Auction house selling acclaimed photos by filmmaker behind famed Rolling Stones doc
Fans of documentary film know Robert Frank as the man who directed Cocksucker Blues, his notorious portrait of the Rolling Stones. But he always had a second career -- as one of the 20th century's most important photographers.
That second career -- specifically work from his seminal 1958 book "The Americans" -- is the focus of a major auction by Sotheby's this Thursday. The firm is offering for sale 77 photographs from the book that were collected over a period of two decades by Ruth and Jake Bloom. The auction could net millions of dollars.
It's an incredibly rich document of the period and really of American culture... A lot of the issues that he was documenting in the 50s are still issues in American culture today.
"The sale this December will represent the first time such an extensive collection of photographs from 'The Americans' has appeared at public auction," Sotheby's said in a statement.
"The Americans" stemmed from a series of photographic forays Frank took across the US in the 1950s, facilitated by a Guggenheim Fellowship. The book contained only a small fraction of the images he took.
"He shot hundreds and hundreds of rolls of films during his various trips across the country," Christopher Mahoney, head of Sotheby's Photography Department, told Nonfictionfilm.com. "He basically had tens of thousands of photographs to choose from. He distilled that down to 83 individual images, which is one hell of an editing job."
Mahoney said Frank's photos reflected a distinct perspective on his adopted country.
"He actually wasn’t American. He was Swiss-born and so he was viewing America with an outsider’s eye," Mahoney said. "He was really honing in on things that either other American photographers were ignoring or simply choosing not to see. And he was interested in different things. The ubiquity of the American flag, which he thought was very interesting. Photographing in areas where segregation was very much a way of life, this was something that a lot of people just chose to ignore. He’s spoken and written about this -- about how it was really shocking to him that segregation was so prevalent."
"The famous image of the black nanny holding the white baby -- white families would let a black woman care for their children but they wouldn’t sit next to them at the diner. What’s interesting about it is that he’s not heavy-handed in his commentary about segregation or racism. He’s very even-handed. He kind of tells the story with a light touch. He doesn’t hammer you over the head with it. He shows it but in a way that the meaning has to be pulled out of the photograph."
"It’s an incredibly rich document of the period and really of American culture and I think still stands that way," Mahoney told Nonfictionfilm.com. "Within the photography world 'The Americans' is generally understood to be one of the most important photographically-illustrated books, certainly in the post-war era."
But after the publication of "The Americans" Frank turned his artistic focus in a new direction, Mahoney said.
"'The Americans' was really sort of his last serious photographic effort before he went into filmmaking. The filmmaking strikes me as very different. It’s much more experimental."
His best known film is one that is extremely difficult to see -- Cocksucker Blues, a verité-style look at the Rolling Stones' 1972 US tour, their first since the infamous 1969 concert at Altamont where a fan was stabbed to death.
The Stones originally commissioned the film, but then found the content embarrassing; it showed Mick Jagger snorting cocaine, a groupie using heroin, and various other wild antics from the road. After legal action by the band a judge ruled the film could only be screened in the presence of Frank and no more than four times a year.
Frank has directed more than 20 films, some of them shorts. His most recent feature-length film came out in 2009 -- Alfred Leslie: Cool Man in a Golden Age, a portrait of Frank's collaborator on his first film, 1959's Pull My Daisy.
"While he broke away from photography to do filmmaking I still think they’re very strongly linked. I think when you look at it from a distance you see a real kind of proliferation of one medium into another," Mahoney observed.
Images from "The Americans" by Robert Frank. Left: "U.S. 90 En Route to Del Rio, Texas"; Center: "Jay, N.Y. (Fourth of July)"; Right: "Ford River Rouge Plant (Factory - Detroit)". Auction price estimates for the 77 prints in the Bloom collection range from $2,000 to $300,000 apiece.
Mahoney said he does not expect Frank to be present for the sale of his photographic prints on Thursday.
"We know he’s aware of the auction but he’s not involved with it nor would I think he would want to be. He’s not interested in the world of commerce. He’s still very much an artist. His work is what’s important to him. The market around it is not so interesting to him," Mahoney said. "He lives in New York, he lives in Nova Scotia. Surprising for a 91-year-old he travels a great deal. He’s still around. He is not someone who enjoys being in public, but he is someone who does enjoy traveling. He’s still very much engaged in the world but in his quiet way."
Mahoney added, "[Frank] was a quiet man with a Leica who was unassuming and that is how he was able to take these great pictures. He kept a low profile. He worked hard and he watched all the time and I think he’s still doing that."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.