Photographer Robert Frank Detained by Police for Being Suspicious in 1955

Being stopped by police for being suspicious — and having cameras — isn’t an issue unique to our time. In 1955, photographer Robert Frank was driving through Arkansas when he was stopped by a police officer who looked into his car and noticed, among other things, “a number of cameras”. The officer had something to take care of in a nearby city, so he conveniently had Frank held in a city jail until he could return and question him.

Here’s the police arrest report filed after the incident:

Department of
Little Rock, Arkansas

December 19, 1955

Alan R. Templeton, Captain
Criminal Investigations Division
Arkansas State Police
Little Rock, Arkansas

Dear Captain Templeton:

On or about November 7, I was enroute to Dermott to attend to some business and about 2 o’clock I observed a 1950 or 1951 Ford with New York license, driven by a subject later identified as Robert Frank of New York City.

After stopping the car I noticed that he was shabbily dressed, needed a shave and a haircut, also a bath. Subject talked with a foreign accent. I talked to the subject a few minutes and looked into the car where I noticed it was heavily loaded with suitcases, trunks and a number of cameras.

Due to the fact that it was necessary for me to report to Dermott immediately, I placed the subject in the City Jail in McGehee until such time that I could return and check him out.

After returning from Dermott I questioned this subject. He was very uncooperative and had a tendency to be “smart-elecky” in answering questions. Present during the questioning was Trooper Buren Jackson and Officer Ernest Crook of the McGehee Police Department.

We were advised that a Mr. Mercer Woolf of McGehee, who had some experience in counter-intelligence work during World War II and could read and speak several foreign languages, would be available to assist us in checking out this subject. Subject had numerous papers in foreign langauges, including a passport that did not include his picture.

This officer investigated this subject due to the man’s appearance, the fact that he was a foreigner and had in his possession cameras and felt that the subject should be checked out as we are continually being advised to watch out for any persons illegally in this country possibly in the emply of some unfriendly foreign power and the possibility of Communist affiliations.

Subject was fingerprinted in the normal routine of police investigation; one card being sent to Arkansas State Police Headquarters and one card to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington.

Respectfully submitted,
Lieutenant R.E. Brown, Lieutenant
Troop #5
Warren, Arkansas


Luckily Frank didn’t allow this incident to deter him from his work — three years later he published his magnum opus, The Americans.

(via Thomas Hawk)

Image credit: Photograph of Robert Frank by Tony the Misfit showing portrait of Frank by Richard Avedon

  • Nikhil Ramkarran

    Well to be entirely fair (given that photo) I think I would have been more than a little suspicious too. Detention is obviously overboard, but I do pay the police to look out for my safety so that I don’t have to. This is why I usually identify myself and explain my business quite politely when asked. Being polite has never yet failed me.

  • ranger9

    Of course there’s no excuse for jailing someone just for the officer’s convenience. But I’ve always felt that Frank’s “magnum opus” depicted an extremely jaundiced and negative view of America and Americans. I guess now I can see why!

    (Still, it’s stories like this that underline the importance of an independent press, no matter how much people hate the paparrazi. One of my journalism professors used to tell a similar story from when he was a beat reporter in Oklahoma. He discovered that several East Europeans, stranded in town and unable to speak English, were being held in the city jail simply because nobody knew what to do with them. At first they tried to deny to the reporter that they even had anybody in jail, but he had seen them through the windows and insisted that something be done; so they got the state to locate an interpreter, who helped determine that the visitors were in the US quite legally, got their travel problems resolved, and sent them on their way.

    Incidentally, an ironic twist was that the detained aliens said they weren’t especially upset by their treatment, because by their home country’s standards, the jail was quite nice!)

  • Art Nachtman

    Any comparison of a Swiss Jew being harassed in the social and cultural context of the 1950’s with today’s whiney “photographer’s rights” bloggers is laughable. Using a photo of an older Frank with a post about his 1950’s work is also disingenuous.

  • Art Nachtman

    Oh yeah — and the photograph above should not be credited to “Tony the Misfit” — that’s preposterous. This portrait of Frank is by Richard Avedon and was taken in 1975.

  • Rick Lewis

    Interesting comments.

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  • Eric Lauri Kulo

    I do agree, you should be polite. But it’s just insane to suggest that judging by Robert Frank’s apparence he should’ve been questioned.