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Robert Frank in his kitchen in Mabou, N.S., just after he grabbed one of my cameras and started taking pictures.

Chad Tobin/The Globe and Mail

Chad Tobin is a photographer from Sydney, N.S.

It feels entirely appropriate that one of the most iconic photographers of America and its people was born in the Swiss city of Zurich and lived out his later years in a lushly wooded, coastal town on Cape Breton Island.

That’s where I met Robert Frank, 10 years ago, after deciding to undertake a pilgrimage of sorts to Mabou, N.S., where the world’s most influential living photographer had a home since the early 1970s. He is most famous for his book The Americans, of course: a clutch of gorgeous and humane black-and-white photographs capturing different angles of the usually bluntly portrayed prosperity of the United States in the 1950s – people from all walks of life in America’s diners, parks, streets and crannies, often with the Stars and Stripes sneaked into the shot. That collection, with its foreword by beat poet (and fellow part-time, secret Canadian) Jack Kerouac, changed my life as soon as I got it into my hands.

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Robert Frank shot these pictures in Mabou in the 1970s. Andrea, whose name is at top left, was his daughter, who died in a plane crash in 1974. This began his habit of scratching out, or distressing, parts of his photos.

© Robert Frank, courtesy of Pace-MacGill Gallery. Photo: National Gallery of Canada

When I learned that he lived just a two-hour drive away, I knew I had to try to connect with him – but by then, Robert had also developed something of a reputation for being reclusive and prickly. Honestly, I wondered if I was going to be arrested or punched in the face when I arrived.

So it was a surprise to me that, when I arrived at his door, he and his wife, June Leaf, greeted me warmly. They invited me in, and he took the time to go through The Americans, telling the stories behind the shots. I was completely starstruck by the then-84-year-old, but somehow I managed to ask if I could make a portrait. I framed him up, then walked away from his house glowing.

The next summer I returned with that portrait, hoping to spend some more time together. What I quickly learned, though, is that Robert didn’t really want to talk about photography at all: He asked questions about my life instead and encouraged me to look at the ocean with him and let the view answer my photographic inquiries. Then I took another photo of him.

Robert taking in the view in 2015.

Chad Tobin/Chad Tobin

Summer after summer, I would visit with last year’s portrait, then join him in simply focusing on the quiet moments. The more I took in the simple surroundings of Robert and June Leaf’s unflashy, weathered fisherman’s house on a hill, the more I understood just how he managed to slip in and out of myriad situations to capture a true portrait of America in the 1950s: He lived simply and moved like water, with a grace that belied his years.

Two weeks ago, I visited Robert for what would be the last time. He greeted me with a big smile and asked me to sit down. He reflected: “How long have you been visiting me?” When I told him 10 years, he replied: “Long time. I am glad you came … look at this view.” For two hours, I sat with Robert and June Leaf and simply talked about life and what was going on. During the visit, I made a couple of quiet frames and just enjoyed the space and time. As I got ready to leave, I said goodbye and told Robert that I would visit him again. He turned his eyes to me – those wise eyes that were so gifted in finding raw beauty wherever he went – and simply said: “Keep looking.”

He may not have been from Cape Breton, nor from the America he so sumptuously chronicled. But that outsider lens gave him the power to always know what to look at.

Robert outside his house on the hill in Mabou in 2013.

Chad Tobin/Chad Tobin

Robert and his wife, June Leaf, retire inside for the evening in 2016.

Chad Tobin/Chad Tobin

A small American flag hangs over Robert's CD collection in the kitchen. The Stars and Stripes figured prominently in his groundbreaking 1959 book The Americans, which collected black-and-white photos from a number of road trips criss-crossing the country.

Chad Tobin/Chad Tobin

A storm rolls in over the landscape near the house in 2017.

Chad Tobin/Chad Tobin

Robert would spend a great deal of time taking in the view of the Atlantic Ocean view from his house, as seen here in 2017 – and we'd look out at it together, letting it stand in for some of my questions about his art.

Chad Tobin/Chad Tobin

Robert was born in Switzerland and was a long-time resident of New York, but in 1969 bought this summer home in Mabou with his wife June Leaf. It soon became their primary residence.

Chad Tobin/Chad Tobin

Robert's photo Blind, Love, Faith (1981) was shot while he was living in Mabou. Like much of his later work, it conveys a personal and tactile immediacy, which he achieved by scratching words directly onto the negatives and combining multiple frames into a single print.

Robert Frank/© Robert Frank, courtesy Pace/MacGill

Robert relaxing in his slippered feet, in 2013 and 2019. The photo on the right, from inside Robert's porch, was the last shot I'd take of him before I learned he'd died, two weeks later.

Chad Tobin/Chad Tobin

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