Hey Kerouac: Robert Frank's Elevator Girl Comes Forward 50 Years Later

This may be one of the coolest photography stories ever.

And not just because it involves the antics of Robert Frank and Jack Kerouac. Ever wonder where the subjects of iconic images are today or, more importantly WHO they are? Here’s one with an answer. And Twitter, Facebook and newspaper classifieds weren’t needed to find out.

You may have heard of Frank’s book, The Americans, considered to be the most vital photography book since World War II. It followed Frank’s 10,000-mile journey across more than 30 states over nine months in 1955–1956. It resulted in 767 rolls of film—more than 27,000 images—and more than 1,000 prints. Frank’s goal: To uncover the true America behind the shiny, happy facades. What was really going on with Americans? Alienation, angst, and loneliness ended up being dominant themes.

To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the book’s publication, the San Francisco MOMA exhibited the show Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans” by presenting the book’s 83 images in the same order in which they were published. Shortly after opening, The SF Chronicle reviewed the show and published the “Elevator Girl” image that was written about when Jack Kerouac (beat writer and poet; author of On The Road) penned Frank’s book introduction. Kerouac took a particular liking to an image of a young women who worked as an elevator girl in a Miami hotel. He wrote about her at the end of the introduction.

Sharon (maiden name Goldstein), at 15-years-old, was the elevator girl at Miami's Sherry Frontenac Hotel. Robert Frank's famous image is called "Elevator — Miami Beach, 1955." Collection Philadelphia Museum of Art, purchased with funds contributed by Dorothy Norman, 1969. Copyright Robert Frank.

Sharon (maiden name Goldstein), at 15-years-old, was the elevator girl at Miami's Sherry Frontenac Hotel. Robert Frank's famous image is called "Elevator — Miami Beach, 1955." Collection Philadelphia Museum of Art, purchased with funds contributed by Dorothy Norman, 1969. Copyright Robert Frank.

Kerouac’s poetic words went like this:

To Robert Frank I now give this message: You got eyes.

And I say: That little ole lonely elevator girl looking up sighing in an elevator full of blurred demons, what’s her name & address?”

Now back to the SF MOMA. And an average guy named Ian Padgham, the museum’s marketing and communications assistant. One day in August he did an “employee” walk-through of The Americans with the curator. It’s a special priviledge afforded to staff, where they sometimes hear great stories about the exhibits. On the walk, he heard a yellowed paper with Kerouac’s original typed introduction was found. Apparently, it was sort of an inebriated-induced stream of conscious ramble (probably much like this posting, minus the drinking). While it differed from the final copy, the final line about the elevator girl was still in there. Drunk as a fish is wet and all. Lucky for Frank, he rewrote it.

Inspired after his tour, the museum assistant returned to his desk, planning to twitter on the elevator girl’s identity, when the phone rang– reeling in the real non-artful world into full focus. He didn’t pick it up. He wanted to stay dreamy. Keep Frank’s images in focus. Stay inspired.

It rang again. No. No. It rang again. He decided to be a good employee, although he was just about to let voicemail handle it.

“Hello! My name is Sharon,” said the voice on the other end.

. . .and I just saw my picture in the Chronicle —I was the girl in the Robert Frank elevator picture!”

Holy guacamole! (That’s me saying that).

So, stars aligned and later that day Sharon Collins, now from San Francisco, came into the museum.  They went to the galleries with photography curators Corey Keller and Lisa Sutcliffe, talked about Sharon’s life, and even went into one of the museum’s elevators and updated the pic.

A half-century later, Collins poses in a MOMA to recreate of the scene.

50 years later, Collins poses in a MOMA elevator to recreate the scene.

Amazingly, up until 10 years ago, Collins had no idea that photo was taken for the book. As an elevator girl she said hundreds of tourists snapped shots all the time. She was kinda used to it. But a decade ago she visited the SF museum and was drawn to a particular photo, not knowing why. In an interview with NPR she said:

I stood in front of this particular photograph for probably a full five minutes, not knowing why I was staring at it,” she says. “And then it really dawned on me that the girl in the picture was me.”

However, until this summer day in 2009 she never knew that she was not only photographed by one of the greats for all posterity, but written about by another one of the greats. The girl in 1955 had more depth than her innocence immediately portrayed. Maybe it was loneliness, maybe it was dreaminess. But Frank and Kerouac knew it, if no one else did. And it made her, the perfect muse.  —Alysha Sideman

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Inspiration Hits in Threes; Book Launch & Talk Tonight

book cover image courtesy of Amazon.com

book cover image courtesy of Amazon.com

Languishing in layoffs, feeling hostile in the humidity, down on your luck or just over it,  - sometimes life can seem routine, like a laundry list of chores, commitments and disappointments. We are used to processing thoughts and images a mile a minute. But pay attention. From the most common moments, the dawn breaks, the sky opens and inspiration hits. This was particularly the case for photographer Ed Kashi who was lying in bed one day when the idea for his new book Three came to him. In some ways it would be his life’s work.

That morning he dreamt of images from his vast archives flowing around in threes, like a comic strip on steroids. Particularly, he saw photos from Brazil in his mind’s eye: the leathery skin on the back of an old fisherman, calm waves of the ocean and the curve of the man’s body as he plummeted into the salty liquid bliss. Here’s how Kashi explains his vision:

They moved as a group, transformed by their relationship to each other.

Each grouping of images in the book are presented like a triptych, an artform dating back to the Middle Ages which is divided into three sections. Traditionally, carved panels were hinged together and folded. The middle panel was typically the largest and flanked by two smaller related works, although there are triptychs of equal-sized panels.

The trifecta idea became the impetus for Kashi to comb through more than 20 years of work looking for, as he puts it:

Visual connections, visual language and visual poetry of three.

description

Ed Kashi

No over stimulation here. In his book, images are presented with no context, no captions. Some come from the same story or location, but many only resemble each another visually. Each triptych’s order is deliberate and meaningful for some sensual purpose. This is not just a picture book but a feeling book. Kashi’s images are sometimes bittersweet and examine current issues of social and political significance, as well as the simpler things in life, bringing together the joy, sorrow, destruction, and reconstruction of a world in flux.

Still, you leave being inspired in some way.

Be sure to check out an amazing multimedia slide show produced to accompany the book launch here: http://edkashi.com/three.php

Join Kashi for the Book Launch and World-Premiere Screening of the Multimedia Piece THREE.

WHAT: Film begins 7:30 PM / Book Signing 8:30 PM
Followed by Panel Discussion and Q & A with Ed Kashi, Daryl Lang (
Photo District News), and Sean Corcoran (Museum of The City of New York)

WHEN:
Thursday, July 16, 2009, 7 PM – 9 PM

WHERE: powerHouse Arena
37 Main Street
Dumbo / Brooklyn

RSVP @ powerHouseArena.com. For more on Kashi visit his website at http://www.edkashi.com/.    –Alysha Sideman

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New Photo Niche in a Bad Economy

Looking to branch out or try a new photography niche and make some good money?

The Washington Post on Sunday wrote about a boom in aerial photographers in Northern Virginia. This guy, Kent Larson, wasn’t even a photographer when he decided to trade in his information technology gig to zoom in on local real estate from the air. He began with an 18-foot blimp. Larson hung the camera from the blimp and stood on the ground, with the blimp on a tether.  He operated the camera with a remote control. And If you shoot it they will come! Shortly after beginning, he was shooting for real estate projects in the DC area.

by Alex MacLean

Clients include general contractors, developers and lenders who hire aerial snappers when decisions are being made about financing properties. The great advantage of this type of shot is access from to the sweet spot. “I would walk around a project and take a picture from the sweet spot, about 200 to 250 feet up,” said Larson in the article. These days he flies a Cessna plane and makes extra money subcontracting it out to other aerial photographers. For more information, visit the association Larson created, the Aerial Photographers of Vienna at http://www.dcairphotos.com/fotoshowpro/. Check out a story I wrote on aerial photographer Alex Maclean at http://www.imaginginfo.com/publication/article.jsp?pubId=3&id=2172&pageNum=2.

-Alysha Sideman

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NYC's MOMA Exhibits a Photo How-To

Looks like museums are appreciating the value of “semi” interactive experiences, even if it is installed on their grand white walls in the form of a photography exhibition. In the The Printed Picture, located on the third floor of the Modern Museum of Art in Manhattan, the viewer experiences a sequential how-to on photo printing techniques throughout the ages in the form of explanation and compelling photographic examples.  While some of these images, under normal circumstances, would never find their way onto an art museum wall admittedly by MOMA curators, the displays are instructional and fascinating.

On view until July 13, 2009, the show is perfect for the professional who’d like to try experiment with some different photo techniques as well as the novice who may want to pick a genre, perfect it, and stand out.

Like the book of the same name, the exhibit follows the technology of making and distributing images from the Renaissance to present day digital processes. There are woodblock and engravings, but I found the more contemporary techniques inviting, such as Platinum and Palladium processing as well as the side-by-side comparison of images from different camera formats.  Augmenting the display are details of dozens of images magnified fifty times to reveal the structure of the image. The show is mounted in a way that one could easy take out a pad and jot notes for later use.

Still, an accompanying side display of  Helen Levitt’s early work with a handheld Leica of poor children hamming it up in NYC streets demonstrates that perhaps technology has no bearing on the success of the final product. Only the eye behind the lens does. It had no fancy tricks, techniques or technology. In 1943, about a year after her first image was taken, Edward Steichen curated her first solo exhibition Helen Levitt: Photographs of Children at the MOMA.

by Helen Levitt

This show can serve as great inspiration for any photogs creatively stuck in the summer humidity. The simply written accounts of particular processes reveal how the process by which a picture is made can indeed shape its meaning, but not necessarily its ability to elicit emotion. For more information visit http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/309. -Alysha Sideman

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