Cape Breton artists remember 'down-home' photographer Robert Frank

Although Robert Frank had a reputation in the art world for being a recluse, people in Cape Breton say the photographer fit right into the community.

Frank died this week in Cape Breton at the age of 94.

Best known for his book The Americans, Frank was born in Switzerland. But it was in Mabou, N.S., that he and his wife, June Leaf, found an escape.

"I think coming to Cape Breton was about getting away from New York. It was a place of respite or just a kind of sanctuary to get away from the noise of the city," Robert Bean, professor of media arts at NSCAD University, told CBC's Mainstreet Cape Breton.

"He was just down-home with everybody else."

It was a decade ago that Cape Breton photographer Chad Tobin made the pilgrimage to Frank's home. He said he wasn't sure if he was going to get "arrested or punched."

"But it was this amazing, warm reception," Tobin told Mainstreet Cape Breton.

"He mostly asked about myself and what I was doing. He really just got me to look at where we were and try to appreciate the beauty of Mabou and Cape Breton."

Chad Tobin

Tobin said he took a portrait of Frank and returned the next summer with the photograph, repeating the process each year.

"So, that was kind of the excuse," he said. "Then it went from this star-struck experience and this thing that I couldn't process, to being simply sitting by the ocean with Robert. It became just this ritual that I had."

It was a similar experience for Steve Wadden, another Cape Breton photographer.

Wadden told Mainstreet Cape Breton he was working on a project about the end of the steel era and sought out Frank because he had done several series about miners.

"The word at that time was that he was pretty reclusive and you know, 'You're probably going to get yelled at. You're probably not going to get to see him. He's pretty cranky,'" Wadden said.

"But I just couldn't let it sit. I had to go."

Kathy Willens/The Associated Press

Wadden said it was Frank's wife who answered the door.

"She said, 'Are you a famous photographer? Do you know Robert?' I said, 'No, I'm just a photographer from Glace Bay.'"

He said the couple invited him in and began asking questions about Wadden's life.

Tobin said it was that interest in other people that made Frank such an incredible artist.

"I can understand more so now after these 10 years how he made [The Americans] and was able to manoeuvre and get close to people and take pictures without them knowing, but at the same time engage with people as well," he said.

Jeff Chiu/The Associated Press

Filmmaker Nelson MacDonald met Frank through a friend visiting from New York.

On the way to meet them, MacDonald said he was nervous and suggested they bring something, so they stopped for molasses cookies.

"What I remember of that evening was him sitting in a lawn chair with no shirt on, looking out at the sunset over the ocean, mostly talking about his neighbours," MacDonald told Mainstreet Cape Breton.

"And wanting to know what my dad did, and talking about his dad and what he did, and sharing a molasses cookie."

Jimmy Rankin's road trip with Frank

Musician Jimmy Rankin was Frank's longtime friend and neighbour in Mabou

"It's a huge loss for our community in Cape Breton and for the world," Rankin told CBC's Information Morning.

Rankin first met Frank when he was a kid in the early 1970s. Many times after that as a teenager, Rankin said he and the other kids who were interested in art would spend time with Frank, poring over his photographs.

"Robert was a man of few words at times," Rankin said. "But when he did say something, he didn't waste words."

Later on, Rankin said he and Frank took an impromptu road trip to New York City where Rankin's wife lived at the time. He said he bumped into Frank at what used to be the Credit Union in Mabou, where Frank asked out of the blue if he wanted to go to New York, and the two of them left within a few hours.

"By that time, I knew of his importance, his significance as an artist and how he changed things. So, we had a conversation, and I asked him a lot of questions," he said.

"It was very interesting to be doing a road trip with Robert Frank, who is master of the road."

NSCAD connection

But it was Frank's connection to NSCAD University that initially brought him to Nova Scotia.

Bean said that in 1973, the president of what was then known as the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design invited Frank to do a film workshop for students. Because of the way crossing the border worked at that time, it was possible for Frank to immigrate to Canada with his wife.

"When we look back on it in retrospect, how fabulous was it to have all of these artists living in places like Cape Breton?" Bean said.

"Robert continued to visit us after 1973 to give presentations, meet with students and show his work. And for that we were all eternally grateful."