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Robert Frank’s Unsentimental Journey

Published in 1958, Robert Frank’s photographic manifesto, The Americans, torched the national myth, bringing him such comrades as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and—for a controversial documentary—the Rolling Stones. On a trip to China, the 83-year-old rebel of postwar film still defies expectations.

by Charlie LeDuff April 2008

Robert Frank and June Leaf in Pingyao, China

Robert Frank and his wife, June Leaf (right), at the opening of the Pingyao International Photography Festival, in Pingyao, China. Photograph by Edward Keating.

Robert Frank, the photographic master, the last human being it’s been said to discover anything new behind a viewfinder, collapsed in a filthy Chinese soup shop and no one had thought to bring along a camera.

He looked like something from a Kandinsky painting—slumped between a wall and stool—sea green, limp, limbs akimbo. It would have made a good, unsentimental picture: a dead man and a bowl of soup. Frank would have liked it. The lighting was right.

The shop was hidden away in the shadow of a Confucian temple in the ancient walled city of Pingyao, China, about 450 miles southwest of Beijing, where Frank had come as an honored guest of a photography festival. The city is a photographic dream, a 2,700-year-old dollhouse of clay brick, camels, coal embers, and carved cornices. So many photographers had descended upon the place that a picture of a man taking a picture of a man taking a picture of a man taking a picture of a picture was considered interesting enough and yet nobody at the dead man’s table had so much as a sketching tablet.

Frank had not looked well even before the soup arrived. He was lumpy and disheveled, his eyes rheumy, the lids bloated. He carried the general form of a man who had been pummeled senseless with a feather pillow. His Dunkin’ Donuts cap had the flat, leathery texture of a dead cat on a highway. His shirt was misbuttoned, his shoes untied, his trousers—his trusted friend the trousers: he had not changed them in a while. They became such companions during his road trip to China—the old Beatnik and these new blue leggings—that I gave the trousers a name: Billy. Frank liked the name. It seemed unsentimental in some way. Frank liked things unsentimental.

Frank had arrived in this coal-choked outpost without a proper pair of pants. The cuffs were tattered on his other ones, ragged from being worn every day for three consecutive years. This would never do, as the titan of postwar film—the “Manet of the new photography,” the critic Janet Malcolm had called him—would be expected by the Chinese authorities to make speeches and grand statements about the world’s newest superpower and say something to encourage the awakening sensibilities of its artists. Robert Frank had consented to hang the photographs from his seminal book, The Americans, at the Pingyao International Photography Festival late last fall—only the second time the complete work has ever been displayed since the book was published 50 years ago.

And to mark the occasion, a junior Communist Party official was dispatched to purchase a pair of trousers for him: size-44 waist, 29 leg.

Frank is old now. At 83 he has reached that age when a man does not have to apologize for his cruelties, his eccentricities, or his grooming habits. His prints have sold for more than a half-million dollars, but he shambles around looking like a Bowery bum. He has by turns been described by people who do not know him as ornery, reclusive, hard, manipulative to the point of destructive, and cold as a bowling ball. He rarely gives interviews. He speaks in short, elliptical snatches and views life with the detached outlook of an undertaker. He came to China to have a look before he dies. “To travel the road of possibilities,” he said. “Turn on a whole new audience.”

But it’s a long trip for an old man. From the day he arrived from New York, Frank’s health began to disintegrate. During the opening ceremonies, he was asked to say a few words. He took the dais and spoke in a lugubrious, Mitteleuropean accent that sounds something like Bela Lugosi in the Dracula pictures.

“I am very moved to be here because it is the first time I’ve come to China and I am moved looking at the landscape and the people and there is my love of mystery,” he said, looking somewhat overwhelmed among the drums and dancers and military guard. Some wise guy dressed as Mao was ranting on about the evils of capitalism. He was bringing the whole party down and was soon muscled away by the police.

“At my age to see all this for the first time—I am proud to be here and I am almost proud to be a photographer,” Frank continued, the Chinese interpreter bleaching out the “almost” bit.

When he finished, Frank was showered in confetti. The crowd of hungry lenses grew ravenous, mugging him now, mauling him, pinning him to the wall at the back of the stage. He looked like a veal calf at slaughter.

Frank began to swoon, but rather than take his wife’s arm, he grasped the belt loops of his trousers and wrenched them around as though he were churning butter, like a seasick sailor grabbing for the gunwale. He was taken by the elbows and squired away into an anteroom behind the stage. It was an old torture chamber, by the look of things. Frank sat in a chair and pondered the genius of the stretching rack.

Frank and his wife, June Leaf, at 78 a long-boned, large-eyed woman, needed to collect themselves. The weather was hot. The air gray with coal vapors. The time was 12 hours ahead of New York. They were disoriented and tired and they stole away with their interpreter for a quiet lunch. I went along, as did the ubiquitous trousers.

It was a drab place of five or six tables, with a bar in one corner, a sink in another, and two large plate-glass windows. Outside you could see beggars near the public toilet, and Frank commented on this China—a place of dung and diesel and dragon-ornamented rooftops and breakfast cabbage and Mercedes-Benzes and flaking bicycle chains and brown rain and traffic. There seemed to be nothing left of Mao but his likeness on the currency.

Frank’s chicken soup arrived in a large bowl. He slurped it, pronounced it tasty, and took several spoonfuls more.

It is important to note here that Leaf had said earlier that the most difficult thing about living with the master was his honesty. “It is quite painful sometimes to live with such honesty,” she said. “But it makes life worth it if you can.”

I did not understand what she meant by this exactly until Frank took his last slurp of broth.

Vanity Fair presents “Pull My Donkey,” a film by Charlie LeDuff.

Suddenly his eyes fluttered shut. He slumped back in his chair. His pallor turned to green. A death rattle burped from his throat and then the ceramic spoon fell from his hand and shattered on the floor.

The master had died, but I was frozen momentarily by the copious tangle of his ear hairs. The sagging lower lip. The stonemason’s physique. The soup stain on the pants. The unsentimental posture of death. Dead in a soup kitchen. And no one with a camera, for Christ’s sake.

And why should I have felt lousy or manipulative for being exhilarated by the moment? Frank has made a career of the raw and the naked in search of higher truths. He has used his own family many times in his artwork, mining through the rubble of their lives for something new to say.

At the soup shop, his wife did not cry over his corpse. That is how a relationship goes after four decades. Hysteria is the stuff of poetry and youth. I loosened his belt and felt for a pulse, which I could not find. The interpreter called for a car. The table was moved. A silent panic enveloped the room. I could see it in the proprietress’s face. Somebody would be punished for that chicken soup.

Leaf moved herself to the chair next to the master. The loving wife. The dutiful handmaiden. She stroked his unshaven face. She had loved him hard and well and as best she could since the minute he fell in love with her breasts at that Manhattan party 40 years ago.

Just as suddenly as he had died, the master’s eyes snapped open. “Don’t touch me,” he hissed at her.

She flinched. Then she removed her old hand.

Honesty is hard to live with, Leaf said. Honesty is cruel. I understood it then. Frank says there is no place for sentimentality in life or art, but it bores its way in nevertheless. The old man was infected with it too. I would learn this when I bumped into him later in the early-dark streets and saw him crying.

There is undoubtedly no book that has packed a greater punch in modern photography than Frank’s The Americans. It is a morose and gritty document of the American landscape and street corner; its 83 photographs have by now been so completely absorbed into the mainstream that an advertisement for men’s skin emollient hanging in the Beijing subway could have come directly from its pages. It is a blurry photograph of a handsome young man in leather running toward some unknown destination, his skin fantastic and supple-looking.

But when the book came out in the U.S., in 1959 (it was first published in France the year before, since no American house would touch it), the critics did what critics do when confronted with something beyond the standard: they lacerated it and ruined sales. The first edition sold only 600 copies.

Popular Photography called the work a “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness,” and went on to say that Frank was “a joyless man who hates the country of his adoption.”

America felt good about itself in the 1950s. It had won the war. It was rich, and the magazines and television programs were promoting the American Way of Life. Patriotism, optimism, and scrubbed suburban living were the rule of the day. Myth was important then. And along comes Robert Frank, the hairy homunculus, the European Jew with his 35-mm. Leica, taking snaps of old angry white men, young angry black men, severe disapproving southern ladies, Indians in saloons, he/shes in New York alleyways, alienation on the assembly line, segregation south of the Mason-Dixon line, bitterness, dissipation, discontent.

If you see the photographs today, nothing about them looks scandalous. Rather, everything appears normal. It’s as though Frank predicted the future. A car, a jukebox—they became the symbols of our lives. We were ruled by our machines, Frank seemed to say. A covered car neatly arranged between two palm trees looks like a coffin, and then you turn the page and there is a grainy photo of a dead body covered by a blanket lying beside a highway, and the corpse and the car look the same. The tuba player has no head, and the television personality has no body. Frank took 28,000 shots from 1955 to 1956 over the course of three road trips. The genius lay in editing them down into 83 daggers which he plunged directly into the heart of the Myth.

The man should have been thrown in jail for telling the things he saw, and he was jailed more than once—in Detroit for consorting with blacks, in Little Rock on suspicion of Communist sympathies. A letter from the Guggenheim Foundation, which funded his trip, was of little help in West Memphis as the sheriff there with a pocket watch gave him eight minutes to clear the state line.

America was a different place than what the television and magazines were telling us. Still like that today, Frank believes. He took notes back then. This conversation came on the road, in front of a high school in Port Gibson, Mississippi, 1955:

Kids: What are you doing here? Are you from New York?

Me: I’m just taking pictures.

Kids: Why?

Me: For myself—just to see.

Kids: He must be a Communist. He looks like one. Why don’t you go to the other side of town and watch the niggers play?

The book presaged the sexual and civil-rights revolutions that were to come a decade later, and when the revolutions did come, Frank was claimed by that generation of artists, and all the bad things that had been said about him were forgotten. Now the critics were saying Frank was a genius. Now they were saying The Americans was a movie slowed to a stop. A novel without plot, a symphony of no sound. Frank had gotten our souls on film.

His friend Jack Kerouac wrote about this inevitable beatification in the book’s introduction:

Anybody doesnt like these pitchers dont like potry, see? Anybody dont like potry go home see Television shots of big hatted cowboys being tolerated by kind horses. Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.

But by the time Frank’s genius had been acknowledged, he had left photography behind, not wanting to repeat himself, not wanting to be Robert L. May, the guy who came up with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and never did anything more that people cared to talk about. Frank stopped taking snapshots and started making strange little movies.

“He turned his back and started new,” Leaf told me one morning while her husband rested with the trousers on and his stockings off. “Now, maybe he failed, took risks, but he tried new things. If he had lived off the book, then it would bother him.”

His first movie, Pull My Daisy (1959), is considered the beginning of the New American Cinema, an important avant-garde film with the words dreamed up and narrated by Kerouac.

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