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This Miami Life

Robert Frank In Miami Beach, And Around America

This post first ran in 2009 and has been updated. The photographer Robert Frank died Monday night at the age of 94

This photo of a forlorn, slightly bored-looking young hotel elevator operator was taken in 1955 at the Sherry Frontenac Hotel (65th and Collins) in Miami Beach.  It became 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, which ran in 2009 into early 2010.

Frank’s trip around this country also produced the groundbreaking photography book, The Americans, with a preface by Jack Kerouac; in it, he wondered who the young woman in the elevator 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, 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 appears not to have had any idea 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 made me stare for a long time, imaging the stories behind the images. Frank divided the photos into several series, including one called, “People You Don’t See.” These photos are stories, even if we don't know the stories. With them, Frank told us something we didn’t know, or maybe didn’t notice, about the people who live across the street, across the country, and about ourselves.

In Kerouac’s introduction to the The Americans, he wrote: “To Robert Frank I now give this message: You got eyes.” 

You can see some of the photos from the Met's exhibition, “Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans,” here.