My girlfriend Shawnee and I took last week off to go to Cape Breton for two purposes: To visit family and to go on a road-trip around the Cabot Trail. I had a third not-so-secret purpose that we joked about even while in the planning stages of our trip. I wanted to make a stop in Mabou to up my chances of randomly running into Robert Frank who has lived there since the 1970's - As if that would happen.
Robert Frank is my favorite photographer and was introduced to me a only a year prior by a fellow member of ViewPoint Gallery, Eric Boutillier-Brown. I am a self-taught photographer and as such, I know my way around a camera but I didn't have the best knowledge of the history of photography until recently. I was showing Eric some photos for an exhibition proposal in-progress and after he saw a number of them he said "You must know the work of Robert Frank". I did not know anything about him so I went on an internet researching binge and was immediately taken by his photographs. There was something in them that resonated strongly with me and that was compounded by the fact that I had just recently been exploring documentary photography. The more I read about street and documentary photography, the more I fell in love with it and I have focused more and more on it since this discovery.
Now back to the present-day. On the last day of our trip, we found ourselves in Cheticamp where we had camped the night before. We ended up having some breakfast at the Hometown Kitchen before we headed out to Mabou, where I was hoping to have that random encounter with Robert Frank. I put up a Facebook status where I mentioned that we were on our way to Mabou and said "...maybe I'll run into Robert Frank haha" We finished up our meal and while Shawnee was getting ready to leave, I pulled up a video of a recent interview with Mr. Frank on my phone so that I could get an idea of what he looked like these days. I froze the video on a frame of his face and turned around only to see the same face at the booth behind us as he took his seat. I could not believe it was the same man whose book, The Americans, I had read over and over in recent months. Shawnee had even given me the extended edition of the book for Christmas so I had an even better understanding of what went in to such a groundbreaking publication. I thought there was no way it could be him but he looked just like the man in the interview AND he was carrying his camera with him.
I left the restaurant but could not leave the parking lot and so after Shawnee prompted me a bit, I went back in and asked the gentleman about his camera to see if I could find out more about him. It was a Fuji Instax 210 and he assured me that the images it produced were of "very high quality". Another gentleman (who as it turns out, was Halifax Councillor Reg Rankin - originally from Mabou) in the booth asked if I was into photography so I began to tell him about how I started doing more landscape/architectural photography but had recently fell in love with people photography and that I had started to document the folks who live in the communities around me. I could see Mr. Rankin glance at Mr. Frank as I explained this but the waiter came back and interrupted all my conversational momentum so I thanked them for their time, snapped a few discrete photos of the man I suspected was Robert Frank and left the restaurant again. I had not asked the man at the booth if he was in fact Robert Frank and so I went back in for a second time so that I would not hate myself for eternity.
I walked back to the waiter-less booth and apologized again for the intrusion and said "I would hate myself for not asking this but are you Robert Frank?" to which the old man in the booth closed his eyes and nodded 'yes'. I immediately clutched my churning stomach which gave Mr. Frank's wife who was beside him a bit of a smile. I had found him. I had met the man whose photos resonated so strongly with me. I let him know that his photography had inspired me and that it was a delight to meet him in person and let them eat in peace.
It was an amazing experience and a story that I will be telling for years. There are so many questions I wanted to ask but when one is speechless, asking questions is no easy task. The fact that I had joked about running into him a mere 10 minutes before he appeared in the same restaurant as me and in a town 70km from his home just makes it that much more magical. The best part about it is that I know for a fact that he is alive and well and STILL creating photographs!