Robert Frank: The Photographer Behind ‘Exile On Main St.’

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(Frank in 1996)

In 1955 Robert Frank, a Swiss immigrant who came to the United States to become a photographer, was given a Guggenheim scholarship to find, according to his application: “what one naturalized American finds to see in the United States that signifies the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere.”

It would be a year long road trip, with just his Super 8 camera and a used Ford Coupe to keep him company as he traveled solo across the United States to photograph Eisenhower’s America, from the deserted towns of the midwest to the rich hills of Hollywood. Frank photographed everyday objects of American life – signs, cars, clothes, diners, people themselves – in both small towns and big cities to give a sense of the country’s mood at the time. From the uneasy glare of a couple, to the wishful gaze of a woman in an elevator, to the lonely dive bars, Frank transformed these every day incidents into stark black and white commentary on a nation at the verge of falling apart over nuclear destruction and racial divide.

Frank was a part of the Beat generation and, like his peers, he was in search of that “other” America, to photograph the same America and its cast of freaks and outsiders that Kerouac was seeing on the road and what Ginsberg was howling about.

Frank took about twenty-seven thousand photos, which amounted to more than seven hundred and sixty rolls of film to develop. A few of my favorites are below:

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Parade — Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955


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Funeral — St. Helena, South Carolina, 1955


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Elevator — Miami Beach, 1955


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Political Rally — Chicago, 1956


Robert Frank, TrolleyÑNew Orleans, 1955; gelatin silver print; 8 5/8 x 13 1/16 in.; Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Purchase, Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Gift, 2005; © Robert Frank

Trolley — New Orleans, 1955


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San Francisco, 1956


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U.S. 285, New Mexico, 1955


Frank chose eighty-three of those photos to appear in The Americans, his groundbreaking photo album which was first published in Paris in 1958 and then a year later in America.

Jack Kerouac, whose On The Road was published a year earlier, wrote the book’s forward and praised Frank’s bold work, which was meant to be taken as both a portrait and a criticism of a country in a personality crisis: “Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world…you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin.”

One of those twenty-seven thousand unused photos, a single shot of a collage of photos from supposedly a New York tattoo parlor, would be used in 1972 by another band of outcasts and outsiders.

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(Frank’s orignal photo)

In 1972, Mick Jagger reached out to Frank and ask him to come to the Bel Air villa, the Los Angeles home where Mick and his band was staying while they finished their new album. Their new album was something unlike anything they’ve done yet, something raw and uniquely American. Jagger wanted its album cover to reflect the band as runaway outlaws using the blues as its weapon against the world. The album’s cover had to reflect this feeling of joyful isolation, grinning in the face of a scary and unknown future. It had to be perfect.

Frank was originally meant to shoot the band as they walked along the seedy Main St. of LA that they were supposedly exiled from, and those photos are all on the album’s back side where the band looks just as strange as the freaks from Frank’s photo. You can see more footage of those sessions here. However, his tattoo parlor photo caught the attention of John Van Hamersveld, who was hired by the Stones to put together the album package. Hamersveld had already worked with the Beatles and Hendrix and had already designed the classic poster for the 1966 surf documentary The Endless Summer, but Hamersveld knew right away that Frank’s photo, which he found among his many American outtakes, was destined to be used for this new album. Impressed with the photo, Hamersveld took Frank’s work and turned it into the famous album cover that we all know and love.

The final product is below:

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It’s fitting that Frank, an exile himself, would create the image of one of the greatest works about exile and American life. Frank was also a filmmaker, and he filmed the band on their 1972 tour supporting the album he photographed. His filmed was called Cocksucker Blues and it was never officially released due to it being too obscene. Imagine that.

Brady is the founder of Headphone Nation. He’s responsible for all this mess. Sorry about that. He’s also on Twitter @BradyWGerber