Frank Ockenfels is the kind of photographer who does everything well. From his black and white to his color; from passport photos to 4 x 5; photographing men and photographing women; it’s all equally good. He’s also the kind of guy you throw a really difficult assignment to because with all the different films and formats he’s bound to get something great.
I had the opportunity to talk with Frank because he’s got a show opening tomorrow at the Clark Oshin Gallery at the Icon (November 21, 2009 from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m).
Rob: I want to go all the way back to the beginning. We don’t have to spend a lot of time there, but we have to go to the very beginning where it all started. Where did you grow up?
Frank: I grew up in Lockport, New York, which was a suburb of Niagara Falls. I had a bunch of friends who had darkrooms behind their refrigerators.
Rob: Behind their refrigerators?
Frank: Yeah, we all had these little corners down in the basements of all our houses in Lockport, and we’d go out and take pictures and whatever. Because we weren’t the popular kids, we’d photograph the cheerleaders, photograph the jocks, and do portraits and that kind of stuff. This is in junior high school but then high school too.
Rob: All right now we’re getting somewhere, I’ve not interviewed someone who started as the school photographer.
Frank: I wasn’t.
Frank: I totally didn’t show my pictures to anybody. I was just trying to get the cheerleader into my friend’s rec room to try and take pictures of her in a bikini or something like that. Lasciviousness in every action and my friends were worse than I.
Rob: So, you guys were all friends, you all took pictures, you all had darkrooms, and you did it to get girls.
Frank: I loved taking pictures. I took whatever money I had, and built a darkroom in the basement. I would shoot girls, you weren’t cool, but at least you could talk to them. Then there was this photo contest at the end of my junior year in high school, before we hit senior year, and I submitted some work, and I won almost every prize. All of a sudden the guy who ran the yearbook said, “Who are you?”
Rob: [laughs] Good God! Who’s this kid?
Frank: “We haven’t used you? All this time you’ve been here in this school?” I’m like, “What do you want from me? Who are you people?”
I was a science major, failing out of high school pretty badly, not doing well and trying to not go to classes. So he turned to me and said, “If you’re the school photographer, A: We should make you an art major, and B: I can get you passes, and you can go wander the hallways all the time.” [laughs]
Rob: You’re like, “Whoa. Wait a minute.”
Frank: Where have you been all my life? So, Jack DiMaggio, who was my high school art teacher and ran the yearbook made a deal with me. If I shot for the yearbook, then he would help me get into college for photography, which was completely abstract to me. I was like, “What do you mean go to college for photography? What are you talking about?”
Rob: So you ended up being the yearbook photographer.
Frank: I was. My last year in High School, I was the yearbook photographer. He then got me a list of colleges, and I went around. Then I started asking my dad, who was in advertising in New York City…
Rob: Your dad was in advertising?
Frank: He worked for DuPont Textiles promoting Lycra/Spandex. He would hiring advertising agencies and that kind of stuff. I went to my dad, and said, “I want to do this.” He said, “I have friends in advertising. You should talk to them.” So, on my summer vacations, I went to see them for a week.
Rob: This is in New York City.
Frank: Yes, in New York I met a bunch of people, and they all said the same thing to me. They said, “Well, you’re looking at Cleveland School of Art, and PCA, and Eastman.” I didn’t have the grades to go to RIT. They said, “Have you thought about New York City at all, because, in all honesty, you should go to school in New York City. A: It’s where 90% of the industry is done,” over 20 years ago, “and B: The people you’re going to school with will be people you work with later on in life.”
So, I applied to the School of Visual Arts. That was in 1978.
Rob: So, you went to college there. How was it?
Frank: SVA was OK. I was working with professionals and it gave me an idea what was going on in the photo industry. We were living in New York City just living and breathing what’s happening in the city and the energy. There’s no campus. Campus at the School of Visual Arts is the streets.
Rob: It gave you a good reason to hang out in the city, which was probably very beneficial.
Frank: One of my fellow classmates in first and second year of college was Jodi Peckman. Jodi and I were photo students together. So my father’s whole thing of, “These are the people you’re going to be working for” came true. I remember this one night Jodi called and she goes, “I’ve got to do this favor for a friend, can you help me?” Andy Summers took all these pictures when he was on tour with The Police and he wants to make a bunch of prints, and I don’t know how to do that. Can you help me?” And she goes, “Andy’s going to call you.” And all of the sudden Andy calls me in my Hoboken apartment.
Rob: That’s funny.
Frank: He said, “Hey, I’ve got these negative and Jodi said you could help me out.” So I printed a bunch of pictures, just like really quick pictures. And I get this box of negatives and it’s naked pictures of Sting running down a hallway, which would never happen nowadays.
Cut to Jodi getting the job at “Rolling Stone” as the assistant to Laurie Kratochvil and Jim Franco. Then she hired me for my first real job, Buster Poindexter at the Beacon Theater on New Year’s Eve.
Rob: Did you get your first job right after you graduated then?
Frank: No. I came out of college and worked for a guy named Joshua Greene who was Milton Greene’s son. Milton was the main Marilyn Monroe photographer. Josh was completely nuts. Like insane. Wonderfully insane, and gave me all the reasons to be a photographer in life. I randomly worked for some other people, and I abstractedly came to Jeff Dunas, founder of the Palm Springs photo festival. He and Josh were my influences. They were the ones that made me want to be a photographer.
Rob: They mentored you.
Frank: Yeah, totally. My complete irreverence that anything can be done and there are no rules comes from Josh Greene. The passion of being a photographer came from Jeff and Josh.
They were both amazing characters to come across in my life, because they believed in photography and what it can do. They were both tremendous photographers and passionate. Beyond passionate. When they would take a great picture, they would jump up and down and scream.
Rob: That’s awesome.
Frank: Which was amazing. To be around someone like that as a kid just makes you want to do more.
Rob: The passion rubbed off, then.
Frank: Yes, because I was around enough of the other ones too that just were bitter.
Rob: [laughs] Back then? There were bitter photographers back then?
Frank: Yeah, lots of bitter ones.
Rob: So, you got your first job from Jodi.
Frank: I did a picture in Rolling Stone of Buster Poindexter, so she and Jim Franco hired me to shoot Tracy Chapman when her first album came out. Her album hit, so it went from a quarter page to a full page feature in Rolling Stone. All of a sudden, luckily, my phone started ringing. “Who the hell are you? How can you have a full page in Rolling Stone and no one knows who you are?” That’s where it started, and Sigma called.
Rob: So, the other magazines saw it. The other photo editors saw it.
Frank: Yeah, because Rolling Stone had that thing, back in the day. If you did a cover for Rolling Stone it was your license to kill at that point.
Frank: SO, I did the picture for Rolling Stone of Tracy Chapman and it was a full page. Daniel Roebuck called me from Onyx and asked me if I had representation. Then two other companies, I forgot, at the time, who they were, but Daniel’s name I knew the best.
I called Jodi up and said, “Who are these people?” She said, “They’re somebody you should talk to and the other one you should talk to is Jim Roehrig over at Outline.” I sent my book over to Carol LeFlufy who had just come to work there to start a representational division and run the NY office. She loved my work and had to convince Jim to take me on.
Rob: What did your book look like?
Frank: It was nothing. Little square black and white pictures. There were a few celebrities in it. Not much.
Rob: What were you shooting? What was your camera?
Frank: A friend of mine Jenni Rose had a model agency called Ice. It was an alternative modeling agency. They were trying to break the rules of what a model was supposed to look like. They didn’t want their promo cards to be done in a way that was like models. I met them one night when I was hanging out in a bar, and they said, “Shoot our models like you’re shooting people in rock and roll.” That kind of thing.
So, I would do these pictures, and put them in my book, and since no one knew who they were, I would say, “They’re musicians and actors and models.”
People would be like, “Wow, that’s really cool.” They’d seen their faces, but couldn’t figure out exactly what it was. I wasn’t shooting them in fashion clothing. I basically would hook up with the model and go wander around the streets and take pictures. I would randomly go to walk up to actors, if I could, or musicians, and say, “I would like to photograph you and could I do that?” And I got a pretty good response. So I was able to photograph quite a few people.
Rob: And the camera setup?
Frank: All these black and white square pictures were shot with a Hasselblad. Maybe one light. The whole first five years in my career was wandering around on my bike with a Norman 200b and a Hasselblad. I would just show up to photo shoots and go, “Here I am. I’m taking your picture now.” So it was kind of a funny thing.
Around that time also, I had in the past worked for Edie Baskin. She was the initial photo show photographer for Saturday Night Live and I assisted her off and on. And she came to me because she didn’t want to be the show photographer for Saturday Night Live, and she offered me the job to shoot the bumpers.
Rob: What are the bumpers?
Frank: When you go in and out of commercial there’s a photograph, that’s the bumper. They shoot those every single week. When I started they decided they wanted one to go out in the streets and get reality, which was kind of a disaster.
I started crawling out on the rooftops like the garden in the old NBC building, the gardens weren’t fixed up back then. They were over grown and desolate. So we would crawl out of the emergency window and up on this waist-level grass, on top of a building.
I’d take Keith Richards out on an old walkway in the upper building and try to shoot him outside. So they felt like they weren’t inside of a building. And it just got to a certain point where no matter how hard I worked at it, no one seemed to appreciate it. You were literally the most insignificant thing that happened every single week.
Rob: They were like, “Ah, great, that will work.”
Frank: Yeah, great. Why is there only one? [laughs] That kind of thing. I only lasted nine shows and quit at Christmas. I was the only photographer that ever quit the job, actually. But I hated it.
The only good thing was the two tickets I was given to the rehearsal for the show, because I handed them out to photo editors. That was actually a great thing. I would say, “Hey, do you want to come to Saturday Night live? I’m shooting for the show.”
Rob: I want to get at how you arrived at the collage style of photography and the journals?
Frank: I was always a big fan of Francis Bacon’s paintings, and much more of Robert Frank’s later work, his collage and how he’d do things with Polaroids. And I was really frustrated at the time that everything was the same.
I was in Lens and Repro one day. And I was kind of bitching and moaning to Jeff Kay the owner. He said, “Do you really want to try something different?” I’m like, “Yeah.” So, he said, “Well, you’ll either get this or you won’t get this. If you don’t understand it, then I don’t want to hear about it. You bought a camera, end of story.” And he handed me a Super D Graflex and said, “Go shoot with this.”
It sat on shelf for about three months before I picked it up. And I fully understood there was this thing about it. There was awareness to it. So, I started keeping notes on these pictures. And the notes turned into journals.
Around then I had a really bad breakup and spent a month making charcoal drawings out of anger. My apartment floor was covered in charcoal and my hands were always black. I kind of just kept on going with like, “What’s the next thing, because I’m bored.” You know what I mean. I love photography, and I love where it takes you, but there’s got to be something else here.
So, I started researching and looking around. I started going out and seeing more of painting exhibitions, because I felt photography was just becoming a little bit stale and no one knew where to go.
When I went to a painting exhibition of the old artists and you saw how they looked at light, I wanted that light more than I wanted the light of somebody else who was a photographer because I understood it more. That painter spent hours making that one little piece of light. Just that subtle gradation of light bringing you right to what he wants you to look at in the picture and then you look back into the shadows. I saw that more in paintings than I did in photography. And since I couldn’t really do that, I started doing more journals and keeping journals.
It was more writing at the beginning. And then I would start using more scattered ink pens and gluing things into the book. And, all of a sudden, I went through this whole thing where they were very, very overly done and now I’m back to the point where they’ve became much more simplified. Like these two elements is all I need to do to say what I need to say.
With the Polaroids, I started collaging the Polaroid together from the different Polaroid cameras I had. Every time I wanted to find something else, Jeff would find me another camera. He’d say to me, “Would you want to try this?” Or I’d go in and I’d see something on a shelf like there was this cast iron Passport Camera. So I bought that for, I don’t know, a hundred bucks. Every night I would going out and shoot with it. And just started shooting endless Polaroids.
Wheh I came back it was not what I wanted, so I started cutting them up. And I liked how the tape and the ink went against them. And I like that I can make them bigger or smaller or I can kind of recreate the energy of what just happened to pictures if someone didn’t give me enough. Actually, I found people do more, because they didn’t take it so seriously.
Rob: Because you’re shooting with a Passport camera?
Frank: Yeah. They’re like “What’s this?” and “What else you got?” And I go, “I have this plastic camera.” And they’d joke about it, “Can’t you afford a new camera?” And I was like, “No”. But the quality, people got that about it.
I think I was shooting Bon Jovi once, and I pulled the four by five out and I went to shoot with it and I was standing there and he goes, “Is this the camera you’re going to shoot us with?” And I’m like, “Yeah, why?” “I’m just going to shoot a couple pictures of you.” He’s said, “This is way too slow. I need to hear the wind of the motor. I need to hear it going. I need to get off on that.” I’m like, “OK.” So I put the camera down, picked up the one with the motor drive and go, “Are you ready to go? Here we go.”
Rob: You reached this point where you had this eclectic style of so many different formats. And then the journals and using tape and ink and all this kind of stuff.
Frank: And I wasn’t really presenting it to people to use. It was kind of one of those things that I was just shooting. Actually, I was directing a lot of the time too, when this all really kind of came to fruition, where it really started to happen more and more.
I kept minimal journals. I’ve done all the collages and painting and that kind of thing. But I hadn’t really taken that big leap of keeping big journals. I really got the rhythm of my journals when I started directing. Actually my very first director’s reel, was basically a barrage of imagery, using my journals.
At the time, M.T.V. was exploding and every company wanted to hire a photographer who knew the rock n’ roll world to use as a director.
Rob: So you start directing?
Frank: Yeah, I was out in Los Angeles for a job, and Carol setup a lunch with Stavros Merjos at HSI and he was flipping through my journal and he was like, “Dude you can totally do this, this is editing, this is putting things together, this is story telling.” He goes, “Take whatever money you need. If you need an editor a DP, video, you need film, you want sound tapes, I will pay for that. I will pay for you to go shoot something.” And so he did. He paid me to go make the initial piece that I had.
Rob: For your reel?
Frank: Yeah, something to show people that I can direct. Because at the time, when photographers wanted to become directors, what they would have to do is take your work, and you would do almost a Ken Burns kind of scene across your images. You would be playing and the camera would slowly pull across kind of like “Wheeeee.” And it wasn’t my thing. I hated it.
And so I went out and at the time my assistant in Los Angeles was a guy named Mark Schumacher. And he owned a movie camera and he wanted to be a DP. And so we went down to his loft got his camera and shot my journal. We just used the natural light coming in through the window in his loft. Then we ran around and shot some more pieces, so we would have some sort of storyline that would go with it, so it wouldn’t be just pages turning.
He said, “My friend Doug can cut it for us” a guy name Doug Walker. So we took it to him and Doug was nuts. He was one of the first editors to be irreverent in cutting things really fast in the early days.
Rob: The MTV cuts right?
Frank: Yeah, I fell headfirst into a bunch of great people and they made this piece that blew everybody’s mind. I would sit there with these people in the music industry that were working at labels and such, or for advertising. And they would look at the piece, and they’d go, “This is amazing, where did you get the photography from?” And I said it’s mine. And they go, “What do you mean it’s yours, do you own it?” And I go no, they are my pictures. “Oh you are a photographer, like a working photographer?” And I go yeah. And they go, “When was the last time you shot?”
Rob: Hilarious. How many music videos and how many commercials did you shoot?
Frank: I don’t know. I think I did 20-odd music videos and about 40 or 50 commercials.
Rob: Why and when did you move to California?
Frank: Let’s go backwards a bit because you were talking about how I started this whole thing. In the beginning when I was doing all the photography, I was just doing anything possible. I was shooting every – here you want a William Coupon? You want an Annie Leibovitz? You want a Deborah Feingold?
You just shoot things, because people ask you to shoot things, right? But every time I did a picture for them, what they were asking, I would make a conscious point of making an image that was 180 degrees in the opposite direction.
Rob: For you or for your journal?
Frank: For me. So it would be complete. So I started building these images up and people starting asking, as I carried this journal around, like “Hey, did you see Frank’s journal?” and go look through the journal. And people would sit and go through my journal. It was completely done with that whole irreverence, in the sense, I don’t care if you like my collage work or not. I don’t do it for you, I do it for myself.
Rob: But it ended up being part of your signature.
Frank: It happened when I suddenly realized I wasn’t happy in the direction I was going in. And I think it’s a struggle with every photographer, Rob, and when I’m teaching I come across it a lot, you have to find your voice. And I would say a lot of photographers, even famous photographers that are working non-stop now, don’t have a voice of their own. That was my struggle. It was the era where everyone had octabanks, and everyone was trying to be Annie. And everyone was shooting outside, trying to balance the light. And I’m going, do they really need one more?
It suddenly hit me that I didn’t want to be that photographer. I was young and arrogant enough, I guess, and stupid, so I started backpedaling and Carol was supportive. She said, “If you don’t want to do it, don’t” Don’t put things in your book that you don’t want to shoot. So we started shifting.
There was a couple of years where it was questionable if I was going to survive because I wasn’t just doing things to get by. I was saying, “No, I really don’t want to do that. And this is the pictures I want to take now, and this is where I want to go.” But Carol was always very supportive in that conversation.
So, that pivotal point is when a lot of things happened, and then from there, I learned that I didn’t need to be like everybody else. That I could easily choose to shake it all off and go, “OK, so I don’t work every day.” And I don’t. I work a couple times a month, and there are some months I work more, and there are some months I don’t work. But through other things, I’ve been hired because now I get to creatively come in and consult, or someone will say, “Can you design this? Or can you do this?” which is fun.
Rob: Does that happen a lot?
Frank: Yeah, it happens more than it used to. I’ve been paid to sit in a room and just have a conversation.
Rob: Well, from my perspective, I used to hire you because you have this tremendous range, incredible range. Nobody has that kind of range.
Frank: But some people don’t because you have to trust the photographer you hired. And I think that people think my stuff is too weird. They can’t look between the lines and see that there’s still the beautiful portraiture or there’s a beautiful moment or there’s this or that in the middle of it.
Rob: Right. So, have you shot yourself in the foot by having this tremendous range and not just focusing?
Frank: Yeah, but I’m fine being the one-legged man. I don’t give a shit.
Rob: [laughs] Good answer.
Frank: I’m happy. I’ll shoot the other foot if I have to. I’m much happier. I’m much happier in doing what I do. It’s a little more frustrating, but I do things that I’m proud of. I’m lucky enough to say that most stuff I shoot is my personal work. It took me a long time to get here. It took me over 20 years to get to the point where someone would look at me and say, “Hey, wouldn’t it be interesting to do a show?”
Rob: Right, you have a show coming up at the Clark Oshin Gallery at The Icon.
Frank: Yeah, Kathleen Clark used to be photo editor at “Los Angeles Magazine” and Nan Oshin was at the LA Times and I used to work for them. And then Icon, I worked with Icon for years, and they didn’t know what to do with their front space, so they turned it into this little art gallery space.
They’ve had several shows there already. I am not the first one they’re doing. But they’ve been very traditional shows where it’s big prints, maybe 20 or 30 of them, right? So, I said, “Well, if you want me to do this, I really don’t want to do, here’s a bunch of celebrity pictures.
“But,” I said, “over on this wall, I want to draw a massive face screaming at about 47 scans of my journal.” I had been doing this thing where I’d been scanning my journals, and they’ve been making 16×20 prints, and they’re beautiful. A friend of mine looked at them and said it looked like that I’d torn the pages out of my journal.
Rob: Wow. That’s awesome.
Frank: They’re perfect, I worked closely with Bonny in the fine art printing department at The Icon to find a great paper and it happened to be made by Canon so Bonny approached them to see if they’d sponsor the show and they have. The paper looks like watercolor or charcoal paper. So, it’s really beautiful.
So, there’s one wall that’s going to have that, and on another wall, the opposing wall, is going be about 72 pictures, and they’re all from 5×7 to, I think, 36×24, something like that. And they’re all jammed together. It’s like a massive collage of these little black frames, large and small black frames, all pushed together. There’s no space between them.
And it goes up the wall, under the wall – there’s a little lip that comes out – and then it spreads. And it hits the corner, and then it starts coming back down the wall toward the rest of the show.
Rob: So the gallery just turned into a big journal?
Frank: Yeah. That’s kind of my approach. So this wall is basically all just images that are of my kids or like an abstract thing I like, whatever. There’s a couple of celebrity pictures thrown in there, there’s a lot of nudes that I’ve done that I like that are distorted.
And then over the counter of the whole thing and above the wall that runs over the counter is going to be all Bowie because they wanted Bowie.
Rob: The show sounds fantastic. That just sounds amazing.
Frank: Absolutely. Everyone’s reaction about the show is either, “It’s going to be amazing” or “It’s going to be crickets.” [laughs]
Rob: It sounds like it has a lot of energy and I just think plain old prints on a wall appeals to a certain group but this will appeals to people who can get into that energy.
Rob: So when you do jobs, you have basically all your cameras and films.
Frank: Everything, it depends on the job. If I’m shooting albums covers, everything goes. I have boxes, plastic cameras to whatever…
Rob: Your assistants must be really smart. [laughs]
Frank: You know it’s funny, it’s hard to get new ones, I’m telling you.
Rob: [laughs] How the hell does this thing work?
Frank: Oh yeah. I’ve got a couple guys that are amazing photographers, God knows why they haven’t gone out and done it yet. But, they’re still around and I can fall back on them. They know a lot of things.
It’s funny because I have my two youngest guys right now, one guy came from Art Center. I taught for a semester at Art Center, which was actually quite difficult.
Rob: Why was it difficult?
Frank: I think the structure up there is all over the place. The kids didn’t get it. They don’t understand the industry. I’m used to teaching workshops and seminars where I deal with people who can come to me for a week and for 12 hours over seven days I can push at them and actually see them move. Where there you meet them for three hours once a week. And you’re getting in the middle of all the rest of their shit.
Rob: And you don’t see any progress. What was your class?
Frank: It was a lighting class and I basically tried to make them understand, which is how I teach most of my classes, that you’d better understand why you’re lighting something. If you’re saying, “I’m going to light this person.” Well how are you lighting it? What do you want to them to look like? Is it a woman, is it a man? Do you want it to be harsh, do you want it to soft? Is it supposed to be gritty? Is it supposed to be this? Is it supposed to have…?
So after, I gave them this assignment where I said, “Every day take a picture of a piece of light and put it into a day book.” I say this is just like a snapshot.
Rob: Take a picture of a piece of light?
Frank: And write down how that light is created. Because if you’re standing there, you’re in the middle of New York City, and the light comes bouncing off of a sky scraper, and it comes back down and kind of hits the person in the middle of that darkness. Know what that does. What’s it bouncing off of? Is it bouncing off a piece of white? Is it bouncing off of a mirrored window? Is it bouncing off a piece of steel?
And then if you said to yourself, “I want to recreate that light” you’d know that if you took a hard light and hit a piece of mirror and it came back down the mirror, that’s what it would look like. If it came off of a big white wall, it would be soft and kind of subtle.
Rob: So, why didn’t they get that?
Frank: I don’t know. They kind of felt it was more a pain in the ass.
Rob: They just want to know how to light like Seliger, was that the attitude?
Frank: I had quite a few guys that were really, really good and excelled completely and really got the point of it. I had a couple look at me and say, “If you’d only let me go in post, I could fix it.” And I would say to them, “That’s another class. This is not that class.” If you can’t light something in the first place, you shouldn’t be taking pictures. The whole point of photography is to find the light. To understand the light. You need to basically take that light and make it work for you, that the light is bringing you to what you want them to see. And that whole premise is gone.
I carry a Polaroid book around sometimes and I’ll say to a client, “Do you want this light. Would you rather have this? Do you want to have it slanted so if you want the light to come from the right you want a bit of edge from the side? Do you want a bright edge? Do you want a subtle edge coming through? And do you want that black edge that comes down the side of the face?”
Rob: Do you have a book full of Polaroids with the different lighting?
Frank: Yeah. We were shooting last week on a movie poster, and it was they wanted everything to be very much like comic books. So we had a black silhouette with a slash of light as a highlight. It’s very much kind of graphic. They wanted a whole series of everything coming out of a black background.
But, of course, nowadays you can’t really shoot like an edge light in the black and then it’s just this edge light and that’s all you have. You have to under fill the whole thing, so there’s just a subtle under-fill but you still get the idea of where you’re going with it. So they can choose how much they want to go out. How black they want it to go.
Rob: You do a lot of posters don’t you?
Frank: I get hired to do a lot of the odd ones, which is kind of great.
Rob: This one is going to be really hard, let’s call Frank.
Frank: Totally. I get Hellboy II and we spend five days in an old limestone refinery. Then there was Eragon which was all shot in a tent that was nine feet wide by 18 feet long in the middle of a field in Budapest, while it was raining outside. The packs are all blowing up. Because we got there and, of course, it was one of those things where they wanted to shoot on set and it was supposed to rain a couple days, and the only answer was to do this.
I mean it’s adapt and figure out. The Coraline stuff was hysterical. I mean that was a great one because Coraline is an animated feature. And everyone was: “What do you mean, you shot the poster?” I go “Yep.” I went up there and we had set up a photo studio as if I was shooting Dakota Fanning, who’s the voice of Coraline.
I set her up and they bring the animators in it, and I said we want her looking like this. Then we took this little one cane, this little stick, and I had mirrors on them. And I had little pieces of white and I would fill them back in like I was lighting on them. And we were shooting them on medium format digital. I was able to change the layout in a couple different ways while we did it.
Rob: I was just going through your journal on the site.
Frank: They’re not exactly the Disney Channel.
Rob: The journal that’s up here right now, how long has that been up? Has that always been here? There’s a lot of nudes, there’s some…
Frank: A lot of weird drawings.
Rob: Guys with penises drawn on. So, I guess Disney Channel is not going to call you up and say, “Hey, let’s have Frank do that poster, go check out his portfolio. Oh my God…”
Frank: I’ve actually had some people say, “Can you send us an ftp of your portfolio because we can’t have the client go to the website and see everything.”
Years ago, I did a cover for Esquire of Robert De Niro and it was so abstractly they called for me to go do it. And I was kind of laughing, going like, “What, you want me to shoot him, really?” I’m like OK, sure I’ll go.
And then after the shoot Robert Priest looked at me and he goes, “Well we knew it wasn’t going to be good but we figured if anyone was going to fail you’d be the best at it.” He said, “We figured you weren’t going to be so structured that you would get something. We knew you’d get something.”
Rob: Right. If think back to that Red Bull book I hired you for. I called you because the project was absurdly difficult?
Frank: That’s my job. And it goes to the bottom line of what this is. If you are a photographer, it’s not about you. Your job is to solve the problem at hand. Now it’s your choice how you want to solve it.
Rob: I don’t know. Not a lot of people would look at it that way. I can tell you if I sent that job to a lot of different people, they would probably say, “It can’t be done.” They would say, “We need more days to do all those pictures.”
Frank: But, that’s just our job. Our job is to solve the problem. There’s always a solution to the problem. I love thinking that way because, then you’re given these things in the moment you’re standing with a person. And they’re that moment. That’s your moment. You can’t create that.
Ten minutes from now this picture will no longer exist. This moment won’t happen. It just happened the two of you stood there while this piece of light fell through a room, and you were standing there and you took the picture. And if you were to basically plan that moment, you couldn’t have.
Rob: So the economy is in the shitter and I keep hearing from people about editorial completely drying up?
Frank: I think photography in general is at a sad state and it’s poignant that the last true portrait photographer dies. Irving Penn would spend six, seven hours with someone taking their portrait.
Rob: And that’s not going to happen anymore.
Frank: It hasn’t happened in years. When was the last time someone said to me, “You have all day to take a great portrait.” It’s more like, “You have 15 minutes to do this great portrait,” but if the person’s not connecting with you then there’s nothing there.
Rob: So, what do we do? Just say, “Screw it, we don’t need it?”
Frank: Everyone’s allowed themselves to be overtaken by the process, the imagery, the overdone insanity of making everyone happy and forgetting that there’s a subject.
Rob: Well, my theory is that photography follows the way of the American psyche and the bubble has burst, so I’m with you. I feel like it should end.
Frank: We’ve run out of good ideas. Look, they’re redoing movies. And if you look at the state of magazines, it’s no wonder. If magazines were still shot beautifully and designed beautifully, people wouldn’t abandon them. When you used to go buy a “Vogue” or a “Vanity Fair” or a “Rolling Stone”, you went for the imagery and the design. You kept that magazine forever.
Rob: Well, it turned into a numbers game. Just like everything. Just like the housing market.
Frank: We’re all doing jobs for a lot less money than we used to, or just having to work with budgets that we’re being handed. It’s what it is.
Rob: How have you adapted to digital?
There’s a reason certain photographers have lasted this long. When they went from shooting glass-plate negatives, to shooting roll film to shooting roll film to shooting kodachrome to shooting kodachrome slide to shooting negative to shooting digital. I mean, we all bitched at every step of the way, and then we all found our legs in the middle of what we were handed.
I have to say, I’m excited now to shoot digital because I can move quicker. I can change. I mean, I do lighting set-ups where I’ll have three key lights sitting there next to me. I’ll roll them in and roll them out.” Where in the old days you couldn’t do that because everything was so locked down. I changed. When I’m shooting movie posters nowadays, everything is on wheels. We constantly redistribute the light.
Rob: Really? Lights on wheels?
Frank: Lights on wheels. You want more key, you want more fill, you want more this, you want more that.
Frank: I complained about digital for about two years, and I suddenly shut up and said: “Look at yourself in the mirror you moron. They’ve handed you the best tools in the world. You’re able to do whatever you want now.”
Rob: In my conversations with photographers of your generation, it’s sort of been like, this is the reality, let’s just adapt.
Rob: Your sons are 8 1/2 and 10 so what happens when they want to become photographers? When they graduate from high school and they say, “Look, I’m going to go to New York and I’m going to become a professional photographer” what’s your advice?
Frank: “You want to be photographer. Great, then let’s take pictures on film and I want you to process a roll of film. And I want you to basically print a picture. And I want you to understand.” Because, I think the light coming through a negative even makes you understand light.
Imagine being a 49 year old photographer with a 10 year old son and he see negatives hanging on these racks and says, “What’s this?” I go, “It’s a negative.” They go, “Oh” And they go “What’s it used for?” I say, “Well it’s a picture.” You hold that. Well how do you get a picture from that?” “Well, you go in a darkroom.” “What’s a darkroom?” “Well a darkroom has like chemicals and everything in it. And there’s like this projector and you project the image down.” “What do you mean? Does it move?” I mean, “How big can you make it?” “You can make it any size you want. It depends on the size paper. You put it into this developer and you move it around. The picture starts coming up through the paper.” “Well then what happens, why does it do that?”
Now they just come to me with their digital camera and they go, “Can we put these in the computer?” “Can I print this out immediately?” “Can I see that?”
Rob: Well you could also teach them how to shoot glass plates. I don’t see the point really?
Frank: I am.
Rob: Oh, you’re one of those dads. [laughs]
Frank: I bought them an eight by ten glass plate negative…
Rob: Oh, no! [laughs]
Frank: And I took a glass-plate class two summers ago out on Long Island. Hopefully by the time that they’re old enough and they’re interested that I’ll have that all set up, and I’ll know exactly how to put everything together for them. And it will be great.
Rob: So why is all this important to their understanding of photography?
Frank: Granted, they can digitally print out a million images nowadays, but there’s something about getting your hands dirty that is lacking in photography. Do you know what I mean? We no longer have the smell of the chemistry. We no longer have our fingers having the goo of the Polaroid. That was our one connection where you felt like you actually were creating something.
With my sons when I talk to them about becoming photographers, I’d try to say, “Don’t be everyone else. Don’t follow the herd.” Do you know what I mean? You have to find your own vision, your own thing, everything about it, and that’s what you need to do.
Rob: Right. Can you imagine, though, them with all the new tools? With the cameras that shoot video and the computers? What kind of eclectic photographers will they become based on your DNA?
Frank: Will they really truly get it? That’s the sense of any parent looking at their child. Do you really understand what I do? My wife would argue the point that I’ve probably spent way too much time in my office or in front of a worktable making collages of my sons who are out in the yard playing ball.
Rob: Right. So who knows? That’s the thing. Who knows where they’ll end up because life is so different now?
Frank: That’s what it is. Maybe that’s my subliminal point of how I named the show Without Filter because I think there’s just way too many focuses now. Everything is a knee-jerk reaction to not giving an experience of anything because you’re terrified of the outcome.
Now I could put all these pictures on the wall, and you’re going to have people look at me and go, “Did you see those pictures? Why in the hell do you think those are good? Those are disgusting. Why would you think that’s interesting?” And that’s the point.
I love that that would be more of the conversation than everyone walking and going, “Oh, isn’t that amazing?” Do you know what I mean? I’d rather have the argument of someone saying to me, “Why do you think this…
Rob: What the hell is this? [laughs]
Frank: Richard Serra had a classic line. He said, “Art is purposely useless.” And it is. If you do it for any reason but that it is some kind of gut reaction to something, and you draw, paint, collage, or photograph something and it means something to you, fuck everybody else. Right? Do you know what I mean?
But then I’m a commercial photographer. That’s who I am. Granted I’ve been lucky enough to have been able to do a lot of things that maybe aren’t as commercial as most, but still that’s my job.
Rob: That’s a pretty thin line I think you’ve walked for a long time.
Frank: I have to respect that the client had to go through a lot of shit before they’ve gotten to me.
I did the same thing when I directed. I used to always say, “You’ve been through this a lot more than I have. So I need to make sure that I’m covering everything you need so when you go back and I’m on an airplane flying back to wherever that you have everything you need.
That’s the most important thing. That’s truly the art form of what this is. The art form of being a commercial photographer is basically solving the problem creatively, putting your stamp on it somehow that people do know it’s you, and then having the client be happy at the end of day. That’s the art form. People forget that; that it’s an art form to actually be able to do this.