Expensive picture is this – probably would fetch in excess of $75,000 at auction. Why? Because it tells a story. What story? Well, that depends on you. The story needs telling afresh each time.
It’s Middle America and Middle ’50s. Eisenhower politics; ultra conservatives; gas guzzling roadsters; small black and white TVs on new formica tables; drive-in movies; Howard Johnson motels; women as happy home-makers. This is the subtext of this photograph.
Not: the Kinsey reports; Charlie Parker and Miles Davis; Kerouac and the Beatniks; teenagers fighting with switchblades and driving cars off cliffs; UFOs; Elvis. These things were happening too.
A Rodeo – quintessential western America. Perhaps one of the travelling rodeos from the south, next stop Saginaw or White Pigeon? Or maybe down from Calgary? Either way, the picture is not “about” a Rodeo. No Stars and Stripes or tie-down roping or saddle bronc riding here. No siree! It’s about gender and male power.
The picture depicts two women who have the air of “southern belles” and an alpha-male (in the common parlance). The women are sisters, disappointed women but too afraid to say. Their grandfather had emigrated from Marano di Napoli, after the pea crop had failed and there was little to be made from tufo stone work. The one in a hat is married to the man. He likes the Roman Coliseum spectacles. He likes his collection of leather belts and buckles back at home but that’s another story. He likes anything that affirms him as a man: beer, jeeps, cigars, Marlboro County. His name is Frank.
Frank is an office worker – an insurance salesman who recently set up the insurance for the America’s first shopping mall, which opened in nearby Southfield in 1954. In the previous week Frank had travelled to Green Bay to see the Packers beat the Lions 20-17.
And the story slowly unfolds. Frank’s brother, Jesse, is the kicking coach for the Lions, part of Buddy Parker’s coaching team. The season was to play out unexceptionally for the Lions – 8th of 12 in the NFL. Frank’s wife, Mary, worked at the Mariner’s church for several years, before the church made way for the new Civic Centre. She was an unexceptional woman but with a strong view of right and wrong. She didn’t like Jesse….. Jesse had made a pass at her, when Frank had been away at the annual insurance convention in Miami a few years back. Frank was completely unaware of this.
A fiction of course. My fiction. But for me this is the essence of this photograph. It insists on a story. And Frankly (sic), it matters not what story. The photograph’s power is that it crosses the junction between history and future.
Barthes once said that cameras are “clocks for seeing”. Robert Frank saw it all. As Kerouac said in his introduction to “The Americans” – “To Robert Frank, I now give this message: You got eyes.” He certainly did. Wonderful picture this. It conjures up so much, if you would just loiter a little and allow the mind to fill in the blanks.