DIA shines a light on Robert Frank’s “Exile on Main Street” right here in Detroit

DIA installation view - Detroit Movie House, 1955, © Robert Frank

My best guess is that Robert Frank took the photograph at right while wandering around somewhere in downtown Detroit along Michigan Avenue. The DIA was lucky enough to get the original, large-scale photographic masterpiece (about 2 x 3 feet) on loan from the artist for the current exhibition Detroit Experiences: Robert Frank Photographs, 1955. It is likely he took the photograph, Detroit Movie House, in front of The Loop Theater when he passed through town in July, 1955. Better to see this in person, as this installation view doesn’t do it justice.

The PR overload surrounding the recent re-release of The Rolling Stones’ 1972 Exile on Main Street reminded me as well that Robert was responsible for photographs appearing on original album. On a recent tour of the exhibition, my friend and favorite Detroit rocker Danny Kroha mentioned that Detroit Movie House had actually appeared on the inside cover.

Detail from the inside album cover for Exile on Main Street, 1972, © Rolling Stones Records; Collection of W.M. Watson.

I caught Keith Richards in a rare appearance on late night tv plugging the new Exile super deluxe box edition. But I recently dug up the original from my brother’s vinyl collection, and revisiting it was like discovering a strange old relic. In an age of obsessive multi-tasking, the act of solely listening to records and looking at album covers and liner notes is a distant, lost art for most of us. It’s a shame too because through Exile on Main Street, I saw the photographs of Robert Frank for the first time. And it wouldn’t be until years later that I would find out about his films, including Frank’s documentary about The Stones, as well as his book The Americans.

1961 cover for the New Lost City Ramblers with photo by Robert Frank; courtesy http://www.folkways.si.edu

More music trivia on the Robert Frank front came courtesy of Mr. Kroha, who remembered that Frank took the cover photograph for The New Lost City Ramblers album back in 1961. The band continued to use his photographs for a number of other albums and later compilations. I wasn’t surprised since by the 1950s, Robert had established close ties to musicians as well as writers, painters and other photographers who lived in New York City and elsewhere. In fact, Ramblers’ band member John Cohen shot stills for a number of Frank’s films over the years – there’s one on view in the exhibition from the set of Pull My Daisy, a film Robert made with writer Jack Kerouac in 1959.

Readies guitarist Danny Kroha setting the record straight about Ford's versus Oldsmobiles

Readies guitarist Danny Kroha setting the record straight about Fords versus Oldsmobiles; photo courtesy of Elizabeth Kroha

Robert Frank loaned a few other  photographs to the exhibition including a picture of a broken down car, presumably his 1950 Ford Coupe which failed in downtown Detroit. But the photo actually shows a 1947 Oldsmobile – the grill was a dead give away and confirmation came from a quick web search on iPhone in the gallery. I later double checked with Robert and heard back that the automobile was, indeed, not the artist’s, who mentioned, “my car wasn’t that nice.”

Detroit Experiences: Robert Frank Photographs, 1955, is open and free with museum admission through Saturday, July 3, 2010.

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One response to “DIA shines a light on Robert Frank’s “Exile on Main Street” right here in Detroit

  1. This is a delightful posting. Among other things it made me think of how visually important albums have been. Albums like the Robert Mapplethorpe cover of Patti Smith’s Horses, or the work Lee Friedlander did for Elektra Records – to name a very tiny few – are of now illustrious photographers making great work for such a venue. & also, “great” names aside – albums can be so fascinating to look at, at all levels of taste, & for many different reasons or associations.

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