Newsletter: When Robert Frank came to California

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, Sept. 11, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

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Robert Frank — who, at 94, had arguably been the most influential living photographer in the country — died Monday.

His midcentury masterwork “The Americans” was the product of a two-year, 10,000-mile journey around the United States funded by a Guggenheim grant. Frank shot 27,000 frames on 767 rolls of film. His aim, as he wrote in his Guggenheim application, was “to portray Americans as they live at present. Their every day and their Sunday, their realism and dream. The look of their cities, towns and highways.”

Despite its now unshakable place in the pantheon, the book was largely panned when it was officially released in the U.S. in 1960. The rough-looking photos, of dim bars and drive-ins and roadside crosses, were grainy and restless. “Robert Frank,” as Jack Kerouac wrote in his introduction to the book, “Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that grey little camera he raises with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.” That tragic poetry was, for many at the time, considered to be a direct affront to the prevailing, golden-hued image of 1950s America. And the fact that the photos were taken by a Leica-toting European émigré Jew probably didn’t help matters.

Frank crisscrossed the country for the project but spent longer in California than anywhere else on his travels. He was on the West Coast with his family for months, first in Los Angeles and then Orinda, pausing for a time to reflect and develop film even as he continued to shoot.

He had already been on the road for several months when his wife, Mary, and their two small children joined him in Houston in November 1955. They got to L.A. on or just before Christmas Day 1955 and spent two months in a rented house in the Hollywood Hills, near where Mulholland Drive meets the Cahuenga Pass.

Here in L.A., Frank tried and mostly failed at securing commercial assignments to supplement the family’s income, according to a chronology of his trip from the National Gallery of Art.

He developed film in a friend’s darkroom, editing the negatives with scissors as he went, and took pictures at movie premieres, auto shows and elsewhere.

One particularly well-known photo, of a diner waitress staring unguardedly ahead, was shot at the Hollywood Ranch Market on Vine. The long-since-gone Ranch Market “was one of the few places [in L.A.] where a person could cash a check in the middle of night. It had metal turnstiles, pinball machines, but no doors,” according to historian Alison Martino of Vintage Los Angeles.

“While he explored, Mary and the kids remained in the apartment. He admitted to his parents that Mary had it rough because she couldn’t drive and they couldn’t afford a babysitter — to be carless and stranded in L.A. is a cruel isolation,” RJ Smith wrote in “American Witness,“ his biography of Frank. Mary was only 23 at the time, and both children were under 5.

Meanwhile, Frank continued his meanderings in the most American of automobiles — a used Ford. Another L.A. photo, “St. Francis, Gas Station and City Hall, Los Angeles,” taken on the fringes of downtown, was erroneously titled. The statue in the foreground is actually of Junipero Serra, the founder of California’s missions.

“To live for two months in L.A. is like being hospitalized in a Paris hospital,” Frank wrote in a letter to Walker Evans in February 1956, according to Smith’s book. “If you have to stay longer one gets worse quickly.”

The Frank family stayed in Los Angeles for three months before heading up to Orinda.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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