Photographer Robert Frank discusses his groundbreaking publication The Americans
with Jeff Rosenheim, curator of photographs at the Metropolitan Museum, and Sarah Greenough, senior curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Art. Excerpted from an onstage conversation at the Met, held October 9, 2009.
Jeff Rosenheim: Good evening, and welcome to all 842 of you who have come and joined us to this sold-out, standing-room-only evening in conversation with Robert Frank. My name is Jeff Rosenheim, and I’m the curator of photographs here at the Metropolitan. My colleague Sarah Greenough, senior curator of photographs at the National Gallery, and I have the great pleasure to have as our guest the artist who made the stunning photographs on view upstairs in our Drawings, Prints, and Photographs Galleries and in the Howard Gilman Gallery.
The photographs are truly something to behold. The exhibition “Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans” was curated by Sarah Greenough, with splendid loans from some thirty private and public collections, and is the first time that all eighty-three photographs in The Americans have ever been shown together in a museum setting in New York City.
I’d like to thank our exhibition sponsor, Access Industries, and the Blavatnik Family Foundation, who sponsored the exhibition. We also received additional support for many of the programs from the William Randolph Hearst Foundation.
For those of you fond of photographs, this book is really a masterpiece, a landmark in the history of photography. And the book is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, and the artist in a few weeks will be celebrating his eighty-fifth. Happy birthday, Robert.
Frank made the photographs primarily in 1955 and 1956 on a now legendary cross-country road trip that began and ended here in New York City, with stops in small and large towns from coast to coast. Frank made pictures in Detroit and in Savannah, New Orleans and Los Angeles, Butte and Indianapolis, and, of course, in his adopted hometown of New York City. In this truly epic and now hallowed journey, he traveled over ten thousand miles in a 1950 Ford Coupe through thirty states, making some 767 rolls of film and approximately twenty-seven thousand photographs.
And now for our program, which we entitled “An Evening with Robert Frank.” Robert, it’s now beginning.
Robert Frank: Well, again, I am very happy that this happens in New York, because this is my city. And I like New York and I like to live here, and I hope it will go on for a while, living here.
Jeff Rosenheim: So maybe to get us started, since the exhibition upstairs focuses on the publication of The Americans, let’s talk a little bit about the cover. What process did you go through to select the photograph—the trolley picture—that is on the cover of that first edition and remains today the image on the cover?
Robert Frank: It seemed to be the right picture. It expressed a lot of what I'd seen on the trip. The treatment of black people—I felt it really reflected some of the strongest moments on my trip, when I experienced for the first time, you know, segregation. And it was important for me that it could be expressed like this.
Jeff Rosenheim: Did you consider any other photographs alongside the trolley picture?
Robert Frank: I must have considered maybe a flag picture. I feel gratitude to Barney Rosset, who is about my age now, that he agreed to publish The Americans without a text. It was published in France, where they had on every page a comment on America from some writers. I felt it was very anti-Americans, but I was still happy to have the book published. And, finally, then, Barney Rosset agreed to publish it, also because he got the sheets from France brought to America and so it didn’t cost that much. It was also important for him, for Rosset, to have [Jack] Kerouac’s name on the cover.
Sarah Greenough: But Kerouac originally wasn’t going to write the introduction. Hadn’t you first asked Walker Evans to write the introduction?
Robert Frank: Yes, I did ask Walker and then he wrote an introduction and just at the same time a big article appeared [about] On the Road by Kerouac in The New York Times. And a friend of mine, who was some kind of an agent, [Emile] de Antonio, he suggested that I should get in touch with Kerouac about writing about the pictures. And so, Walker Evans’s foreword was replaced by Kerouac, which made Walker unhappy, but—
Jeff Rosenheim: But it was the right decision?
Robert Frank: Undoubtedly, yeah.
Jeff Rosenheim: So one of the main differences between the French edition and the first American edition was the introduction to the book by Kerouac and the removal of all the text that had been selected. And it’s interesting to me that around the time that you were working on both the French edition and also with Kerouac on his text, you also took a road trip with Kerouac down to Florida. It must have been the spring of 1958, and for those of you who don’t know, that trip was to recover some manuscripts from his mother, I think. What was traveling on the road with Kerouac like?
Robert Frank: Well, Kerouac didn’t drive, so he would sleep in the car most of the time. Well, it just was important to pick up his mother and a few cats and bring her back to Long Island, where he had bought a house for her. I forgot where it was exactly.
It’s difficult for me to tell stories, but it was very impressive with him, because he slept for long stretches. And he would wake up and say, “It’s okay, now I had my dream.” And he didn’t explain more about the dream. We didn’t really talk too much to each other. It was a friendship that probably was more based on, in a way, since I could help him, because he didn’t drive a car, so we’d make other trips. He liked my two children. At that time they were ten, eight years old, or so. And they liked him because he would be in the car and stop at a light—going to New Jersey or somewhere—and he would lean out of the car and ask the car that stopped next to him, in some other language he made up that nobody could understand, asking—and of course the people couldn’t answer. But it amused my two children very much. He had a very good sense of humor. And he was—well, he was a good guy. It was a lucky break for me, really, that I got to know [Allen] Ginsberg, and through Ginsberg I got to know him and the other Beat writers, because it opened a whole new window on the world for me. Because I didn’t know people like that from my time in Switzerland, schooling. And so it was probably the most important part in my career, to watch them and learn from them, and so I guess it helped me to take the pictures I took, although I think chronologically I took many pictures before I knew him.
Sarah Greenough: And you also have said that you asked him to write the introduction to the book before you’d even read On the Road. I mean, you knew that it had gotten so favorably reviewed but you said you hadn’t read On the Road. Was it just intuition in meeting him, sensing that he was the right person?
Robert Frank: No, it wasn't—somebody did read On the Road before—De Antonio—and he said, “This is a great writer.” And then at the same time that review of On the Road came out. So I met him, Kerouac, I called him, and he was really available. I think through a girlfriend he had, I called him up. And he just met me on the street. I had my dummy of this book with me with all the pictures that are in here plus maybe two or three that were taken out. And he just looked at it and said, “Yeah, I can write something.” And then ten days later he showed me what he wrote. It was longer than what’s printed here. Some cuts were made. And it was very simple. It would be much more complicated now, I think. Whatever Walker Evans wrote, it was used in a U.S. Camera article about my pictures. But Walker was not happy about it. Walker was very aware of class, and so this was a kind of other class that these Beat writers were in, so.
Sarah Greenough: You annotated each of the rolls of film with the city where it was taken and so we've sort of pieced together the route. And you are wandering through the South, but you end up in places like Scottsboro, Alabama, for example.
Robert Frank: Usually I just followed sort of an intuition, which way I would go, how much time I had to spend in a town. Sometimes the time was limited by police. There’s a scene I never can forget. I think it was in Arkansas or somewhere. A cop called me over. I was walking somewhere, on the road, and he was sitting on, like, a veranda, and he just called me over like that, “Come here, boy.” He pulled out his watch and he said, “I give you five minutes to get out of here.” And that was it. And he followed me with the car across the river. I forgot where it was, really. Once I was arrested, put in jail for suspicion.
Sarah Greenough: You’d lived in the United States for eight years by that point. Did you expect to meet that kind of hostility, particularly traveling through the South? Was that a surprise?
Robert Frank: Well, I learned it on the trip. I think it must have been also in the South. I picked up a hitchhiker. He was a middle-aged man. I think he was black, I’m not so sure, but he must have been. And I said, “Come in,” I opened the front door. And he said, “No, I’ll sit in the back.” And that was really new for me, but then I began to understand why. It was completely new for me, segregation, because I came from Switzerland, and in New York, living in New York, we didn’t really—thought much about that. But on that trip I really learned—I was astonished at it. Well, I think the country changed a great deal.
Jeff Rosenheim: Robert, did you have a big AAA road map that you started with at the beginning of the trip and put little marks or stars in places? And, if so, do you still have it?
Robert Frank: No… But I had friends—actually, it was a friend, like a father of a friend of my wife, he was, anyhow, a friend—that had connections with Detroit. And he said, “I can help you if you want to photograph in a factory.” And otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten in to photograph. And through that connection, that series of Ford started. And I wanted to photograph in Standard Oil, but I didn’t get permission for that.
Sarah Greenough: And you photographed then in the Esso refinery plant in Baton Rouge, I think.
Robert Frank: Yeah, but it was just the workers coming out of the factory. I couldn’t really get in.
Jeff Rosenheim: What interested you about the factories and the workers?
Robert Frank: Well, the people. I mean, the faces. The working place, it’s different. And it was a very strong experience to get into the Ford factory, called the River Rouge Plant. It was really a fantastic place. It was in the summer and it was so hot in the factory and the noise was so fantastic. It was really like a little hell. And, yeah, it didn’t come out in the pictures, really, the difficult conditions. And otherwise it was a trip that was just based on intuition. But mostly, it was easier really to photograph in a city because there were more people.
Sarah Greenough: And then on your way back East, you sort of wandered. You went due east and then you seem to have gone very far out of your way to go to Butte, Montana, driving very far north of Salt Lake City to go to Butte. Why Butte? Do you remember?
Robert Frank: Well, it’s romantic imagination or—you know, it was a city that nobody knew anything about, really. It’s sort of at the border of something. And, well, I was lucky to find that hotel room and—yeah, it was a city that impressed me.
Sarah Greenough: Did you go there because of the mines?
Robert Frank: No, I didn’t get in the mines. I tried the Anaconda mines. No, there was no permission to go there. Butte was like a city at the time that had no paved roads. It was all dirt roads and children played there. I remember it very well. It was different.
Jeff Rosenheim: It was kind of famous as a very wild town. Very open, as they say. So this sort of town with dirt streets still had this twelve-story or fourteen-story brick hotel that was quite fancy. Was that actually your hotel window?
Robert Frank: Yeah, that was the hotel window. And then I photographed two hitchhikers that I picked up in Butte. I always liked the picture a lot, the profile of the two.
Sarah Greenough: That’s one of the more fascinating contact sheets to look at, because you took two frames of those hitchhikers and either the frame before or after the one that you selected for the book, where they’re very glum looking—the other frame, they’re smiling. It’s more of the happy road trip.
Robert Frank: I think both of them were looking for work, wherever I let them out. You know, I never kept notes, and so, you know, it’s lost. But, you know, the photographs are here. And it would have been better if I would have taken notes, but I never did. Too busy driving and looking.
Sarah Greenough: There’s the picture, for example, of the bar in Gallup, New Mexico, where if you look at the contact sheet, you can see that there are a lot of drunken cowboys there and at times you seem hardly to have even put the camera to your eye. But you’re still photographing.
Robert Frank: Well, a photographer is a hunter, you know. So you go for a good picture and you want to come home with that. But I was always really careful. I mean, I often photographed without looking in the viewfinder and held the camera low. You have to try not to attract much attention when you photograph. And, you know, you learn how to do it. And I remember I photographed a black couple in San Francisco on a grassy hill overlooking the city. And I photographed maybe twenty feet behind them and then I instinctively knew they would turn around and see me, and just in the right moment I just turned around and photographed away from them, photographed the scene. I mean, you have to be quick as a photographer that works that way and you have to have good intuition and be quick.
Jeff Rosenheim: Did you feel protected by the camera in some way, that this was providing you some sort of shield or protection? Or the opposite?
Robert Frank: No, I felt the opposite, that it aroused suspicion, especially at that time, the idea of communism was sort of in the heads of—you know, it's the easiest word to throw at you, that you did that because you were a communist.
Jeff Rosenheim: But how did the camera signify that?
Robert Frank: You were a spy!
Jeff Rosenheim: Seems obvious!
Robert Frank: Yeah. Well, I’m very happy that those eighty pictures survived. The book is still available and it’s still being sold. If Mr. Steidl is in the house, he could testify to that. Because I think it is really unusual that just a book of photographs that is so small, or what, can survive that long. So I’m proud of that.
Jeff Rosenheim: Well, you’ve turned on more generations of photographers with this book and I think it is as rich and as powerful and as complicated and as stunningly ambitious today as it was fifty years ago. And I know that all of us who like the medium of photography are still trying to figure it out and to learn from it. And it’s daunting for all the photographers out there to see what you did. But we’re greatly enriched by this.