The People Robert Frank Saw

Mar 18, 2013

This photo of a forlorn, slightly bored young hotel elevator operator was taken on the beach in 1955, at the Sherry Frontenac Hotel (65th and Collins).  It has become one of Frank’s most famous photographs and the face of the exhibition, “Looking In:  Robert Frank’s the Americans” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It runs through Jan. 3.

Frank’s trip also produced the groundbreaking photography book, The Americans, with a preface by Jack Kerouac; in it, he wondered who the elevator girl was. Her identity was revealed only after this exhibition ran in San Francisco. In a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction turn of events, Sharon Collins née Goldstein recognized herself as the 15-year-old in the picture.

Other photos in this extraordinary collection capture a segregated trolley car in New Orleans, which makes for a biting depiction of racial and gender hierarchies; an intriguingly out-of-focus bar scene that appears to have been shot from the hip, where the man in the frame clearly didn’t know he was being photographed; and a shoeshine station in a grungy men’s bathroom.

Kerouac called it “the loneliest picture ever made, the urinals that women never see.”

The unsettling images pull back the veneer of 1950s happy-go-lucky society, revealing American pain and malaise. The book riled critics, who dismissed the work as unpatriotic and technically weak. Only later did it come to be considered a masterpiece.

When I visited the exhibition, these 83 black-and-white photos drew me in and made me stare for a long time as I tried to decipher the stories behind the images. Frank divided the photos into several series, including one called, “People You Don’t See,” a title that resonated with me. Frank did in his photos what we at Under the Sun aim to do with our stories– to tell you something you didn’t know, or maybe didn’t notice, about South Florida and about the people who live here, maybe about yourself.

You can see many of the photos from “Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans” right here.

In Kerouac’s introduction to the The Americans, he wrote: “To Robert Frank I now give this message: You got eyes.” In that spirit, the Met has set up a group pool on Flickr and a call for your photos.