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Then came a series of self-studies. They are hard to look at. In Conversations in Vermont (1969), fo

Then came a series of self-studies. They are hard to look at. In Conversations in Vermont (1969), for instance, Frank follows his two children to boarding school and asks them to articulate his failings as a man and a parent.

In Home Improvements (1985), he picks up the scene, this time outside a Bronx mental hospital on his way to visit his son: “Pablo, I promise you, I won’t give up,” Frank says in voice-over. In the hospital, Pablo Frank is unresponsive, borderline insane. When Frank leaves, we hear his voice again: “It means a lot to him, when I try. I just don’t know how long I can do it.”

Frank’s most famous film is one few have ever seen. The rockumentary Cocksucker Blues chronicled the sexploits and drug-fueled mania of the Rolling Stones during their 1972 tour in support of Exile on Main Street. The photo-collage artwork for the album cover is also Frank’s.

Though critics have written that much of the film was staged—calling into question the truthfulness of the entire body of his work—Frank said that only one scene had been: the sex with the groupie on the airplane. The band’s behavior is so hedonistic in the film that they successfully sued to keep it from ever being shown commercially.

“Mick objected,” Frank told me. “He said, ‘You made Keith look better than me.’ I said, ‘Well, he’s a much more interesting guy.’ They were worried because Richards had a warrant in Montana or something and they were never going to get into America again.”

The film careens across America in a snowstorm of cocaine. The band’s dope connection, Frank told me, was Danny Seymour, his assistant on the film and good friend, who would die a few years later, presumably murdered.

Frank said he was so torqued on coke himself that many scenes were lost. “I lost track. I wouldn’t know if there was film in the camera. I didn’t care if the movie got made or not. I think that’s why they hired me. They liked things out of control.”

Frank has made 25 films and published a dozen books in his career, but despite this, he will forever be known for The Americans, his artistic albatross of sorts. He told me late one evening, as he sat on a chair looking at his show hanging in an abandoned factory with its sand floors and shattered windows, that both the book and his intentions for doing it are misunderstood on nearly every side. The prints were large, 30-by-45-inch reproductions from the book, so the pixels could be made out, giving the work a flat, pedestrian vibe and draining some of the life from it.

“It amazes me,” he said. “It’s a book of such simplicity, really. It doesn’t really say anything. It’s apolitical. There’s nothing happening in these photos. People say they’re full of hate. I never saw that. I never felt that. I just went out to the street corners and looked for interesting people. O.K., I looked for the extremes, but that’s because the mediocre, the middle, it’s bland and that bores me.

“They called the book drab and sad. But at that time photography wasn’t that advanced. It’s not drab and sad. This is what it was. I had no idea. There was no agenda. I was absolutely amazed when I went to the South. The stupidity. It was sadistic then.

“But looking at these pictures now, I don’t see what all the fuss was.”

The truth of the matter is the book was a drive-by job. The pictures feel intimate, but in a way they are, like their creator, cold and Germanic. He did not stop for lunch at the sharecropper’s house. He did not know the name of the undertaker for whom the funeral was held. “No time, no time. I had to move,” he remembered. And so he piled into his Ford Business Coupe and kept heading west.

“I only ever spoke to one person,” he said. “The woman who got married in Reno. She called up her father to say she was married and he hung up the phone on her.”

The book became great for what it did in its time. Before Frank, the visual orientation of photographs had been straight, horizontal, vertical. The subject of the picture was always obvious. You knew what the picture was about and what it meant to say. Frank, the shadowy little man, came along and changed the angles, made graininess a virtue, obscure lighting a benefit. His pictures were messy; you weren’t sure what to feel, who or what to focus on.

Perhaps more important, Frank intellectually changed photography—that is, what a photographer was supposed to look at. If Ansel Adams chose to capture the mightiness of nature, how could you argue with that? Where’s the fault in stone and sky and snow? There is no fault. And therein lies its fault. Frank snatched photography from the landscapists and the fashion portraitists and concentrated his lens on battered transvestites, women in housedresses, and sunken mouths. Life is not boulders and snow and perfume and chiffon. Life is difficult and sad and ephemeral. Life is flesh, not stone. Frank, as Janet Malcolm wrote, has been overvalued as a social critic and undervalued as a photographic innovator.

The most lonesome photograph in The Americans might be its last, taken en route to Del Rio, Texas. A car is parked half off the road, the headlamps still on. Something leads you to think the motor is running. There’s a wad of clothes on the back dash. The woman in the passenger seat has dead-looking half-eyes, empty and hollow and weary and set on some unknown point. The road behind her comes from nowhere, just as the road in front must lead nowhere. There are two children asleep on her lap. After a while looking at this picture, you may realize that no one is driving this car. Papa is off in the bushes, stretching, relieving himself, someplace else.

The woman in the passenger seat had a name: Mary. She was Frank’s first wife, whom he got pregnant when she was 16. The boy is Frank’s son, Pablo; the girl is his daughter, Andrea. The children are dead now. Looking at that picture 50 years later, looking back at a great artist’s life, his triumphs and regrets and mistakes, you may ask, Who was driving the car?

In the early morning, before sunrise, the ancient city was still cloaked in gray and shadow, and I stumbled through the stone streets in a bout of jet lag and self-loathing. Whom should I meet wandering the streets in a pair of blue work trousers looking fatigued and disoriented? It was Robert Frank, with his Russian-manufactured Lomo point-and-shoot camera, tears in his eyes. I watched him take snaps for a while and roll a little video before his legs started to give out. We settled on a noodle shop and ordered tea and potatoes and sour buns.

He’d been having dreams on this fantastic trip to China, he told me. Undoubtedly the last trip before the Ultimate Trip. He talked about ego, the marrow and the mistake of the artist. The sacrifices one makes in pursuit of genius. “The children. That’s my regret. There is so much guilt there,” he said, rubbing some imaginary stain on the plastic tablecloth.

If he hadn’t patterned himself after Willem de Kooning, the Abstract Expressionist painter Frank came to know after landing in New York in 1947, maybe he wouldn’t have chosen the philosophy he did, maybe things would have turned out better for his children. Instead, they were raised almost as an afterthought. They were raised in between the parties and the road trips and the poets and the work.

“It was different then. We didn’t have day care or kindergarten or things like that. You had to do it on your own. You did the best you could.”

Frank said he used to stare in on de Kooning from his apartment on East Third Street, admiring not the work so much as the artist. “The abstraction, not with the brush but with the mind,” he said. “The simple self-centered intellectual life. He had a stove and a refrigerator and an easel and he would be in his underwear studying that canvas. This appealed very much to me. He made me think to take risks in life. That, for artistic freedom, you had to fight and suffer for people to accept it.”

This scene did not appeal to Walker Evans, who until Frank had been the country’s most influential photographer. Evans was Frank’s mentor, an influence he readily acknowledges. It was Evans who helped Frank get the Guggenheim grants that paid for his cross-country road trips. It was Evans who taught him that a good picture is cold and unsentimental. It was Evans who wrote the original introduction for The Americans, though Frank wadded it up and tossed it away because it read like an academic paper. It was Evans who made the young Frank wait in the car for hours on end as he took his photographs of steel mills, unwilling to show the acolyte his secrets.

“He was my friend, but he was arrogant,” Frank said. “He wore English-made shoes and he was pretentious. Breeding was very important to him, you know? The correct schooling and social crowd.

“He was in the hospital for surgery once. I asked if I might come by to visit. He eventually said yes but that I shouldn’t bring around my crowd when his friends were visiting. ‘What crowd?,’ I asked. ‘Allen Ginsberg,’ he said. ‘I don’t like that man.’ ”

In the process of finding his artistic self, Frank slowly lost his family. His later work is peppered with despair and anger, old photographs and film stock shuffled with new, as if he were trying to augur something, as though more fortunes could be found. His Polaroids of the 70s and 80s are defaced with scratches and scribblings, as though he were trying to destroy the art. The work from this period is an emotional and aesthetic mess and probably some of his best. It is flinty, cold, hard. And true.

In The Lines of My Hands (1989), he writes to his grown son:

Happy Birthday Pablo. What a hard life we have together. I can’t take it. Too much for me. It was March, it rained like hell, I got you a one-way ticket to Winslow, Arizona. You said: I want to look at the Meteor—falling from the Sky. Good luck I said—and drove away …

Frank’s own father, Henry, was a German Jew who immigrated to Switzerland after World War I and, once there, married the daughter of a wealthy manufacturer. It was a strict, unhappy upbringing. A father who wished to be an interior designer but became a radio salesman, playing out a life with a wife he did not love. This was World War II, and, in his defense, Henry Frank was further burdened with the possibility of the Germans’ storming up the Swiss Alps and carting the family off to the concentration camps. This gave the boy his understanding of oppression, and the only thing young Robert had to escape these gloomy circumstances was photography, which he apprenticed at in Zurich. When the war was over, he headed for Paris by motorcycle and eventually New York’s Greenwich Village.

The European Jewish values and structures of his upbringing Frank threw aside and replaced with self-absorption. He passed little on to his children, he said. His daughter, Andrea, died at the age of 21 in a small-plane crash in Guatemala. His son, Pablo, lived a life of drug addiction and mental instability before killing himself, in 1994.

“I wish I would have given them something,” Frank said. “Their Jewishness or something.” He called for more tea, snapping one-handed photos of the cook and his wife in their little kitchen, where their bedding was rolled under a table of pans and pots.

That, we both agreed, is the fantastic and fatal blessing of the American life. One can choose to be whatever one wants in America without the constraints of societal mores. One can live in Switzerland or China, but one must behave and believe as a Swiss or Chinese man is expected to. In America you might throw away those old structures and live however you choose. But if you do not replace the old structure with a new one, this freedom will explode in your face like a car battery.

“So much guilt,” Frank said, rubbing his palms on his trousers.

After a silence, he gave me this: “You can capture life, but you can’t control it.”

Robert Frank has photographed Peruvian Indians, Welsh coal miners, London bankers. He has been everywhere a man might dream. But this would likely be his last road trip and he knew it. His metal knee was rusted shut, his blood pressure low. He suffered a heart attack a few years ago. Thoughts appeared as though they hurt him. When they came, he grimaced like he was being pelted with a handful of pebbles. The man has been having milky dreams of brotherly rivalries, of a life half sold, of compromises he had to make in the pursuit of money. He dreamed back to his unhappy upbringing in Switzerland. The loveless house. A father with artistic pretensions never realized. His children. France by motorcycle. Ginsberg. Kerouac. Evans. Legacy. China was either consuming his precious juices or replenishing them.

‘It’s a good last trip, no?” he said to me in his apartment courtyard in Pingyao a few days later. “The last one. It’s interesting. I just want to find a bench, you know? I need to think this out. This takes you back. I think back about my father. If he could see all this, would he be proud? He always wanted to be famous, you know? He never was.

“I think he would be proud. Well, my mother would be proud. I would like to write her a letter—of course, I can’t. I think about my son. There’s the sadness.

“But it’s been a good life, you know? More than I could wish for. Those artists really taught me to live. I wouldn’t be the same man. I was a boy from a small town. I didn’t even know what a homosexual was.

“I came to New York and went to work at Harper’s Bazaar. A man there, a real son of a bitch who had been in the air force, told me that the artists there wear black ties. Of course, I wouldn’t wear a black tie. I know where that was heading. I quit after one month and went to Peru.

“I see these young Chinese people and I’ve given them something. I don’t know what it is, but they seem happy to be around a famous artist. That counts for something. Yes, it’s been a good life.”

We were talking in the courtyard of some long-forgotten important man, in whose room Frank and Leaf now slept. We drank coffee with milk and biscuits. We smoked cigarettes. Leaf joined us, fresh-faced and composed after a good sleep. She could be his younger sister, for all the energy she possessed. They never did have children together. She never wanted them.

They could be heard through the bedroom wall earlier that morning. The master was nervous. There was to be another jamboree today, another spectacle revolving around him, and nerves made the old master forgetful.

“Robert, your face,” she said.

The master shaved his face.

“Robert, your socks.”

And the master removed his shoes and put on a mismatched pair of socks. He came out of his room with his shoes untied.

Now the sycophants arrived, a few party officials and also Li Zhensheng, the competent and brave Chinese photographer who documented China during the Cultural Revolution and hid the photographs underneath his floorboards during its bloodiest days. One of the high officials was flabbergasted to find the master unprepared. In an outrageous and obsequious gesture of respect, the official got on his knees and tied Frank’s shoes. Another official took Frank’s elbow to steady him. Li brushed the dandruff from his shoulders and hugged him with his hands. Frank, sour-faced at the spectacle, clutched the only thing familiar to him—dear old Billy—pulling the waistband to his navel.

Watching this scene, Leaf said she thought photography is mostly shit, a mechanical, desiccated craft. Except Robert’s. Robert’s is art, she said. Leaf is an independent, self-realized woman, an artist of iron and paint, a success by herself, despite being tied to the master.

“I love him,” she said. “Sometimes he doesn’t like me.”

She had a dream herself last night. It was about age and death and longing. A young sailor came to her window in a boat to take her away. She climbed through and told the young man—touching her lips lightly to his ear—“I love you. Don’t tell anybody. I’m old but I’m not old.”

“Love is all right,” she said of her relationship with Frank. “But I couldn’t stand it if he didn’t like me.” If her husband died here, Leaf said, she would stay and die here, too.

Robert Frank would not get to see the Chinese countryside, this land of electric possibilities, the old colliding with the new. He would see it, but not really. The authorities would have none of it. Their friendly tentacles were wrapped securely and invisibly around him. He was taken outside the walled city for a lunch of dumplings. There was a 10-mile car ride to see an ancient temple and a model farm. He took some Polaroids and tried to appear happy, but he was tired. He collapsed for a second time, on top of the city walls. This time there were cameras—hundreds of cameras.

His hosts took him away to a private hotel in the provincial capital of Shanxi for a few days to recuperate. We arranged to meet in Beijing for a last conversation on that bench.

It was seven in the morning when I knocked on his hotel-room door in Beijing. It was a run-down place that smelled of mold, stale cigarettes, and old carpets. Something on the other side of the door fell with a thump, like a laundry bag full of wet towels on a tile floor. I waited, worried. Had he died again?

The door cracked open. First the wild hair, then the rheumy eyes, then the lips.

Recognizing me, Frank opened the door wide. And there he stood, naked from the waist down, his testicles hanging mid-femur. He wore mismatched slippers, one brown, one beige.

“Please, come in.”

“Jesus, Robert, what happened?”

“I can’t find my pants.”

“Billy? You can’t find Billy?”

“He was here last night.”

There was a smokestack outside his window. It cast a phallic shadow across the room. “Lovely view, don’t you think? Please go wait in the other room. I’ll be right in.”

I walked into the bedroom portion of his suite. On the bed sat his wife—nude, except for a kimono clutched to her breasts.

“Oh God, I’m sorry,” I stammered.

“Don’t worry, there’s no problem,” she said.

“Yes there is—it’s like seeing your mother naked.”

“Turn your head.” She slipped on the kimono.

I had come to see a little of what Frank’s children must have seen. The unabashed, unashamed life of the artist. The egoism. Lack of boundaries. The humor. The sensuality. I excused myself and went into the other room, where Frank was now bent over, struggling to get the old trousers on. It was a sore sight for eyes. I lit a cigarette. I stared out at the smokestack, thinking to myself that I really liked the old man. He didn’t give a damn what anybody thought. It takes a long time to get there in life.

We walked to the park just across the street from the hotel and selected a bench in the shade of a linden tree. A group of elderly Chinese were dancing in red shoes, and an M.C. in a tuxedo was introducing each successive act. It was obviously something left over from the Cultural Revolution.

“So do you like China?,” I asked.

“Not when I see this,” he said, referring to the old people dancing to a mindless tune. “I see this and I think, Obey. No, I like America. I’ve become an American absolutely.”

“What is that?,” I asked.

“Essentially an American is a free man,” he said. “There is no history. The American Dream? I don’t know. But there, everything is possible.”

He went back now to the days of his youth in Zurich, those American films he had seen at the picture house. The strong, exciting characters of the Wallace Beery films, who did as they pleased. It seemed so far away from his father’s unhappy home, a man who had to succumb to a life he wasn’t made for, a man who married a rich girl and paid for it with the rest of his life.

“I learned my lesson well,” Frank said.

Robert Frank is an enigma: hard and empathetic and melancholic all at once. He abhors schmaltziness and syrup. I asked him if he would like to see a photograph of my baby. He answered, “Why should I want to see that?”

It is the same with him about photography. Digital photography destroys memory, he believes, with its ability to erase. Art school is another problem, teaching students to be blind. Editors are worse—they poke the artist’s eyes out. Photography: one minute it’s not art at all. Then perhaps it is. And then again it is not. That’s Robert Frank.

“There are too many images,” he said. “Too many cameras now. 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 anymore. Maybe it never was.”

And maybe it is his fault. Who would believe that a hairy little man could take snapshots of nothing and make millions of dollars? Anyone can take a snapshot. So, maybe, anyone can be famous if he gets lucky once.

Frank watched the dancers for a long spell, until his wife appeared, twirling among them. The old man laughed a real laugh. “I am happy today.”

We smoked a cigarette and said nothing. There was no more to ask, which was good. He had no more to say. Then this occurred to me: “Do you carry any photographs in your wallet?,” I asked.

“One maybe.”

He removed his billfold from his back pocket, flipped through some receipts and a medical-insurance card. There it was. The only picture the master carried was a business-card photograph of Niagara Falls with block lettering underneath it that read, niagara falls, in case its holder should forget what it was he was looking at.

“It must be very beautiful, very romantic,” he said somewhat hopefully. As it turned out Robert Frank had never been to Niagara Falls. “Is it? Romantic?”

“Yes, quite romantic,” I lied. Let the old man be happy.

Charlie LeDuff is a former national correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner at The New York Times.

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