GUY RAZ, host:
Let's flash back now to the 1950s. Jack Kerouac had just rambled across the country, trying to capture a gritty side of the American spirit. The result: his landmark book "On the Road." And a young man from Switzerland set out to do the same thing only with a camera.
Robert Frank delivered a collection of photos in his book called "The Americans." The photos were far from the well-lit, tidy compositions Americans were used to. They were dark, grainy and candid images of ordinary people: a couple sharing a motorcycle in Indianapolis, whites and blacks riding a segregated trolley car in New Orleans and a girl working an elevator in a Miami Beach hotel.
Jack Kerouac wrote an introduction to the book that included this line: That little ole lonely elevator girl looking up, sighing in an elevator full of blurred demons. What's her name and address? And for half a century, we didn't have an answer until now.
Ms. SHARON COLLINS: My name is Sharon Collins, and I'm the elevator girl in Robert Frank's "The Americans."
RAZ: That photograph that Jack Kerouac writes about, the girl in the elevator, became one of Robert Frank's most recognizable. And for decades, you had no idea that you were the subject, right?
Ms. COLLINS: Yeah. No.
RAZ: Tell me about when you first saw it.
Ms. COLLINS: When San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art first opened, I think it was more than 10 years ago, I went through floor by floor. And 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.
RAZ: It's now the 50th anniversary of Robert Frank's book, "The Americans," and there's an exhibit in San Francisco. What made you decide to come forward now, especially when you've known about this for several years?
Ms. COLLINS: Well, it came back this past summer. And there was a review of the exhibit in the San Francisco Chronicle, and pictured on the front of the entertainment section was the photo of me. I told my two sons about it, my husband, and they said, you've got to call them. So I called.
RAZ: Sharon Collins, you were known as Sharon Goldstein back then in 1955.
Ms. COLLINS: Yes.
RAZ: So you got this job at the Sherry Frontenac Hotel.
Ms. COLLINS: Sherry Frontenac, yeah.
RAZ: And that was in Miami Beach. And...
Ms. COLLINS: I grew up in Miami Beach. And when I was 15 years old, all the other kids were going off to summer camp. My mother was the sole support of our family. And I couldn't go to summer camp, so I made - I guess I made my own.
RAZ: So you got this job as an elevator girl.
Ms. COLLINS: Yeah, all the skill for that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
RAZ: Do you remember Robert Frank taking that photograph of you, this iconic photograph?
Ms. COLLINS: I wish I did. I don't remember it. There were lots of tourists that came through, and lots of people had cameras. And guys used to like to take pictures of me, and I'd bat my eyes at them and flirt.
RAZ: In this shot, your expression is almost unreadable. Kerouac guessed that you were lonely. Do you think Jack Kerouac captured you accurately?
Ms. COLLINS: 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, you know, 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.
RAZ: Sharon Collins recognized herself as the elevator girl from Robert Frank's famous 1955 photograph. She joined us from KQED in San Francisco.
Mrs. Collins, thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. COLLINS: And thank you. It's a pleasure.
RAZ: The 50th anniversary exhibit of Robert Frank's photos is en route to New York, where it opens next month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And you can see Frank's photo of the elevator girl then and an updated photo now at the new npr.org.