Hollis Frampton (1936-1984) was an American avant-garde filmmaker, photographer, writer/theoretician, and a pioneer of digital art.
Frampton was born March 11, 1936 in Wooster Ohio. An only child, he was raised primarily by his maternal grandparents. Jenkins & Krane (1984), p. 107
At the age of 15 he entered Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where he was accepted on full scholarship. At Andover, Frampton’s classmates and friends included the painter Frank Stella and sculptor Carl Andre. Jenkins & Krane (1984), p. 108 Widely read already as a youth, he had a reputation at Andover as a “young genius” Goldensohn (1980), p. 8 In Jenkins & Krane (1984, p. 107), Frampton is described as speaking infrequently as a child but when he was tested at age nine years, eleven months, he was found to have a mental age of eighteen years, six months and was enrolled in classes for gifted children thereafter. but was also unpredictable: he failed to graduate from Andover, and thus forfeited a National Scholarship to Harvard University, when he failed his history course on a bet that he could pass the final exam without ever reading the textbook Goldensohn (1980) p. 7; Jenkins & Crane (1984) p. 108. Entering Western Reserve University in 1954, Frampton took a wide variety of classes( Latin, Greek, German, French, Russian, Sanskrit, Chinese, mathematics) but had no declared major. He recounts that when he was called in front of the dean after three and a half years of study and 135 hours of credits and asked, once again, if he intended to take a degree, he was told that if so, he needed to take speech, western civilization, and music appreciation. He replied that “I already know how to talk, I already know who Napoleon was and I already like music” and noted that “For that reason I hold no bachelor's degree. I was very sick of school.' Frampton, 'Hollis Frampton on Hollis Frampton' transcript from course at SUNY at Buffalo, Special Topics: Filmakers, session on Sept. 16, 1977, pp. 3-4. Cited in Jenkins & Krane (1984), p. 120 During this time he had a short-lived radio show at Oberlin college.
Ezra Pound - Washington D.C.
In 1956 Frampton began correspondence with Ezra Pound after becoming interested in the literary generation of the 1880’s. In the fall of 1957 he moved to Washington D.C. where he visited Ezra Pound almost daily at St. Elizabeth’s hospital where Pound was finishing part of his Cantos. There, Frampton writes that he was “privy to a most meaningful exposition of the poetic process by an authentic member of the ‘generation of the ‘80’s.’At the same time, I came to understand that I was not a poet.” Artist’s resumé, c. 1975-1976, p. 2. Cited in Jenkins & Krane (1984), p. 120
Move to New York
Early the next year, Frampton moved to New York. He renewed his friendships with Andre and Stella, sharing an apartment first with the two of them and then with Andre only. He began photographing artist friends; early projects included documentation of Andre’s work,The Secret World of Frank Stella 1958-1962, and portraits of artists such as Larry Poons and James Rosenquist.
As Frampton's photography moved toward exploring ideas of series and sets, it was natural that he begin filmmaking. He based a lot of his early films on concepts, which he applied clearly and cleverly. All of his very early works were either discarded or lost. His earliest surviving work was Information (1966). His early works were reasonably simple in construction. A few of them including Maxwell's Demon, Surface Tension, and Prince Rupert's Drops were based on concepts from science, a subject he was well read on. As he got on, his films gradually increased in complexity.
His most significant work is arguably 'Zorns Lemma' (1970), a film which drastically altered perceptions towards experimental film at the time. He was seen as a structural filmmaker, a style that focused on the nature of film itself. In an interview with Robert Gardner he stated a discomfort with that term because it was too broad and didn't accurately reflect the nature of his work.
Zorns Lemma remains the most widely know of this films. It is formed in three different sections. The first is a reading (by Joyce Wieland) of the Bay State Primer, a puritan work for children to learn the alphabet. The sentences used had foreboding themes such as 'In Adams fall, we sinned all.' The second section is based on a text based work by Carl Andre, which started out with an alphabetical list of words for each letter in the alphabet. Each subsequent list is replaced with a letter until it is just letters. In Zorns Lemma, the concept is reversed. It starts off with a twenty four letter alphabet (I/J and U/V are considered one letter), each letter shown for one second of screentime and then looping. The second cycle replaces each letter with a word that starts with each letter. Gradually the word stills are replaced by an active film shot, such as washing hands or peeling a tangerine until there are only moving images. It is an amazing 45 minutes of film. The third section contains a seemingly single shot of a couple walking across a snowy meadow. The sound is of six women reading one word at a time from Theory of Light.
One interpretation of Zorns Lemma was that it was a comment on life's stages, the morality of the Bay State Primer being childhood, the sets of numbers representing maturing and interaction with the world, and the third part representing old age and death.
After Zorns Lemma, he made the Hapax Legomena films, a series of seven films of which (nostalgia) is the most well known. Several of these films (nostalgia and Critical Mass) explored the relation between sound and cinema, an area often disregarded in American avant-garde film, by demonstrating a disjointed relationship between the two. Poetic Justice explores a 'cinema of the mind', wherein the film takes place in the viewers' imagination(s) as they read title cards. An extremely rare artist book edition of Poetic Justice was printed by the Visual Studies Workshop.
His final major film project was a monumental project called Magellan, named after the explorer who first circumnavigated the world. Magellan was intended to be shown as a calendrical cycle, one film for each day of the year. One film from the cycle, Magellan: Drafts and Fragments, is exemplary of Frampton's ambition to create a personal 'meta-history' of film; in Drafts and fragments, he remade the cinema of the Lumieres in 51 1-minute films. Although incomplete at his death, the body of films made for Magellan is significant. In some ways, Frampton's entire oeuvre seems to fit under the Magellan umbrella.
The last few years of his life, Frampton taught at SUNY Buffalo, writing, working on Magellan and ongoing photographic projects with fellow artist and wife Marion Faller, and investigating the relationship between computers and art. He did some initial work with video and sound reproducing with an Altair 8800 computer.
His writings on film are some of the most lucid and thrilling perceptions any artist has made on the cinema. Alongside Stan Brakhage, Hollis Frampton was a leading pioneer of abstract expression in American film, akin perhaps to John Cage and Morton Feldman in contributions to their art.
Frampton died of cancer in 1984.
Film study, restoration and print availability through Filmmakers Co-op NY, Anthology Film Archives and NY MoMA.
See also American 'structural' filmmakers Tony Conrad, Paul Sharits, Ernie Gehr, George Landow, Canadian filmaker and artist Michael Snow and European filmmakers Malcolm Le Grice (UK), Peter Gidal (UK), Gábor Bódy (Hungary) and Ivan Ladislav Galeta (Croatia).