Before hometown country artist Radney Foster gave America “Del Rio, TX 1959,” a purposeful Swiss photographer named Robert Frank offered the nation “Del Rio, Texas 1955.” Or more accurately, “U.S. 90, En Route to Del Rio, Texas, 1955.”
The photo, part of an iconic collection of Frank photos published in a book entitled, “The Americans,” depicts a black and white truncated image of the Frank family Ford vehicle on the shoulder of U.S. Highway 90. Inside, his wife Mary Frank tiredly stares through the windshield wearing a forlorn expression as their son Pablo appears to be half-asleep.
An essay on the photo written by Adonis Pulatus stated, “Robert (Frank) has chosen to crop this picture in such a way as to draw the viewer’s eye to the front occupants of the Ford. The sectioning of the car in this manner and the long view down the right fender towards the interior – emphasised by the relatively shallow depth of field – is both curious and unsettling. The viewer struggles to make sense of this scene.”
The possibly idling Ford looks as if it was hastily parked in order for the photographer to capture a quick image before arriving in Del Rio; the Texas landscape blurred and obscured, reflecting the mood of the vehicle occupants.
The famous shot was taken when Mary and Pablo Frank came to visit Robert Frank at Christmastime during the end of his project; an undertaking funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship documenting all aspects of American society.
According to The Art Story, Robert Frank “bemoaned their arrival as something of a creative inconvenience,” perceiving it would compromise his artistic objectivity which he felt was needed for the project. He considered “En Route to Del Rio” more of a personal picture in contrast to the others, The Art Story reported.
Interestingly, this photo was the last to appear in “The Americans” casting a special status over its history. Robert Frank’s road trip through America during that time coincided with the travels of Beat poet Jack Kerouac who wrote the introduction to “The Americans.” The two found common threads and weaved together a narrative of America that did not resemble the cheerful facade of 1950s consumer-driven-Leave It To Beaver social conventions.
“If Frank (Robert) was the Beat photographer in style, then as Jack Kerouac well understood, his images reflected and codified the Beat-Hipster ideal,” wrote George Cotkin, a professor of post-war United States intellectual and cultural history at California Polytechnic State University, on Americansuburbx.com.
The book itself debuted in France in 1958 and the U.S. in 1959. Robert Frank shot 28,000 photos during a two-year period and reduced the collection down to 83 pictures for the book.
His rugged compositions and their realism were at first shunned by many but it was soon realized they effectively and poignantly captured the numbing reality of post-war America. A society that had transitioned into cars, credit, instant food and pop culture but also featured blight, racism, discrimination, poverty and despair.
The collection of photos has been exhibited in many of the well-renowned museums of modern art throughout the world and was one of the subjects of a well-received 2017 documentary called “Don’t Blink.”
Robert Frank ultimately drifted away from photography and delved into filmmaking. In the early ‘70s, the Rolling Stones commissioned him to film an uncompromising documentary of their 1972 tour.
Supposedly, it was too uncompromising for the band who sued to avert its commercial release.
Pulatus wrote the “En Route to Del Rio” photo requires the viewer to contemplate Mary. “What is she thinking and feeling during this long and arduous journey…Indeed, there is a Ford in this image. And a highway. But this photograph is about Mary.”
And what the Frank family did in Del Rio or how much time they spent here, and where, is now left to the imagination. The photograph was an end and a beginning.