For many years I have loved the work of Robert Frank, the Swiss photographer who traveled around America in the 1950s documenting in gritty black & white. His selected photographs became a book, The Americans, with a forward by beat writer Jack Kerouac. As an outsider, Frank photographed the unseen and unromantic parts of America.
He died two days ago at the age of 94, on September 10, 2019. Many obituaries have appeared in the press. I have been a fan of his work for a long time. I suppose you can say he was one of my heroes.
I blogged about an exhibit that highlighted the 50th anniversary of The Americans.
In my early days as a photographer, while I was wandering around Philadelphia with my camera, I came upon a hot dog cart advertising Robert’s Beef Franks. I photographed this in Frank’s off-hand black & white style as both an homage and a visual pun. I showed this picture to Arno Minkkinen, who at the time was teaching at the art school I worked for. He told me, “You should send that to Robert Frank. He’d get a kick out of it.”
So on Arno’s suggestion, I wrote a letter to Frank and enclosed the photograph. I haven’t written many fan letters, but in my letter I asked him about knowing Jack Kerouac, who had died young from alcoholism, and whose books I had recently read. Addressing it was easy, Arno told me just put his name, and Mabou, Nova Scotia, Canada as the address.
To my surprise and delight, Robert Frank wrote back to me.
Mabou Sept. 1981
Dear Greg Benson—
Yes—Kerouac was a good man and honest.
We all have tragedies in our lives.
How about that Hot-Dog man in
You become an artist without thinking
If you’d think too long about it
you’d lose momentum and become
a Telephone Repairman.
Chacun a son gout. [To each his own.]
Thank you for yr letter.
Stay with it
And I say, Rest In Peace, Robert Frank.