Robert Frank’s Unsentimental Journey

Charlie LeDuff – Vanity Fair

April 2008
Copyright Vanity Fair
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.
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