"Trolley - New Orleans is a remarkable portrayal of a common scene near the end of 1955 in the Deep South of the United States where racist traditions ran deep. Around the time the photograph was made, in nearby Montgomery, Alabama on 1 December 1955, a black woman, Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat near the front of the bus to a white man. This small event touched off a year-long bus boycott and launched the Civil Rights movement. That Robert Frank, a foreigner, was so attuned to the undercurrents of American society and was able to express his personal feelings about what he observed, visually and without words, begins to explain why he is regarded as one of the most important photographers of the 20th century." (Stuart Alexander, 'Robert Frank,' in Haworth-Booth, ed., The Folio Society Book of the 100 Greatest Photographs, The Folio Society, 2006, p. 158)
When Grove Press was preparing the first US publication of The Americans, Frank considered asking abstract-expressionist painters Franz Kline or Willem DeKooning to provide the cover art because he did not like the Saul Steinberg drawing that had been imposed by the French publisher, Delpire. Eventually, second-generation asbstract expressionist painter, Alfred Leslie, provided maquettes for the front cover, but in the end, one of those proposals was relegated to the back and Trolley - New Orleans was chosen for the front.
"That choice for the cover was not only perfectly suited to represent the contents of the book but it presciently evoked the entirety of Frank's oeuvre from his beginnings to his most recent work over fifty years later."
"The basic format of The Americans is simple, and recalls early photographic books which consist of prints bound into an album with the blank left-hand page being the back of the preceding print. It conveys meaning solely through the images, without narrative or captions, entirely through the juxtaposition of forms and subjects within the frame and between pictures within the book. Each picture is scrutinized individually, but the images the reader retains in the mind create a resonance with those on the page at hand. Similarly Trolley - New Orleans is comprised of individual pictures delineated by the window frames. The white person at the left has the window pulled down and is screened off by a light reflection and physical separation from the outside world. The next figure, a white woman turned mostly forward, has a haughty look. In the centre are two well-dressed, white children; the boy's hand wrapped around the window frame links him to the woman at the left. Beyond the next separating white bar, the black man seems almost to be pleading for help. Finally, the black woman at the far right appears to be relaxed and happy. Frank remembers, 'A streetcar goes by on a main street, maybe Bourbon Street, in New Orleans and there are people looking out at something. I wasn't thinking about segregation when I shot it. But I did feel that the black people were more dignified.' (Documentary Photography, 1972). Above the vignettes are reflections in the upper windows, with strange, ominous semi-abstract shapes and forms. These can be appreciated like similar graphic images by Frank's contemporaries such as Minor White or Aaron Siskind. They have been compared to cartoon thought-balloons and add nuance and mystery. The overall effect of these windows in rows is like looking at a photographer's contact sheet."
"Not long after The Americans was published, Frank quit photography and devoted himself to making movies, occasionally making compositions of enlarged filmstrips and contact sheets. In the 1970s he began again in earnest to make photographs. His work since then has consisted almost exclusively of combinations of separate photographs that work much like the vignettes in the windows of Trolley - New Orleans."
"The vertical bars in this image echo the vertical stripes of the US flag in the picture immediately preceding it in The Americans. The photograph that follows it [see lot 17] is a reverse-angle shot of people walking by on the sidewalk. Although made in the same place at the same time it is a complete contrast." (ibid.)
The pinholes in the corners, numerical markings, size and apparent age of this print suggest that it was used in the final stages of preparation for the first edition of Les Américains published in Paris in May 1958. Frank made 8 x 10 inch prints from the negatives he exposed on his Guggenheim Fellowship. He edited them and made decisions about sequencing by pinning, tacking and even stapling prints on the wall of his studio. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. has dozens of these prints - some even still have the staples in them. Many of the work prints used in the early stages have the negative numbers written on them in grease pencil. As Frank refined the selection, he made a maquette that he took with him to Paris to create the final sequence.
The maquette for the book in its final form is in the collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Because the changes were made on the original maquette, rather than creating a new separate dummy, there are indications on it that allow us to reconstruct most of the original sequence. It was divided into at least four sections, each one opening with an American flag photo. Trolley - New Orleans was the second photo in the second section of the book, following Fourth of July - Jay, New York. The publisher, Robert Delpire, removed the separations between each section in order to save pages. Together, they eliminated around nine images to arrive at the final 83 plates.
From studying the maquette we find that Trolley - New Orleans was indeed page 2 in section II and it was number 24 in the overall sequence of the book. This corresponds with the label marked 'Page #2' and the number '24' written on the back of the print. In addition, the handwriting on the maquette matches the handwriting on the label. Still puzzling is the dimension 6 3/8" with an arrow pointing to the right. Is it for the width of the image? Or for the height of the right edge? Or the height of the page? This does not match the dimensions of the maquette in Houston, nor the published book. We do know that the original plan was for a larger format and that the label on the print is covering a label with a larger dimension, 7 3/8". It is clear that the image and trim size changed as plans for the book moved forward.
The NGA in Washington has the early work print for this image with the grease penciled negative number on it. The maquette at the MFA, Houston is made of reproductions, not gelatin silver prints. We can not be sure whether or not the present print was the actual one used by Draeger for making the gravure printing plates for the first French, Italian and American editions. But we can be certain this very rare print was used in the final stages of preparation for the book that has come to be one of the most important and influential art works of the 20th century.