Charlie LeDuff is a fantastic writer who has a knack for capturing the extraordinary lives of ordinary people. In 2004, he wrote a front-page story about a desert encampment of elderly drifters for The New York Times that remains a life of kings favorite for its detailed description of "a broken-down place of limited possibilities" for those who have "inherited the burden of living." LeDuff has also published a pair of books, one of which is Work and Other Sins: Life in New York City and Thereabouts, which is mostly a compilation of the "Bending Elbows" column he had written for The Times in the period before and after 9/11, plus numerous other short columns about the "fantastic nobodies" that populate New York City's streets and barrooms.
Not too long ago, LeDuff accompanied photographer Robert Frank, whom he describes as "the last human being to find anything new behind a viewfinder," to China, and he wrote about the trip for Vanity Fair. Frank's landmark book of black and white photographs, The Americans, turns 50 this year. As the 1950s gave way to the '60s, the book was considered groundbreaking for having foretold the social struggles that were to come -- a visual representation of what Jack Kerouac, in Desolation Angels, describes as "this modern America of crew cuts and sullen faces in Pontiacs." Frank commissioned Kerouac to write the book's introduction, and while LeDuff includes Kerouac's best quotes, it's worth noting that Kerouac also writes that the book captures "[t]hat crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and the music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral." Or, as LeDuff writes:
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.The Vanity Fair piece is LeDuff at his finest: getting to the center of his subject, even as difficult as it might be to understand him. Frank, to put it simply, epitomizes the mad genius of the artist: the selfishness, the limitlessness of his personal life, the willingness to sacrifice almost anything for the sake of his art:
Frank said he used to stare in on [Willem] 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.”There's so much more: from Frank's thoughts on digital photography and art school to his reminisciences (or what's left of them) of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac to working with the Rolling Stones during the manic sessions that created the epic album Exile on Main St. But LeDuff gets to the heart of the matter after relaying what happened to Frank's children, whom the old man ackowledges he more or less ignored:
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.”The entirety of LeDuff's essay for Vanity Fair can be read here.