Groundbreaking photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank — best known to rock fans as the director of the notorious 1972 Rolling Stones fly-on-the-wall tour documentary Cocksucker Blues — died September 9th at his home in Inverness, Nova Scotia. He was 94.
“We’re very sad to hear the news that the visionary photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank has died,” the Rolling Stones said in a group statement. “Robert collaborated with us on a number of projects including the cover design of Exile on Main Street and [he] directed the Cocksucker Blues documentary. He was an incredible artist whose unique style broke the mould. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this time.”
The Stones first met Frank in 1972 when they invited him to their Bel Air villa as they were finishing up Exile on Main Street. They wanted him to create a new photograph for the album cover and he did shoot them walking through a seedy Los Angeles neighborhood, but they ultimately went with a photo he took 22 years earlier at a tattoo parlor on Route 66. It’s collage of smaller photos of circus performers that perfectly captured the mood of the album. One of the most striking images is of “Three Ball Charlie,” a sideshow performer able to cram three large balls into his mouth.
Pleased with the Exile album cover, the Stones hired Frank to film a documentary of their 1972 American tour. The result was Cocksucker Blues, a film that manages to be shocking even by the standards of today. It shows groupies coerced into taking their clothing off on an airplane for a mock orgy, sax player Bobby Keys trashing a hotel room, Mick Jagger snorting cocaine and even a groupie shooting up heroin. (The title comes from an intentionally unreleasable song the group wrote to fulfill their contract with Decca.)
The movie also has incredible scenes of the Rolling Stones performing onstage, but the band wasn’t pleased with the final result and sought an injunction preventing its release. They struck an agreement that allowed Frank to show the film four times a year if he was present at every screening. It was an unusual arrangement, but he honored it and appeared at occasional screenings until shortly before his death.
Cocksucker Blues may have been Frank’s most notorious project, but he’s best known for his groundbreaking 1959 book The Americans, a collection of black-and-white photographs he took while driving across the country in the mid-1950s. It captured post-war America from all angles and is seen today as one of the most important photography books of the 20th Century. A major retrospective of the work took place in 2009 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
“The book distills heartache, anger, fear, loneliness and occasional joy into a brew that has changed flavor with time but stayed potent,” art critic Holland Cotter wrote in his review of the show for the New York Times, while revisiting the seminal work. “You may not know exactly what you’re imbibing when you pick up The Americans for the first time, or when you visit the Met show, but a few pictures in, and you’re hooked.”