A brief encounter with Robert Frank

Added on by Julius Motal.
Robert Frank and June Leaf outside their Bleecker Street home in 2017.

Robert Frank and June Leaf outside their Bleecker Street home in 2017.

Few figures loom quite as large in the consciousness of photographers as Robert Frank has. News of his passing at the age of 94 blared in breaking news alert red at the top of The New York Times’s homepage, stopping time for those, like me, who’ve held him as a lodestar, as Gatsby’s green light in the distance, that perennial photographic ideal.

It is often said that you should never meet your heroes, at least not intentionally, but there are a few exceptions to that rule, as was the case with my brief encounter with Robert Frank two and a half years ago.

March 11th, a Saturday, was brisk, and I had a small job to photograph a workshop at my alma mater. That morning, Jason Eskenazi, a friend from the few years I lived in Istanbul, Turkey, messaged me:

_You are welcome to watch a great event today

_I’ve gathered 20 Jewish photographers for a group portrait in Manhattan

He then sent the address, which didn’t clue me into anything, but for those in the know at the time, I gather they knew exactly whom they were going to see. I am not Jewish, but knowing him, I figured there would be some luminaries, some I knew, some I didn’t. When Jason invites you to something, you go.

At precisely 2:00 p.m., I turned onto Bleecker Street to see a crowd gathered in the distance. As I neared, the crowd started to disperse, in the way that group portraits often do, slowly at first as people mingle.

There at the center was the man whose visage I recognized immediately — Robert Frank.

It is difficult to remember what my feeling was in the moment in seeing him. Some mix of awe and disbelief, wondering how I got so lucky, though looking back, I can trace the arc of events that led to that moment.

Inevitably, I moved closer, and the crowd stayed close to him, too. We were all standing next to the man behind The Americans. The Americans! A book so prominent, so fundamental to the history of photography, that it’s sometimes easy to forget there’s a real human person responsible for its creation.

There he was, camera in one hand, walking stick in the other, in the company of June Leaf, the artist and his wife. Everyone was taking pictures of everyone taking pictures of Robert Frank. What else could we do? It’s all we knew how to do. At one moment, with his arms around June, he adjusted his camera, and I snapped the picture above.

In the moment, or shortly thereafter, I knew I had to get it to him, but I wasn’t about to show it to him on my camera’s tiny screen. In the ensuing weeks, I asked around until I was pointed in the direction of a mutual connection, Kevin Downs, who could broker a meeting. I had the print made, framed, and wrapped.

On May 8th, my phone rang with the news that Robert was ready to meet, and I had to be there in an hour. I panicked because I was at work in the Bronx, the print was home in Queens and he lived in lower Manhattan. There was no way it could work. I apologized profusely, and made sure the print would be on my person over the next few days.

Two days later, the call came in again, and I set out in my car for Bleecker Street. I met Kevin outside Robert’s home before making our way in to what felt like a living museum. Prints, paraphernalia, trinkets and tchotchkes, the things that fill a life, were everywhere.

He was on his bed in his room, and we sat down next to him. After introductions and niceties, I handed him the wrapped print. Upon opening it, he rejoiced.

“Everything is here, my stick, my camera, my wife, my door,” he said. “This is one of the best pictures of me and June.”

To have heard that from him was immensely gratifying. We sat together for about an hour, the conversations moving in circles before I had to go. He’d said he wanted to give me something, but his presence was a gift enough, something I will carry with me for the rest of my life, as I imagine so many other photographers will who have had the good fortune to meet him.

His death is a tragic loss, but his memory and his legacy in pictures, films and brief encounters like these live on.

As he’d said to those of gathered on that cold March afternoon, “Get back to work!”

A photograph of Robert Frank and June Leaf on a table inside their home.

A photograph of Robert Frank and June Leaf on a table inside their home.