Thursday, September 19, 2019

Robert Frank - Exile on Main Street

In 1955, Robert Frank (November 9, 1924 – September 9, 2019) received a Guggenheim scholarship to "[discover] what one naturalized American finds to see in the United States that signifies the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere." With the monies provided, Frank took a year-long road trip with a Super 8 camera and a used Ford Coupe and traveled across Eisenhower's America, from the deserted towns of the Midwest to the Hollywood Hills, photographing an American culture that wasn't a part of the "Pleasant Valley Sunday." Like Diane Arbus, Robert Frank was looking at American diversity. Frank turned his opportunity into an often bleak yet beautiful black and white expose of a different world, one of nuclear tensions and racial divide.

Frank was a part of the Beat generation and worked and associated with the likes of Jack Kerouac, who wrote the preface to The Americans, a collection of 83 of his 27,000 photos published in 1958, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsburg; indeed, Frank's book was "howling" as well.

Kerouac wrote, "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 the photos from the collection, a shot of a collage from a tattoo parlor, was used as the cover for the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street in 1972.

My father painted those rock billboards on the Sunset Strip in L.A. from 1967 through 1977. I captured his career in my fictional memoir Jay and the Americans in 2017. Here's the Exile passage:

The bus went down the Sunset Strip and I kept looking for my father.  I was still kind of angry, but I was looking for him.  I saw a billboard.  It was half done.  It was for the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street.  On the left in shades of gray was General Tom Thumb from the circus.  Next to him was an African guy with three balls in his mouth.  The rest of it was blank except it said “Exile on Main St.” in quotes at the bottom in red letters and “Rolling Stones,” and it had those red lips.  As we passed I saw a man in coveralls climbing the ladder, but it wasn’t him.  He didn’t paint them all.  He didn’t paint most of them, but it felt kind of funny.  I thought it was him.

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