That’s doubtlessly part of the reason the Stones initiated legal action against Frank to block the release of Cocksucker Blues in 1972, which led to an unusual arrangement whereby the film could be shown four times per year, and only with Frank in attendance. The band couldn’t have taken offense at the title—it was drawn from one of Jagger’s own salacious compositions, albeit an officially unreleased one—but rather at the entire over-the-top nature of the film. The Stones evidently wanted to be seen as outlaws, but only inasmuch as they could control and contain that image. In addition to showing a less savory side of the Stones than they might have preferred, Cocksucker Blues isn’t aurally flattering either. It’s an undercooked feast for the ears, full of incidental, ambient sounds: scraping, scratching mumbling, full of the noises that are usually edited out of documentaries, or professionally avoided in the first place. But as with the visuals, there’s a method to Frank’s sonic madness. Passages of sound collage dissolve into visceral concert recordings, including a searing onstage performance with Stevie Wonder as the band’s guest. If vanity was at play in the Stones’ decision to ban the movie, they did themselves a disservice. (Upon Frank’s death, though, the band did issue a glowing statement in remembrance.)
In addition to allowing Frank to film them for a documentary, the Stones chose as the cover of Exile an outtake from The Americans, Frank’s pioneering 1958 book of photography. The latter is a tour de force of the quotidian, the everyday elevated to the grace of classicism. Stunning contrasts between blacks, whites, and washes of gray render light itself as an object of contemplation. And Frank’s human subjects are imbued with the nobility of statuary. That said, there is no living poor with style in The Americans; there is only realness, illuminating and shadow-draped all at once. The book, resonant with the Beats and containing a preface by Jack Kerouac, helped establish the sensibility and visual language of the emerging counterculture. Frank was there at the beginning of what eventually became the hippie movement, and he was there to capture its decline as emblemized by the Stones. It’s telling that of all Frank’s pictures Jagger and company could have chosen for the cover of Exile, they picked a grid-like collage of circus performers and carnival freaks titled “Tattoo Parlor” that makes its inhabitants seem caged.
“There are too many images, too many cameras now,” Frank once told Vanity Fair. “We’re all being watched. It gets sillier and sillier. As if all action is meaningful. Nothing is really all that special. It’s just life. If all moments are recorded, then nothing is beautiful and maybe photography isn’t an art any more. Maybe it never was.” As cynical as that sentiment sounds, there’s a strident idealism at the heart of it. Frank pioneered the use of the photograph—both still and moving—as a means by which to document the ephemeral, the transgressive, and the uncomfortable as well as the beautiful. He knew that careful composition could bring about the most naturalist state, and that the lens can find truth not just in the spectacular, but also in the mundane.