Tag Archives: The Americans

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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Robert Frank finds “Gods Factory” at the Rouge and uncovers American Life in Detroit – photo exhibition opens at the DIA today

Belle Isle - Detroit, 1955, Museum Purchase, Ernest and Rosemarie Kanzler Foundation Fund, Forum for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Purchase Fund, and General Art Purchase Fund © Robert Frank, from The Americans

Robert Frank (born 1924) was the first photographer to make the city of Detroit along with Ford workers and the assembly line a serious subject for the camera and the basis for his groundbreaking work in America in 1955. The photographs are representative of how he, a young European man, found Americans living and working at mid-century. Fascinated by our culture, but also critical of what he saw and experienced, Frank looked under the surface of American life and pushed the aesthetic boundaries of the medium unlike anyone before him.

The automobile, in particular, was something he saw everywhere in the U.S., and one of his foremost priorities when considering subjects for his book The Americans was to come to Detroit to “do the story on the factory” as he told me in a 2001 interview. Select images from his travels to the Motor City and elsewhere were preserved in this legendary book and numerous other Detroit photographs appeared in his other publications as well including The Lines of My Hand (1972) and Flowers Is (1985). These images and other unknown, rare photographs are the subject of Detroit Experiences: Robert Frank Photographs 1955 opening today at the DIA.

Entrance to the Ford Motor Company Rouge Factory tour in Dearborn, Michigan

Last fall, I spent the better part of an afternoon over in Dearborn, Michigan, at the site once referred to by photographer Robert Frank as “God’s factory.” It’s known to us locals as the Rouge (the Ford Motor Company River Rouge plant). Back in the 1950s when Frank traveled there, Ford was at the height of production, and the Rouge was a major tourist destination for people from all over the world.

Entrance to Dearborn Assembly Plant on the Ford Rouge Factory Tour, Dearborn, Michigan

On the official Rouge tour today you can spend about two hours soaking up car culture while viewing vintage automobiles and historical film footage of the old factory and its assembly lines. The entire complex can be seen from an observation deck as well as workers and assembly line production from an overhead catwalk in the adjacent Dearborn Assembly Plant. The assembly line was up and running when I was there, and the guide mentioned that two shifts a day were producing about 1,100 Ford F150 trucks daily. It was an encouraging sight.

Assembly Plant, Ford, Detroit, 1955, Founders Society Purchase, Coville Photographic Fund © Robert Frank

But the Rouge today is a far cry from what Robert Frank saw when he was here in ’55. Now, modernized manufacturing and environmental incentives have brought state-of-the art technology to the complex and the worker’s daily routines along with honey bees, acres of sunflowers, indigenous plant life, and 454,000 square feet of sedum implanted on the factory’s thriving green roof. So, about the closest we can get in the present to the factory’s glorious and gritty past is what Frank has found there and photographed over 50 years ago.

A few years ago and through the good graces of Ford employee Don Russell (who managed the installation of the largest green roof in the world at the Rouge in 2003), I spent some time touring the buildings where Frank photographed. Visitors can no longer see them on the current public tour (original tours of the plant began right after it opened in 1927 and continued through the early 1980s with access into the original complex). Frank photographed in the B Building where motor assembly took place and in final assembly areas of the plant where the Ford Fairlane and its V-8 engine were made, but these old production sites and their Albert Kahn-designed buildings were demolished in recent years.

Assembly line - Detroit, 1955, Founders Society Purchase, Coville Photographic Fund © Robert Frank from The Americans

This exhibition has been in development for many years, and my research goes back to the early 1990s when I first discovered the material at the DIA while working as an intern in the department of prints, drawings and photographs. I studied Frank’s work in-depth at his archive in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where I found about 50 proof sheets from his trip to the Motor City. Detroit was a boom town, and the Ford factory was at the height of production with around 60,000 employees who could build one car per minute.

A large gift of Frank’s Detroit photographs came into the collection in the 1980s, and in subsequent years additional works were purchased. These acquisitions have contributed to  DIA’s  establishment of a rare and remarkable body of work by this legendary and influential artist. Many prints are unique, and even though select photographs have been on view over the years, this is the first time all of the work can be seen in a single exhibition. Over sixty photographs will be on view in the special exhibition galleries near Rivera court (the de Salle Gallery of Photography will be temporarily closed  but reopen with an exhibition of Andre Kertesz’s work in the late fall).

Detroit Experiences: Robert Frank Photographs, 1955, will be on view through July 3, 2010. Check back here or at the DIA’s website for announcements regarding upcoming special programs related to the exhibition.

Robert Frank and his Detroit experiences on view in DIA photo exhibition opening March 3

Detroit River Rouge Plant, 1955, © Robert Frank

Detroit Experiences: Robert Frank Photographs, 1955 opens at the DIA this Wednesday, March 3. I thought readers might want a quick look at a few of the photographs in the exhibition (there are over 60 works – all from the DIA’s permanent collecction) which will be on view in the special exhibition galleries just off Rivera court where the Detroit Industry murals by Mexican artist Diego Rivera have been on view since 1932.

View of the DIA's Rivera court and Diego Rivera's Industry murals from 1932

View of the DIA's Rivera court and Diego Rivera's Industry murals from 1932

Both men found inspiration for their work at the Ford Motor Company River Rouge plant (known as “the Rouge” to locals) in Dearborn, Michigan.

Frank spent several days photographing at the Rouge in 1955. About a third of the exhibition includes Frank’s rare imagery from inside the huge complex. He also visited Belle Isle, the Gratiot Drive-In (found in Roseville, Michigan, and now demolished), as well as other familiar haunts around the city. Frank came to Detroit to photograph “how Americans live and work” – several of the Detroit images were reproduced in his book The Americans and appeared in later publications he created. The photographs were part of a larger group of nearly 27,000 images he took traveling across the U.S on a Guggenheim fellowship.

Robert Frank@The NGA – A Very Good Day for Photography

Untitled, (que for Robert Frank Lecture at the NGA) - photo by Michelle Andonian

Queue for Robert Frank's Lecture at the NGA, March 26, 2009 - photo by Michelle Andonian

On Thursday afternoon, I, along with over 800 others, ended up in the nation’s capitol for a rare program with photographer Robert Frank and the National Gallery’s curator of photographs, Sarah Greenough.  Frank rarely makes public appearances, so it was an opportunity to listen and learn first hand about his photographic work, which currently is the subject of the fine exhibition Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans. While discussing several iconic images from his oeuvre, Frank humbly remarked, “It was a very good day for photography.”

Untitled - photo by Michelle Andonian

Outside the NGA - photo by Michelle Andonian, 2009

In their hour-long conversation, Greenough and Frank discussed his photography, influences (Bill Brandt and Walker Evans in particular), his love of America, and, most notably for me, a 1955 trip to Detroit to photograph what Frank referred to as “God’s Factory” – the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Michigan. For Frank, the automobile was an important part of the American dream, and he saw it everywhere. He thought it would be a good idea to see the place where cars were made and photographed at the factory for two or three days. It was difficult but worth it. The images were used in a number of his publications over the years including The Americans.

In March 2010, the DIA will open an exhibition of Robert’s Detroit work from 1955. It will be the first time these photographs will be on view to the public and an opportunity to see Detroit and the famous Ford factory the way Robert Frank experienced it at mid century.

Robert Frank in the Motor City

What a great pleasure it was to see a number of Robert Frank’s photographs from Detroit in 1955 published in Saturday’s Detroit News . The images are from Frank’s historic travel to Detroit on a Guggenheim fellowship to make pictures for his now-classic photo book The Americans. Apparently, LeDuff has gotten to know Robert Frank well in recent years, and he penned another interesting article about the photographer during a visit to China for Vanity Fair earlier this year.

I had a rare opportunity to meet Robert Frank back in 2004 while a number of his photographs from the DIA were on loan to the Storylines exhibition at the Tate Modern in London. Robert had fond memories of Detroit, eventhough he spent a night in a downtown jail over a misunderstanding regarding his used car. All and all, he knew Detroit had a reputation as a tough city, but  found it a “real and unique” place and one of the most inspirational American cities for his photo essay.

Robert Frank (at left) and British artist Richard Hamilton at the Tate Modern, London, UK, 2004

Robert Frank (at left) and British artist Richard Hamilton at the Tate Modern, London, UK, 2004

Many thanks to Charlie LeDuff for giving Robert’s work some visibility on the front page of our local paper, so few people realize Frank spent time photographing throughout Detroit.  The Detroit Institute of Arts is fortunate to have over fifty photographs from Frank’s 1955 visit to the city, and the museum looks forward to featuring this work in a special exhibition during our 2009-2010 schedule.