I love this story! The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is currently exhibiting Robert Frank's photographs from his landmark 1959 work The Americans, widely viewed as the photographic analogue to Jack Kerouac's beat classic On the Road. Frank and Kerouac both had similar sensibilities, wanting to show the sprawling, diverse, and melancholy side of postwar America. Kerouac, in fact, wrote the introduction to The Americans. Regarding the above photograph, "Elevator — Miami Beach, 1955," Kerouac asks, "That little ole lonely elevator girl looking up sighing in an elevator full of blurred demons, what's her name & address?"
Turns out, "lonely elevator girl" turned 50-something Sharon Collins saw an exhibit of "The Americans" a few years ago and recognized herself as the 15-year-old in the photograph: "When San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art first opened, I think it was more than 10 years ago . . . I stood in front of this particular photograph for probably a full five minutes, not knowing why I was staring at it, and then it really dawned on me that the girl in the picture was me." To hear what Collins has to say about the photograph,
An NPR reporter asked Collins what made her come forward as the elevator girl now and not ten years ago when she recognized herself. She said that a recent San Francisco Chronicle review of the exhibit used this photo on the front page of the entertainment section, and when she told her husband and sons about it, they urged her to call the paper.
Sharon Collins was then 15-year-old Sharon Goldstein, living in Miami Beach and working as an elevator girl at the Sherry Frontenac Hotel in 1955. Her mother was single, so instead of being able to go to Summer camp, Sharon worked to help out. Asked what she thought of the photo, Collins explains what it was she thinks Frank was able to capture in his image and Kerouac in his words:
"I think he saw in me something that most people didn't see. You know, I have a big smile and a big laugh. So people see . . . one thing in me. And I suspect that somehow Robert Frank and Jack Kerouac saw something that was deeper that only people who were really close to me can see, and it's not necessarily loneliness, it's, I don't know, dreaminess."
I've always wondered whether people in documentary photos ever know that they're in museum exhibits. It's fascinating to hear about one woman who discovered that a wistful expression from her teenage years became an iconic photograph in the oeuvre of a major American artist!