Robert Frank - Photographs New York Thursday, April 8, 2021 | Phillips

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  • "I have been frequently accused of deliberately twisting subject matter to my point of view. Above all, I know that life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference. Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love."
    —Robert Frank, 1958

    In 1955, Robert Frank began the series of photographic road trips that would result in the publication of his seminal book, The Americans. His project was funded by a succession of modest grants from the Guggenheim Foundation. Born in Switzerland, Frank came to the United States with an outsider’s perspective. In his 1955 application to the Guggenheim Foundation he reasoned, 'It is fair to assume that when an observant American travels abroad his eye will see freshly; and that the reverse may be true when a European eye looks at the United States.'


    What Frank saw on his travels was a country enjoying post-war prosperity but deeply riven by racial and class divisions. Nowhere in Frank’s work are these divisions more apparent than in Trolley—New Orleans, a photograph that has become the signature image from The Americans since its appearance as the cover illustration on the book’s first American edition. The print offered here is distinguished by its large format, high level of detail, and for its direct line of provenance, having been acquired from Frank by the present owner around 1980.


    The Americans, first American edition, 1959 (not in sale)
    The Americans, first American edition, 1959 (not in sale)

    Venturing out from New York City, Robert Frank often encountered prejudice and mistrust on his travels. He was arrested in Michigan and Arkansas on specious charges: his accent, his Jewish heritage, the 'foreign' names of his children, Andrea and Pablo. Frank’s array of photographic equipment, and his credentials – signed by such respected figures as the Russian expatriate Alexey Brodovitch – encouraged authorities to suspect that he was a spy photographing for a communist power. At the time, Frank was in the process of becoming an American citizen and he feared that these encounters with the law would jeopardize his application. Frank later stated that these experiences gave him an even deeper 'compassion for the people on the street.'


    Frank authority Sarah Greenough observes that his demoralizing treatment at the hands of the police 'amplified his anger, sharpened his eye, and transformed his previous affinity for those on the margins of society into an almost visceral engagement with them. Any Swiss reserve that he might still have possessed dissipated entirely, and he now encountered America, as Kerouac later wrote, 'prowling like a cat, or an angry bear"' (Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, p. 126). It was with this revised mindset that Frank arrived in New Orleans only a matter of days after his Arkansas arrest. There, photographing on a busy street, he made the series of images that culminated in Trolley – New Orleans.


    In both composition and content, the photograph is a masterpiece. The image is organized in a series of horizontal passages, the central one made up of a row of portraits, the subjects divided by the trolley’s window frames and organized according to the segregation of the day. Collectively, the individual subjects form a portrait of the human condition as experienced in America in the mid-1950s. It is an image that has lost none of its resonance in the sixty-plus years since it was taken. Frank wrote: 'I have been frequently accused of deliberately twisting subject matter to my point of view. Above all, I know that life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference. Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love' (U. S. Camera Annual, 1958).

    • Provenance

      Acquired from the photographer, circa 1980

    • Literature

      The Americans, cover, no. 18
      Greenough, Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, pp. 6-7, 232, 466, Contact no. 18
      Greenough and Brookman, Robert Frank: Moving Out, pp. 172 (contact sheet), 196
      Aperture, The Open Road: Photography & The American Road Trip, p. 43
      Tate Modern, Cruel and Tender: The Real in the 20th Century Photograph, p. 109
      Galassi, Walker Evans & Company, pl. 137
      Greenough, Snyder, Travis and Westerbeck, On the Art of Fixing a Shadow: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Photography, p. 357
      Papageorge, Walker Evans and Robert Frank, An Essay on Influence, p. 41
      U. S. Camera, 1958, pp. 106-107
      'Robert Frank,' Aperture, 1961, p. 9

    • Artist Biography

      Robert Frank

      Swiss • 1924

      As one of the leading visionaries of mid-century American photography, Robert Frank has created an indelible body of work, rich in insight and poignant in foresight. In his famed series The Americans, Frank travelled the United States, capturing the parade of characters, hierarchies and imbalances that conveyed his view of the great American social landscape.

      Frank broke the mold of what was considered successful documentary photography with his "snapshot aesthetic." It is Frank's portrayal of the United States through grit and grain that once brought his work to the apex of criticism, but has now come to define the art of documentary photography.

      View More Works


Trolley – New Orleans

Gelatin silver print, printed later.
12 x 19 in. (30.5 x 48.3 cm)
Signed, dated '1956' and annotated 'New Orleans' in ink in the margin; initialed and annotated in ink on the verso.

Full Cataloguing

$150,000 - 250,000 

Sold for $403,200

Contact Specialist

Sarah Krueger
Head of Department, Photographs

Vanessa Hallett
Worldwide Head of Photographs and Deputy Chairman, Americas



New York Auction 8 April 2021