Q & A: Mel Frank’s ‘When We Were Criminals’ Has an Empire State of Mind

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Much like the majority of the artworld, the Benrubi Gallery in New York is not shy about disruptive or taboo content. Take, for example, Rachel Lena Esterline’s exhibition, “Heaven is a Strip Club,” featuring a photograph of a woman’s bottom with “Fuck you. Pay me.” tattooed in script on each thigh.

As a safe space to showcase the beauty of counter-culture, Benrubi seems to be the perfect place to house the decades of photography shot by cannabis legend, James Goodwin, better known as Mel Frank.

“Hands Up, Checking Maturity. Upstate New York, 1982.” (Photo by Mel Frank)

But counterculture is only a portion of the story. The most awe-inspiring part of this gallery is that it brings the story of marijuana in America full circle. You might not think it, especially considering how many restrictions there are for patients in the state, but weed as we know it today started in New York.

Frank’s cannabis career was born in the state of New York. It was in Manhattan, at the New York City college where he studied biology and took as many botany classes as he could. It was in the forests of upstate New York where he secretly planted the landrace strain Durban Poison, bringing the South African cultivar to the U.S. And in a small room in Dutchess County, New York, Frank and his closest stoners manicured their yield. Frank told much of his story to Marijuana.com back in May 2018 after his exhibit was on display in Hollywood the month before.

The cannabis scene might be in full flame in California, but the embers started in New York. And while Frank may get the most notoriety in the Golden State, he’s a New Yorker at heart.

In his third interview with Marijuana.com Frank discusses his latest exhibition, politics and where marijuana stands in New York.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How did “When We Were Criminals” get picked up in New York?

A: Benrubi has a loose connection to M&B Gallery in Los Angeles. When I first landed the show, they said at some point that they might be interested in bringing it to New York. Then they did. It was as simple as that.

M&B likes to do cultural shows. They had done one on surfing, skateboarding, and so forth. Marijuana-growing fit in as a subculture. So that’s how that happened. Both galleries did really wonderful jobs both in display and bringing me in. I had never been exposed to show curation before or been an actual participant

Q: What was opening day like?

A: Both shows were very well-attended. The one in New York, the gallery director told me, that people usually come in waves, “There’s expected to be a lot of people, but that it would clear out, and then people would come back,” but the show at Benrubi was packed the entire time.

It all went very well. I was very happy with both galleries, really excellent galleries. I’m really honored.

Q: New Yorkers have a different exposure to the plant. Did attendees have a deeper appreciation for the gallery than the Los Angeles crowd?

A: I didn’t ask anyone about that directly, but I think New Yorkers were more astonished because they’re not exposed to [cannabis]like they are in California, where people are growing all the time and have been since Prop. 215 in 1996. The general population is used to the fact that this stuff is being grown, packaged, and everything else.

In New York, they haven’t seen pictures of fields and buds. So I think it was all amazing to them, and they were just trying to take it all in. For the first time, they’re seeing trichomes that are a fraction of a centimeter blown up 50 inches high.

When you start getting into the aesthetics of the plant, you stop to see the different colors, shapes, and everything. And that’s what happened to me with photography. It just really brings you closer to the plant and you get to appreciate cannabis on a different level.

Q: What do you hope New Yorker’s take away from this exhibition?

A: That this is part of the world — an important part of the world, and they should learn about it.

I did have a call with dispensaries in New York and found that they weren’t really dispensaries, weren’t really where you get your “prescription,” and that was illuminating too. The first place I called absolutely would not tell me how much it cost to get a prescription. I called two more and they were very friendly and open about the process. They told me one was $300, and the other was $350. I thought, “Man, New York is really making out like a bandit here.”

I’m really shocked at New York. But I do know, having lived there, New York City is one place, and then the rest of state is different politically. It’s very a conservative state outside the NYC area. But really, the way they are going about it is just crazy, it really is on every level. They are making it as hard as they can for people to get medical marijuana. It’s just ridiculous.

Q: Cynthia Nixon ran on a Bernie Sanders-style message and campaign, but that didn’t seem to move New Yorkers. Does New York see Andrew Cuomo as a guy who “gets things done?”

A: I’m sure that had something to do with it. I don’t know Cynthia’s campaign, but she is a novice. She doesn’t have the history that would prepare her for being a governor and I’m sure that had a lot to do with it, too. The thing is, the people have to believe that the people they are voting for, that they not only agree with them, but that they can do the job. He’s been doing this all of his life, so it is much easier to vote for him.

But, I was just talking to my wife this morning … and I’m not voting for men anymore, I’m only voting for women. The only men I will vote for is if they are scientists. I’m serious. We have got to break up this old-boys’ club, this is just crazy! They get in there, they become multimillionaires, and they are supposed to be serving us? They’re serving themselves.

Q: On a lighter note, where is your favorite spot to visit in New York?

A: My wife and I, whenever we travel, we go to the museums. She’s a painter and the chair of the Art Department here [in Los Angeles]at one of the local colleges. So that’s what we do.  I did get to see a small [Constantin] Brâncuși exhibition. He’s one of my favorite sculptors.

I recommend people who haven’t been to New York to go to the Empire State Building, because when you are on the top floor, you can basically see the layout of Manhattan. You can get a good sense of where you’re going and where things are.

Banner image: “Manicuring, Dutchess County, NY, 1982.” (Photo by Mel Frank)

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