Credit Patricia Wall/The New York Times
The subject of R J Smith’s 2012 biography “The One: The Life and Music of James Brown” lived a life that was, to say the least, highly visible. For his new book, “American Witness,” Mr. Smith chose a far more reclusive subject — the Swiss-born photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank, best known for “The Americans,” a groundbreaking 1959 book of black-and-white photos that offered an unvarnished look at the country at midcentury. (“I’ve always wished I could write songs the way he takes pictures,” Bruce Springsteen once said.) Mr. Frank, now in his 90s, was an integral part of the cultural churn of New York City in the 1950s and ’60s. Mr. Smith writes of “The Americans” in his biography: “Robert Frank wants to connect with his country,” and “he hunts for a shared identity. But he also wants to be profoundly lost and unknown. He lives in the street and yearns to move silently among people who don’t recognize him.” Below, Mr. Smith talks about first learning of Mr. Frank in a rock magazine in the 1970s, how “American Witness” became darker and more ambiguous as he wrote it, his fascination with one of the Three Stooges, and more.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
The first time I heard of Robert Frank was from reading in Creem magazine, in 1973 or 1974, about this film that there was a big argument about with the Rolling Stones, “[expletive] Blues,” and that there was this guy the Stones let go on the road with them, and who they bowed down to and were in awe of, and were now running scared from. I was thinking then: This guy is more extreme and more cool to a teenager than the Rolling Stones. I was 14 or so.
About five years ago, I had thought I’d sold a book about Aretha Franklin, and for various reasons it didn’t happen. And my wife said to me, Who do you just want to write about? Not what book do you think you can sell, and how much for? Forget about that. Who would you be interested in thinking about for a number of years and trying to understand? That was a great question. And Robert Frank was the answer.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
Frank says that he once sued a magazine for calling him bohemian. I love that, and I’m fascinated by that. I hadn’t heard it until I started working on this biography. To many of us, this is someone who seems like an admirable, great bohemian of all time, but that drove him nuts. He needs to feel outside of definition — or at least easy definition — and received labels, and that’s something so important to understanding him; that even in this funny anecdotal way, he doesn’t want to be explained, and certainly not in a cliché. Of course, his not wanting to be explained made it very interesting to work on this book.