if you want to see some completely different sorts of work from Frank, The lines of my hand is well worth it.
In working on this review, I came across this 2008 Vanity Fair article by Charlie LeDuff. It’s long and winding and a good read, and it exposes, to some degree, my ignorance, so it’s perhaps more highly recommended than the book. I tried to come up with a way to work it into the text, but oh well.
*You might recognize Sugiura’s name… He worked with Kikuji Kawada on Chizu in the early 1960s, and had a hand in many other famous and influential photobooks.
** I can’t and won’t.