Photographer Robert Frank Was Jailed for Being ‘Suspicious’ in 1955
Photographers are often viewed with suspicion by police, and there are regular headlines about people being harassed and detained for simply shooting photos. However, being stopped by police for this type of “suspicious” behavior is not an issue unique to the digital age. Renowned photographer Robert Frank was even jailed for three days while driving through Arkansas in 1955 as he shot his famous photo book The Americans.
A Run-In with a Suspicious Officer
Frank received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1955 and used the funds to embark on a series of road trips across the United States to photograph life in the country across social classes. Over the next couple of years, Frank would capture nearly 28,000 photos, of which 83 were selected to be published in The Americans.
While driving through McGehee, Arkansas, in November of the first year of his journey, Frank ran into a policeman, Lieutenant R.E. Brown, who became suspicious of his “shabby” attire, disheveled hair, and foreign accent. The cop became even more suspicious when he saw that Frank had multiple cameras with him in his vehicle.
Needing to be somewhere else, the officer decided to throw Frank into a city jail until he could return and question him further.
“I was driving early in the morning on a little country road, and the cops came, stopped my car, and said, ‘What are you doing?’,” Frank recalled during a 1977 interview at Wellesley College. “I said, ‘I’m on a Guggenheim Fellowship, and I’m traveling around photographing the country.’ The guy said, ‘Guggenheim? Who is that?’ So they pulled me in.
“They said, ‘We got to arrest you,’ and I said, ‘What for?’ and they said, ‘Never mind,’ and kept me in jail for almost three days. I didn’t know anybody; they could have killed me.”
When Brown finally returned almost three days later, he brought along an officer named Mercer Woolf who had become knowledgeable about espionage through World War II, and Woolf helped Brown investigate Frank.
“[Woolf] investigated this subject [Frank] 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 employ of some unfriendly foreign power and the possibility of Communist affiliations,” Brown later wrote in his police report.
Frank was fingerprinted for the Arkansas State Police and for the FBI before he was finally released.
Law Enforcement’s Side of the Story
Here’s the original Arkansas State Police arrest report filed on December 19th, 1955, by Lieutenant R.E. Brown:
ARKANSAS STATE POLICE
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 en route 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-alecky” 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 languages, 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 employ 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.
Lieutenant R.E. Brown, Lieutenant
ARKANSAS STATE POLICE
Robert Frank’s Side of the Story
Robert Frank wrote an account of his arrest in a letter to photographer Walker Evans written from Port Gibson, Mississippi on November 9th, 1955. Here’s the letter, which was published by the now-offline PhotoPermit.org and rediscovered by Reddit user bbmm:
Port Gibson, Miss. Nov.9.55
Walker [Evans] —
I am writing to you because I want your opinion or advice. Nov. 7th I planned to drive from Marianna Ark. to Greenfield Miss. I came as far as McGehee Ark. outside this little town on Highway U.S. 65 two Highway-Patrol-Cars stopped me. I had to show my license, registration, passport, etc. The lieutenant of the patrol-car looked at my papers, went through all my luggage inspected the whole car, asked me what I do, where I can from where I am going etc. After showing him the letter of the Guggenheim Found, he said that I was going to be detained. They drove me to the City Jail — locked me up. That was 12:30 P.M. I did ask, if I could have some coffee (I had nothing to eat since 6AM that day) but the answer was that if I would not be quiet they would teach me how to be quiet.
I stayed in that cell until 7:30 P.M. At 7 PM I got something to eat. At 7:30 that same lieutenant that stopped me came to my cell accompanied by a uniformed Highway-Patrolman plus a regular policeman. From 7:30 PM until 11:30 P.M. I was cross-examined by those three men who, at halftime were joined by apparently an inspector of that county. I will describe to you this cross-examination which was the most humiliating experience I had so
The lieutenant was in charge of the whole thing, the policeman and the Highway patrolman had minor roles. That is until the special inspector arrived about 9 P.M. who then took charge of the cross examination.
Again the same questions: where I came from, why, where am I going, why etc. I said I was going to photograph at Baton Rouge-Refinerys for the Guggenheim project. They took me to the car, I brought up all my luggage except one big suitcase where I could not find the key to open it. Also in my car in the glove compartment they found 1/5 bottle of Hennessey-Brandy which I bought in Wash. D.C. and the bottle was 2/3 empty. Now they had all my papers in front of them. Why the Guggenheim F. gives me money, how old is Mr. Mathias? (he signed the letters—I had that whole correspondence with me) if I am Jewish why I went back to Europe? If it would not have been better to stay in America and not to loaf in Europe. I had to translate for 10 min an entire page of the Swiss Army booklet which I had with me. (The is the equivalent of an American draft information) Why I photographed in Detroit at Ford? The patrolman got all excited — because he visited Ford and was not allowed to photograph there. About every hour I had to go back to my cell, while they discussed the matter and made telephone calls. I was questioned about that 1/5 bottle of Hennessey (foreign whiskey) My cufflinks etc. were in a metal box where English licorice used to be (foreign box.) On my road map the AAA marked the direct route to New Orleans in green. But on your advice (you remember) I made a red marking from Chatanooga Tenn. across Alabama into Miss. to Memphis, Tenn. About that, great questioning. Then the special Inspector arrived. He immediately started to ask me a question in Jewish, I said that I did not speak Jewish. He asked about the Oil Refinery’s Pictures that I [was] going to take and I gave him the two Names of people in Baton Rouge who were informed of my arrival by Standard Oil in N.Y. (And I had clearance to photograph there) I had a list of addresses in Calif. and I was questioned about all of them. All the rolls of Films that I had shot so far, I had marked by location where I took them. I was questioned at length about some rolls which I took in Scottsboro Ala. I denied knowing about that case (all the pict. that I took in Scottsboro show Farmers going to shop at the stores, it was Saturday.) I was asked if I took a pict. of the bridge at Memphis. I did not. etc. etc. Then the inspector asked me what seemed to me a vital question. He said who do you know, anywhere, that has a high position in public affairs, police etc.
I mentioned Steichen and Mary’s Uncle whom I said is a personal friend of Mayor Wagner. Then he questioned me about the references on my Guggenheim application (Russian name, Brodovitch.) I had to go to my cell again. When I got in, the lieutenant leaned back and said: “Now we are going to ask you a question: Are you a commie? I said no. He said, “Do you know what a commie is? I said yes. Then I was asked to give them all my exposed films, so they could develop them. I said I would make a big stink if they would do that. I did not tell them what I would do but I said this is the way I make a living and if these films would be developed by someone else they would be ruined. Again I had to go outside. After coming in I was asked to give up voluntarily 3 rolls of film. I was promised, that that would speed up my release. I agreed to do that. I was asked about Mary and my children, Pablo and Andrea (foreign Names.) Finally they said they would release me tonight if I would pry open the big suitcase in the trunk of the car. I did that and they came across the Congressional Fortune Nov. Issue. Again a conference, and I think on the advice of the inspector they gave me back my 3 rolls of film. Then the inspector left and the lieutenant took over again.
Dear Walker — this letter is written more than 40 hours after these happenings — I am not excited about them anymore and I write without the fury that I had in me after I got released. During the examination I was as courteous as I could be — I realized what would happen if I could not do that.
If you think I could do something to get those Fingerprints-Sheets destroyed or annulled please let me know what you think about that. I think in my naturalization process that would hurt me a lot or make it even impossible. I know you have other problems. If necessary I would go to Little Rock Ark. or back to McGehee Ark. Please get in touch with Mary who will know my address.
Sorry to write such a long letter.
A nous la liberté!
While the fear of communist photographers has long faded away in the United States since 1955, there is still an ongoing struggle to preserve the First Amendment right of photographers to shoot photos in public places.
“Taking photographs of things that are plainly visible from public spaces is a constitutional right–and that includes federal buildings, transportation facilities, and police and other government officials carrying out their duties,” writes ACLU of Southern California. “Unfortunately, there is a widespread, continuing pattern of law enforcement officers ordering people to stop taking photographs from public places, and harassing, detaining and arresting those who fail to comply.”
A Landmark Photo Book Was Born
Thankfully for the world of photography, Frank did not allow the traumatic experience of being jailed in Arkansas to deter him from completing his ambitious photo project, but the incident did alter the lens through which Frank saw America. Frank says that some of the dark view of American society seen in The Americans was due to encounters like the one with Brown.
“It’s pretty scary, and I think that somehow came through in the photographs–that violence I was confronted with,” Frank said in his 1977 interview.
The Americans, his magnum opus, was published in France three years after his arrest and then in the United States the following year. It is now considered to be one of the most influential photography books of all time.
Frank passed away in September 2019 at the age of 94.
Image credits: Header illustration created from photo by Tony Fischer and licensed under CC BY 2.0. Portrait of Robert Frank by Richard Avedon.