Taken from his family archives, a new London exhibition shows Frank Sinatra's photographic exploration of his self as a young man, as well as shots of the singer as a cultural icon with mafioso connections.
Over the course of his singular career, Frank Sinatra sold over 150 million albums worldwide, starred in a variety of Hollywood pictures, and won a panoply of awards – including honorary degrees, Oscars, Grammies, Walk of Fame stars and – remarkably – an Israeli Medal of Honour.
The latter was bestowed upon him after he reportedly raised $6.5m in bond pledges for the state of Israel through his concerts.
He’s now the subject of a new exhibition at Proud Chelsea, London, in celebration of Sinatra’s 100th birthday. Titled Sinatra at 100: A Century in the Making, the collection is taken from the Sinatra Family Archive, and curated by Sinatra’s granddaughter, Amanda Erlinger, who has access to Nancy Sinatra Senior’s family photo albums as well as self-portraits taken by Sinatra himself in his early, formative years, only discovered in the past few months.
Alongside, Proud show photographs of Sinatra in his heyday, taken by photographers of the calibre of Milton Greene, David Sutton, Ed Thrasher, Ken Veeder, John Bryson and Allan Grant.
Sinatra was a performer who divides opinion; his reputed Mafia connections, alongside political flip-flopping (he publicly backed both Democrats and Republicans) suggest Sinatra was a bold risk-taker and ruthless opportunist.
Despite a somewhat chequered past, Sinatra remains loved across the world for his laconic lounge performances of light jazz numbers. His skill was in personalising and popularising songs that were either written for him, or adapted from previous incarnations.
Take My Way, his signature tune. Originally a hit in French as Comme d’habitude (As Usual) by Claude François, the song was rewritten by Canadian songwriter Paul Anka. The rest, as Frank might say, is history.
Frank Sinatra is the archetypal crooner whose geographical association with Las Vegas, New York and Miami posit him in a very particular place in the Anglo-American psyché.
A New Jersey native born to blue-collar Italian immigrants, Sinatra’s music speaks to a suburban nouveau-riche that favour the old time comfort of the light: Light classical, light jazz, and light morals too, perhaps.
In this regard, the music can be fatuous – at worst a Sprechstimme of style over substance.
But what style! This physically beautiful man really leaps out of the photographs. Pictures like Shoot Me Shooting You portrays the young Frank as a dandyish persona of playful experimentation.
This photo, alongside other self-portraits, offer detailed aesthetic time capsules; authentic reportage of a pre-iPhone age – one often misunderstood as less vainglorious in our supposedly myopic selfie-mania.
Elsewhere, the pictures suggest more sinister truths. Terry O’Neill’s Miami beach shot catches the singer and his entourage striding menacingly down the boardwalk. Bystanders appear as pensive about the sunglass-armoured goons as they might feel excited by the arrival of a famous singer.
On one hand, Sinatra’s supposéd association with criminal lowlives adds the edge that could be lacking in the music itself. That said, it can also be seen to demean to the legacy of a man who forged his own Italian-American dream – an understanding that panders to ugly stereotypes. Like I say – he divides opinion.
‘Sinatra at 100: A Century in the Making’ launches at Proud Chelsea until 10th January 2016 in celebration of Frank Sinatra’s 100th Birthday. Further details here.