Frank Ockenfels 3 is a Los Angeles based photographer who for over 30 years has enjoyed collaborating and creating with actors, artists, musicians, politicians, athletes and everyday people.
As a portrait photographer Frank’s work has crossed over into every category. Frank has photographed countless TV advertising campaigns for all the major networks and cable channels including; AMC, FX, Starz, Showtime, Netflix, Fox, CW, E!, NBC, CBS and Fox. He has shot for shows such as; Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, American Horror Story, Sons of Anarchy, Wilfred, Louie, X-Files, The Following, Masters of Sex, Homeland, Sense 8, House of Cards, Justified, The Americans, Outlander, Black Sails and Vampire Diaries just to name a few.
Frank Ockenfels wanted to talk about his journals, which was fine with us, having seen glimpses of the mad brilliance contained within said journals in various interviews and publications. His decades as a photographer and director have resulted in a wealth of fantastic imagery, classic photos of actors, musicians, politicians, models, authors, there is really no area his lens has not cast its gaze. And in talking to him, first about his journals, which are fascinating works of multimodal art in their own right, and then about his relationship to the challenges and opportunities of art, we found a man both a master in his field and amazingly generous with his thoughts and his time.
We began in his second-floor studio, as he stood at his work table, laying out several journals and cameras for us to peruse...
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
I’ve never believed the point that it should be “Frank Ockenfels: this is the photograph,” it should be “it’s a great photograph, who shot it?” And I’ve always liked that question more, or knowing a certain style and knowing that’s an amazing photograph. That’s why my style is all over the place, because I like that it mixes up…but the work should stand out for itself, it shouldn’t be just because I did it, it’s amazing. So in doing the journals, the journals came out of, and the reason I say I wanted to discuss the journals, because I’ve done a lot of conversations about what’s it like to shoot Mad Men, what’s it like to be doing this, being a photographer. And yes, it was photography that got me to here, obviously it pays the bills, and people are passionate about how I see and how I take pictures, and maybe the variety or how I see things differently; take a new look at something that people have seen before, that’s all very… It’s amazing that people think that about me, I’m very happy.
The journals came out of complete, you know, I just needed to do something for myself in the middle of learning who I was even, because I didn’t know who I was, doing the photography over and over again. It’s great that the journals…they started with notes, tech notes.
Yeah, a friend of mine, Jeff Kay, who used to own a store called Lens & Repro…
Yeah, and also just taking notes of things I was trying. I used to carry stuff like this, and this is just tech notes. You would shoot a job, and you would just have all these notes, like this is where the light was, and this is where this is…you just kind of make all these notes and draw a diagram and that kind of stuff. It would just depend on the job. This was a couple years of working on something, and they were all over the place. You try something and go, “oh that’s why this did this, and that did this…” That’s where this was, and from that came me starting to do, just keeping other notes, and suddenly over the years I would start using those kinds of books, because they were good to travel with, people would mutter things on set and I would write down, or if I didn’t like the shoot, it would depend on what I was doing. Then I went to Africa, I got called by a travel magazine, they said, “we’ve sent a ton of people to Africa, can you do something else?” And then my agent sent my journals and said, “he could do this?” Because I had taken journals of my wife and I traveling together.
So the journals started becoming this thing, and just from, it could be my photography, it could be somebody else’s, it could just be a variety of things, and they still were notes to myself, but more of my mental state than maybe…content, or whatever I was doing. So they went from that, to, this is over the years of doing that kind of stuff. And the bigger ones, see, these all blew out, and would get so heavy. I would sit on airplanes with scissors and tape and glue and do stuff… Then you hit 9/11, and all of a sudden, everything is taken away from you. I remember people walking up, and I had a pair of scissors and I was cutting stuff up and putting something together, and the stewardess walk over to me and go “can I see that for a second?” So I go, “yeah”, and she showed the pilot and was like, “that guy got on with this…but it’s not illegal.” So I explain that I’m just cutting stuff, and I’ve gotten smaller scissors over the years, but even those, I carried really small ones for a while…I mean, they’re weapons, I got that, I’m not a fool. But I carried that for a while cause it was small enough, but it was still, “that’s too big,” for a long time. Since then, they’ve gone backwards, and I tried plastic scissors, which never cut paper right.
Right, well I chew on things. Actually, it was really funny, you could see it in the journals, because I’d tear things, I would fold and fold and fold, and tear it down. But even the glue became an issue, all these things became issues, and I was like, “eh.” I kind of went to (a smaller) size because it wouldn’t build so quickly? And I could kind of do 4–5 at a time, and when I go through binges of doing them, I stand here at my desk and start doing them, but I can set them aside and work on a couple different ones at the same time. So if one can be wet for days, depending on how much I dump into it…so I kind of decided that I needed to kind of do this. I would number them so I would know which one I was looking at.
And they started getting really simple. So they could be as simple as a drawing I made on an airplane, to…I would be in a Starbucks and I’d find an album cover I shot for these guys. They’ve gotten simpler and simpler, and I pull things out of magazines, or I see things that I think are kind of funny; it all depends on how twisted I want to go for the day, you know. It’s funny, this guy, our old real estate agent, is this amazingly crazy guy, and he saw how I kept journals, and this guy died who was a cop, and when they were clearing the house, they found these boxes and all these books on the shelf, all these binders. He had basically collected porn.
And it was bizarre, he had boxes of all this old porn. He said, “I don’t know if you want this or not,” but here are the books. He had typed notes he’d sent to porn magazines, IN the magazine, saying things like, “I really think you should be maybe think about shooting more things like this, because I would find that interesting.” Or he’d keep, in between all the stuff, he’d have lactation notes. Notes on lactation, or on breast feeding, and I’m just like, “this is too twisted, even for me, kind of…” And he said, “of all the people I saw who wanted to just throw it away, I figured maybe you’d want it.” And I said, “yeah, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, but…” He kept these old binders, and I haven’t figured out what really to do with them yet. And then you go into them, and he left all this stuff. But then he would make his own little collages, obviously for his own entertainment.
And what we realized was he must have confiscated porn from people, and then kept it. Because this is personal stuff, photographs that people have in their own home. And then there’s other ones…it’s hysterical. So he’s laughing and I’m saying to him, “I’m glad you think this is the kind of journals I keep.” But these were really amazing. He spent time in doing this, and then you get through it, right. So you’re going through all this…and in the middle of all that, there’s a pamphlet, “if you want to take pictures, this is basic portrait lighting.” It’s kind of a weird thing. I haven’t yet gone through everything, but every once in a while, I kinda get a note and find it and go, “I’m glad I have that.” Right in the middle of the porn. It’s a carburetor conversation, just really bizarre stuff, and he had boxes of it. So the rental agent brought it over, and I went through some stuff, put it to the side. It’s kind of inspiring, the mind of a completely out of control person.
Yeah I know! You can do that, it’s okay. And he’s a cop!
So, yeah, over the years, I started making my own portfolios, because they were…because basically everyone had the typical portfolio where you had this box, and in the box was this book. So I started making my hand-made portfolios on my computers, so if you called in for my work, I would hand-make these and just say this is my work, and it would be a combination of, you know, everything I was shooting. And I would just sit there and glue them together in my office.
Like once a year, and I’d go, “here it is!” It was like getting my journal, which everyone was reacting to, because I’d be shooting with people, and they’d say, “can I get your journal?” And they’d reach in the bag and pull it out, you’d see them going through the pages and looking at stuff. So I used to keep those, but now everything is online. So now you don’t make books anymore. So the journals, even to find time nowadays has been, you know, it’s been about trying to find time to do stuff half the time. I started painting, I started drawing on plywood, because I got really bored. When I turned 50 I did a whole series for friends, everybody who came to my 50th birthday party got a picture of a 50-year-old fat man. And it was me on the edge of my own mortality, I guess. So I made a ton of these on paper, on plywood, and everyone who went home could have one.
You know what it is, it’s a great outlet. I spent yesterday standing here for a good portion of the day, and I thank you guys for that because I don’t think I would’ve stopped! I have all this stuff that hasn’t been taken care of, and when you said you were going to come to the house I thought, “I should really spend some time putting stuff away.” And what happens is, when I start putting stuff away, all of a sudden I’ll find something, and I’m stopping in the middle of what I’m doing, so I go back. I had done a job couple days ago for Wired, they had me shoot George Miller, who has directed all the Mad Max.
And Happy Feet, which makes more sense for George when you meet him. He is the sweetest, laughs, big grin on his face, just the nicest guy. And I got sent over to the outside space of the sound engineering studio on the Warner Brothers lot, there’s nothing to shoot in there. They told me, “just shoot his portrait, but do something that’s not like digital, do something that’s more, kind of crazy.”
So I was kind of thinking about it the night before, thinking, “I’ve been trying to do this Thing for a while.” So I built a lens, and I’d never shot with it, and I show up and he started laughing! We shot film, and I scanned the negatives, and then I sat yesterday drawing on all these print-outs, cause I only have one contact sheet. That’s George, but that’s very… George is much more the smiley guy, so I thought it was funny to make… I sent that to him along with all the rest of the stuff, but when I pulled the camera out, it was kind of… He was laughing at me. He was like “you’re just crazy, what is this about?”
Yeah, it gives me a good start to try something else out. So I used to shoot with a Fuji GX680 all the time, that has the ability to put lens plates on it, so I had all these old optics, and I had all this new stuff, so basically I just took gaffers tape and I glued it together to see if it works or not. And then it worked. So I left it, and shot with it. It’s great because it’s not perfect, there’s nothing perfect about it. But the old optics still have the ability to bleed, which I like. Because when I shoot with other things, I mean, all the cameras I shoot with have weird lenses on them…I shoot a lot with this Super D Graflex, which my friend Jeff re-adapted, so he made it so I could take all these out and put anything I want into it.
So then I started collecting glass wherever I could find it, and these are smaller versions of these. None of this I have the film for anymore. I still have film to shoot, I still have…
I still have 55…which still works, you know.
Well, 2007 was the cut-off…but I have a lot of stuff, like lenses I stick on the front of these things, and when you feel like, lenses nowadays don’t weigh that anymore. But I have no L5 disc, blew it out.
Yeah, so from years and years of holding this camera…I spent 3 years having the bones grow together instead of having surgery, so it was crushing and crushing the nerves.
So I sit on airplanes, I freeze my back on airplanes, I stand at dinners and they’ll ask, “are you okay?” And it’s just, I’m standing because I can’t sit that long. It grew itself together, because I was 47 at the time, and they said that they didn’t recommend doing back surgery on somebody 47, because they do it twice then, so if you do it after 50, you’ll do it once and it’s not fun, it kind of debilitates…
Golf. Golf will do it. But I used to shoot more with that stuff, and now, digitally, we’re always…my digital tech, Ron Brown and I, are always…like I’ll say to him, “this is an idea I have, this is the optic I have,” and he’ll go out and we start hollowing out Hassleblad lenses, getting the shell, putting it on the camera, and firing it. Because the problem is you need the mechanism to make the camera work. You can’t just shoot without it. So we’re building things back into old old optics, and they bleed, and then the computer has to try and correct itself constantly, which it doesn’t do, so it’s kind of fun. Still trying to make things, because everyone shoots with a 24–70 zoom, whether it’s a Canon or a Nikon, or you’re shooting with a Hassleblad. Back when I was a young photographer, people shot with Pentaxes or Rolleis or Hassleblads, and every one of those is totally a different conversation on how you might shoot with it and how it might look. The time frame of doing film nowadays is really hard. I shot film, they waited for me to do that, but…
Yeah, editorial more than job-jobs, they’re not going to wait for that kind of stuff. I leave a job, and they want a Google Drive half the time, or within a day. You shoot 5000 images for a movie poster shoot, and the next day you’re on a plane flying home, and at the end of the next day Ron has processed the images and sent them off on a drive and you haven’t even seen everything, you know. I have jobs and jobs on drives I have not looked at, that I know I’ve shot, I just haven’t had the time to go through 5000 images to figure out what I want to keep out of it.
It’s growth. If we don’t constantly change, we die. I’m not the same photographer I started out to be. I’m not the person I started out to be, and I think that I’m still learning. I’ll be 55 this year, and I think that I’ve just kind of figured out what I’m doing, in the sense of where I want to go with what I’m trying to do. I think I’ve done a wonderful series of trying a million different things and seeing where it goes.
I think the biggest problem with artists, and I think young photographers themselves, is that people go, “I love that!” and everyone goes, “Okay!” instead of saying, you know, “okay here’s that, what you said, but what about this?” Younger people are harder about giving options to younger photo editors, because everybody wants to know exactly what they’re getting, which is kind of, everyone hates hipster photographers with their plastic camera thing, but I don’t. As long as you know that’s not It, if you really stand there and believe that that’s it…it’s my dying belief in Instagram…I don’t care how you got there and how you got the picture there, I would hope that, I mean, I do post pictures that are not shot with my iPhone, but 95% of the pictures I post on Instagram are shot on my iPhone. I think it’s important, as a photographer, and as somebody who…I choose to teach, I teach once a year in Palm Springs, but if I’m choosing to basically try and inspire people to do things, that I think that’s what you inspire by saying…the simplicity, they always say, “what’s the best camera?” “Well, whatever’s in your hand,“ is what they always say. So this is in your hand, what are you going to do with it? There’s a million things you can do with it, but you still have to see light, you still have to understand composition; you can’t just point it and put an effect on it and everyone is going to be like “ooooh.” For a second, but is it going to have longevity to it?
So why would somebody follow me, why wouldn’t they follow me, you know, it’s all that kind of fun, and I don’t post pictures for anybody besides just myself at this point. I think that’s what it should be. Most people are on Instagram because they’re trying to prove who they are as a photographer. And that’s sad. Or I don’t need to see food…I do follow a couple food guys, and I do like them, and they’re really good photographers, I bear with them because that’s what they do for a living. But for the average person to shoot food and go “this is what I ate last night!” – that’s a personal thing, that’s a Facebook thing. To me, Instagram is what you see in life. I guess in that sense of it, I contradicted myself in the sense that if you see food, that is what you see, so that’s what you’re reacting to, then it should be that.
I wouldn’t say incomplete, I think that if anybody who’s hired me, who’s asked me to work for them, they know I kind of go above and beyond what’s necessary half the time, and it’s just because I’m so ADD and…my assistants always make fun of me. They’ll say, “let’s shoot against grey seamless!” or we just need something simple, and I just can’t let that go that it’s that simple.
Sometimes I’ll go, “we’ve shot grey seamless for the last month, let’s just…what else can we do here?” Which should be the point. You constantly are growing, constantly questioning yourself, you’re constantly challenging yourself to do something different. I know a lot of guys who lean back on this one style they did, and it’s like they’re struggling now, because now, more than ever, people want…you do a job and they want four different looks; “we’re going to shoot outside, and then we’re going to shoot inside, and then we’re going to…”
I just did a job in New York for a week, and the space, we had to do these portraits of all these big actors, we were in a space with 8’ ceilings and I had to set up a seamless, and the rooms were about 11’ by 13’. And at that point, you should know exactly how you’re going to narrow that down but still get what makes everyone happy. And you know, we figured it out, pictures were great, but that was the challenge of that one day. You can’t say that “my style won’t fit in this room.” That’s not your job as a photographer, as a commercial photographer. That’s what I do for a living, and I love it, you get the challenge of getting to solve everyone’s problems.
They come to you, they have these ideas, they’ve pulled scrap off the internet, have all these lighting ideas and concepts people have drawn, done, figured out, and they’ll say, “this is what I want.” And your job is to, in a nice way, is to smile and say, “this is what’s doable: this is what I can do, this is what I can’t do.” You never say no. You say, “this is how we could do this, let me show you.”
And there is where digital comes in great, because I can share them really quickly. If I had to shoot something, take a Polaroid, wait for the Polaroid to process, oh my god they would never wait for that; they need to see it like this. You can change light, like if you’re shooting someone and it goes wrong and the light isn’t right for them, you can change it around really fast, and you can show them, “this is better,” and it’ll be much better and still feel the same, but you can’t, people can’t describe it for them. I think that’s the cool part of digital, in a sense that it’s gotten to that point. That’s exciting about digital, I think that it’s interesting, the clarity point, is that you’re shooting something and they’ll say, “it’s out of focus” and it’s like, “really? Because it doesn’t look out of focus to me,” and you’ll put the little thing on the eye, and my poor friend Ron who does all my capture stuff, just looks at me like, “it’s fine!”
It’s like if you look at, did you see the Avedon show when LACMA had it, with the portraits? Walk up to those. You can’t read the blood vessels in somebody’s eyes, you just can’t. It’s the feeling of the picture, it’s the difference of why people still react to film, because something, it’s not forgiving, but is more organic about it, which they haven’t figured it out with the pixel pixel pixel thing, which is that sharpness to digital. I think the reason why, and I think as my hands got dirtier as I was painting and throwing things on bigger pieces of paper and collaging bigger, and doing things in journals, was because my hands weren’t getting dirty, I wasn’t in the dark room. I wasn’t printing. I would go in the dark room, print a bunch of stuff. I would print four to five I liked, throw them in the garbage, and I would turn the lights on and pull them back out and see what happened.
Yeah, it’s that feeling that you’ve got something on your hand that you feel like that you’ve been part of it. Like left over work from yesterday, basically my fingers still have ink on them from doing the collage I had to do yesterday. In the middle of doing conference calls. I was sitting there doing conference calls, and I was painting and doing stuff. It’s kind of great, I put the headset on and keep doing, it’s great because it takes your brain away from over-thinking it, which my wife will tell you I over-think the fuck out of everything. She’ll walk up sometimes and go, “it’s done, just put it aside. Just stop.” And I’ll still think, “ehh, something’s not right.” I’m looking for that thread that brings everything together.
Yeah, I think it goes back to my firm belief that… I’m not a technician, I’m not smart in that way, I’m just not a smart man in the sense… I don’t read, I’m not well-read, all my information comes from me sitting looking and listening to news.
I listen to NPR all the time, and I watch all my silly political joke shows, like Jon Stewart or John Oliver, Bill Maher, I watch Vice, and a lot of documentaries. That’s my information. Every once in a while I’ll pick up a New York Times and I’ll read it on a plane, but it’s a rarity. I look at everything online, or I listen to it, so I just don’t read, and I feel sad because my sons aren’t really big book readers either, and my wife does, which is kind of funny. I think I’ve even killed it out of her because I don’t, I hardly see her read anymore. I’ve just infected the whole world into not reading books.
I think it’s sad, and it’s kind of funny, because when you’re not doing all that, in the news media and reading and being that way, it’s very much the same thing as all the stuff people know about Photoshop, like I know Photoshop just by doing; I’ve never read a book on it, so I composite my stuff, I’ve made all my books that way, and anyone who watches me who knows Photoshop struggles and will be like “you know there’s quicker ways of doing that?” And I’m thinking, “show me the one, because I’m only going to remember one, then I’m going to move onto the next one.” I think what I love about not knowing is the happy accidents. When I’m scanning things or doing things in computers or processing images, they go, “we can’t do that.” But that was also said in photography, they used to say you can’t push your film 3 stops. Kodak will tell you, there’s amazing time-lapse photography, or timed exposures when you leave the camera open for an hour.
I used to do these things in college, I used to put cameras in the middle of my dark town I grew up in and I’d just let the camera find all the light, and in the end it would look like it was shot in the daytime. But there was something missing about it, which is kind of what’s great about it. If you look at…there’s this photographer who does 24 hour exposures, and the light actually will come through the lens and burn through. He does paper prints, so it’s a one-of-a-kind, one-off, he built the camera, light comes through the lens, and he tracks the sun. But at certain points the lens becomes, as a prism would, it starts to burn inside, so it actually starts to score the paper, or scoring the positive it’s making out of this paper. That kind of stuff, that’s where it kind of comes from. We can all take a basic picture, you know, and it’s an argument with my son, my son’s in photo school, he goes to an art high school. And the things he doesn’t know and the things he is told is so bad that I’ve pulled him out. His teachers are horrifying, it’s really really sad what they think is right or wrong is what they find the importance of what to teach a young mind is beyond my comprehension. And I’ve bitten my tongue, I haven’t called the guy or said anything to him, I feel like…
The rule of thirds, which is my favorite one, and I’d never heard that. I’ve been to photo school, I graduated, I’m actually a graduate of an art school, I have a degree in photography, which means nothing, nothing at all. But it’s very funny because, here’s my son and he’s coming home with all these things. He’s also taking a film class at the same time. I’m a DGA member, I’ve directed music videos and I’ve done stuff, and I’m watching him. And a whole bunch of them sat here one night making a movie, and I asked certain questions, and they couldn’t answer a lot of the questions. And they were basics.
“What are you going to shoot?”
“Well, we have this idea…”
“Did you guys do any kind of list…storyboard?”
“Oh, we’ve heard of storyboards.”
“Well, how about just forget the storyboards, because it’s too late in the game, let’s just make a list of master shots?”
“What’s a master shot?”
“A master shot basically starts the scene, shows you where you are, maybe give you an idea, broad scope, then you can come in on your idea.” We’re down the street, in the cul-de-saq, with a car, and it’s this whole idea. I’m watching them, and I stood back and just let them do it. Every once in a while I’ll step in and say, “what about this?” I wouldn’t give them the shot, I would say, “have you thought about…” – and I had to think about how to say it to them, I didn’t want to all inject my vision into what they were doing, it was more of a “have you thought of” kind of thing.
His teacher accuses him of me doing the assignments.
And it’s so funny, which is…
It does make sense, because no kid could have any kind of eye at all, zero! And I said “he’s grown up around this.” He’s grown up around coming to film sets and seeing film sets and seeing lights, and when I was directing. He comes to photo shoots, he works with me now, he’s done several photo shoots with me, like gone down, watched me light things.
We have a studio in the house, he puts a mannequin head up on a stand and puts lights on it and practices, and he tries things. He has friends come over, and he has friends who have clothing lines, and they’re trying to do that and he does pictures for them. Or they’re rappers, they want to be rappers or musicians, and they come over and he’ll do pictures for them. He’ll be like “dad, can I come in the studio?” and I’ll have 6 people coming over…it’s a whole thing. And I’ve got it, and I want to be supportive of it, but he did two assignments, and the assignments were really simple, they were things he and I had discussed, like where lights go, how you basically look at light…they weren’t, I mean, if I’d done them, they would have been totally different, but that’s great, it was his eye.
It’s kind of sad that it’s like that a lot of time with teaching. When I teach, it’s all about…there are teachers that basically teach when they constantly show you, and they don’t let you do. And if you don’t, to me, I don’t show anything, I just ask. Then I watch you fall apart, or I watch you do something that I go, “you can do that better,” and I walk over and just tweak you. And I watch, because if I influence you to be me, that means nothing. You’re not going to ever find yourself. So when I teach, I usually have twenty students, and I have a very simple structure. I don’t give them models, I make them shoot each other, because it’s not about that. It’s about seeing light, and understanding what light is. I taught at Art Center College of Design for half a semester.
No. Wasn’t a big fan of it, because, part of the students got it, and they all complained. It was funny, because years ago a friend of mine had me come to Pratt, and she was teaching at Pratt, and I walked into a conversation and she looked at me and said, “Frank, if you did a job and you didn’t hand it in, what would it be?” And I go “well, they would never work with me again.” And then she looked over at some of the students and goes, “so I asked you all this last week and you didn’t bother to do the assignment. What’s the difference?”
“Well, you don’t have three other classes or are requiring me to do X, Y, and Z…” They started giving me excuses. She looked at me and asked, “do you want to answer this one?” and I go, “sure. So what you’re saying is, that when you’re a photographer, you’ll do one job at a time, and that’s it. So those jobs better be really well paid jobs.” Because in one day you could be shooting two different jobs. I’ve shot two jobs in a day. In the morning I do this, and they still want their stuff the next day…you’ve chosen this, this is what it is, you have to think on your feet, you have to move through ideas, not everything is going to be amazing. But if somebody sees that you’re trying, you’re basically executing it, it’s great. So with my students, the two things that happened were very funny, the first week I was there, I wanted to get a sense of the class. The class was a structure for…
For Art Center, the class had a lot of different students in it, different levels. I’m not sure they were new ones, but they were 2nd, 3rd, and 4th year students. Some were graduating, some were just going to be there, and I just was curious at how much they knew, so I said to go out and do the basics, show me open shade, show me hard light, show me this and come back and do that.
And I watched one guy do it on the way to the class, walking to the class. I was laughing, and everyone’s pictures came up, and his came up and I could see it was how he walked to class. I’d had conversations with the students, discussed the pictures with each person as we did it, and I said to him, “how long did it take you to do this?” And he goes, “oh, I did it on the way to class.” I went to the next person and he said, “well, don’t you want to say anything?” And I said, “you know, if you don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck.” And the teacher, started laughing, turns to me and says, “I’ve always wanted to say that.” And I said, “you should, Who cares!” Some of the students didn’t like me, it was a weird year, it was a perfect year for them to really understand what it was like to be a professional, because in that year, I didn’t work. It was one of those years.
I said I would be there every Wednesday at a certain time, but there would be weeks I couldn’t make it, because of work, and it was the year that everything fell apart in the photo industry and nobody was working, and I was able to make almost every single class. And I said to them at the end of the year, “here’s a grand example of what it’s like to be a professional. You think you’re all going to walk out the door and be big, but there’s a hard reality to all this, a lot of times, that this was the year I didn’t work, I mean, I’m struggling this year. Coming here for my $100 to teach you is not doing me shit, it’s not even the gas money to get me over here and back” from Pasadena to, I lived in Encino at that point. I did it because I was passionate, I was curious. And I found I enjoy teaching workshops more because the people who would go…
Tremendously focused. You can watch people move, too, because you were with them eight hours. And granted, that’s the downfall of being in a college: you can’t really wrap your brain around somebody and really force them to do something different, or make them go, “this is what you’re going to do, do it again, do it again, do it again.” It’s all repetition, all art is repetition.
Photography is tremendously repetitious in the sense that you have to constantly use things over and over again to see how it goes, because otherwise you’ll keep doing the same thing over and over and over. I told the students to keep a light journal, which is my favorite, and you basically just, every day you see a piece of light that you like, and you take a picture whether it be like the light’s coming in and it’s all behind you and wrapping around, you take that picture. Or you look over how that light is coming off a soft sky, and there’s like this, and you make notes of that, so when you go to light a picture, that’s how you want to light your picture.
And I gave the grand example of sitting in an airplane, and you go through when the sun moves on an airplane and you watch it come through, those are all amazing things. In photography, the reason we take pictures is to capture light. It’s recording moments, but the light makes it so much more interesting, and that’s why journalism is so fascinating to me, because the things they see in that split second of all that, you know, granted the subject matter a lot of the time is so intense that you can, it’s hard to look away.
Yeah. I’d say I’ve taken thousands of pictures, probably even more than that, that no one is ever going to see, they’re just sitting in boxes, and it was more the moment of being there and taking the picture. I look at pictures, and I look at peoples work, and I go, “I got like 8 or 9 of those.” I know exactly what that picture is. And it’s funny how, I did the obvious; everyone does the obvious picture, because you’re standing at the Grand Canyon and you’re shooting out…what are you going to do? If an elephant stands in front of you, what are you going to do? There’s certain things you want to get into, and they’re just obvious pictures to take. But the process is amazing, I love kind of doing…sometimes even the wind up to the process is more exciting than actually taking the picture, which is kind of bizarre, I know. I always like when I take a picture and it wasn’t what I expected at all.
I think the happy moment of seeing a picture just suddenly happen, no matter how hard you try to do something else, is the beauty of photography and the artistic point of photography. I think that even happens doing advertising for TV and movies, that kind of stuff. Because you’re trying to basically answer this question and you end up in a space…like, we ended up in a space, and the client wanted the light to surround them, and I was trying to figure out the best way of doing it, like what would it be like if you were outside, all day long, and the sky was always there behind them, and then they were here, and we lit them from the front, but you kind of wanted that subtle separation on their body that kind of just fell because the sky falls down on top around you. And I realized that the ceilings were silver, but the roof of this warehouse space was probably 40 ft. off the ground. So we just took lights, went straight up as high as we could and we hang strobes off the ceiling; so the whole room became the bounce board. By the time it came back down to us, it was so non-nondescript that you couldn’t tell where it came from. And you couldn’t see it unless you put it up on the screen and looked at it, from looking at it in the picture it would be like, “oh, that’s great,” but then you suddenly saw it as you looked into it. It’s just using what’s around. So, is the picture I shot with that any good? I could care less about the picture at that point. But, the process was a lot of fun, because I was able to kind of make something out of nothing. I’ve got three jobs right now making something out of…I mean, they’re telling me the space that they want to shoot these pictures and I’m laughing like, “eh… Okay.”
We were doing one year of Mad Men, and they wanted a studio shoot, and we built a black box, a 20’x20’ black box on a tennis court, because it was the only place to put it up. So we got all these 20×20’ silks, and of course it rained, of all times it rained, so luckily we had thought ahead and covered the whole thing in plastic. So the morning of the shoot came around, my assistant is sitting there on the stage taking poles and pushing them up against the silks to knock the water out, it was coming down in sheets down the side of it; luckily we had put that up, otherwise it would have all fallen apart. You just have to build things.
I did a movie poster shoot, and they were shooting a cornfield, near a cornfield, and there was no place for us to build a studio, so I went and rented a large Ryder cube truck, and it was long enough, and I built it into a studio. I just had to figure out, “we have to light the background, are you guys okay with white cause white’s gonna be the easiest.” So we light everything from behind, backlight all the white, clip it off to the whole thing and stretch the stuff, put white paper on the ground, clamp it off to the side…the whole thing can move, so if we had to move the studio, which we did twice, we could move it as a whole entity. Just open the door up, took fans to air it out, and we shot in the back of this thing. We would put the lift gate down, so people could stand up in it. I had the lift gate to back off to, then we back the equipment truck to the back of that, then put a silk over top between the two of those, so the client could sit there and look at the monitor to see what was going on. It’s always just solving problems.
It is process, process is fun. Because at a certain point, you’re just taking pictures, you know, “oh, I get to shoot you today,” boom boom boom, and you have to make sure that picture is going to match the picture you’re going to shoot an hour from now, two hours from now, three hours, four hours…they have to all line up, because they then have to composite them. And you can wait 12 hours for somebody to show up sometimes, or you get somebody at seven in the morning and somebody at midnight. That picture has to be identical so they can composite the two to make the movie poster, or TV advertisement, so…that’s fun, I like it. I kind of enjoy all that. And then basically taking it beyond where the expectations are, or what the client is, the certain light, the certain idea, so we’re always, my guys are always trying to basically figure out, “have you tried this light, have you…” And I’m always open to listening to what they have to say because they’ll work for other people, and they’ll say, “hey, we used this other light this other day that was really cool,” and I’ll see what that’s like, then I’ll try to figure out how it makes sense to me. I don’t want to use it how they’re using it, I want to see how it makes sense to me how to use it. Then I forget, because I’ll fifty-five this year, and I’ve looked at things so many different ways that I forget. I mean, I carry four cases, I used to carry twelve, back when I was a film photographer, so we had a film case, two camera cases, there were bodies and lenses, all this other stuff. Nowadays, the four cases I carry are tripods and all lighting modifiers, which is all grid cases and grids and reflectors and little things that I put on the front of strobe heads to make them do the things I like, a twelve dollar silver umbrella I found, all this kind of stuff. That’s what I carry around nowadays. And I hardly ever carry a camera, I’ll carry my own little personal cameras, but nothing else. Then I have a bag, and my bag always has all of my drawing and my journal stuff in it, it’s things I can take. Sometimes I’ll bring a Polaroid to just to shoot a Polaroid; something immediate for myself, or to hold it, just cause it’s the whole thing of touching.
I think the drawing came out of just getting dirty, because I would sit there and draw with stuff and then just start rubbing the lead, and moving the lead around my fingers. I could just throw the piece of paper away, but it’s the idea of watching something shift by the act of me touching it. Which is not as interesting as me touching a button, or something on a screen…I’ve even tried the Wacom pads, and it doesn’t…
I like seeing my thumb get blue, or dirty, you know. It’s funny, because I wear white all the time, but I’m always a mess, I’m always dirty. Everyone always goes, “there’s something on your clothes,” and I’m just like, “yeah, okay.”
Is it perfection? I’m not sure it’s…it’s a struggle not to make it perfect, maybe. It’s fun to watch things become without you having too much of a statement on it, I guess. Like pictures…let ‘em happen. Accept your moment. If I’m out here doing your portrait right now, if you said to me that I have to do your portrait right this second and this is how I have to do it, this would be the light I have. The perfect moment would be over there, the light is coming off the sky, it’s beautiful, it bounces back, you’re beautifully lit, it’s like, done. But if you’re going through a magazine, is that going to be the picture you stop and look at? It’s like every other picture in a magazine. So then the point is, where can I find the picture here that is our moment, that only right now, because of what the light’s doing, of the time of day, of how it’s bouncing off the walls and moving around here: is that the picture I want to take? Because that is our moment, that is more a moment than doing that, you know what I’m saying?
Oh no, because you can’t just apply anything to anybody, you have to look at the face. I mean, that’s the hardest thing for me, when you’re doing a cast of nine people, and you have a 12-year-old girl and a 70-year-old woman and they pick a light. Or if you have a cast of men, and you have one woman in the middle of it, and they want this really really hard light put on everybody.
Yeah. How do you incorporate that person into that? You have to look at each face and realize what light, because not everybody can be shot profile, not everyone can be shot with flat light…if you lit people certain ways, you wouldn’t even know who they were.
Going through pictures of George, when I took pictures of George Miller the other day, it was very funny how, the softer the lens, the less he looked like himself. And I had that happen years ago when I was shooting Trent Reznor, and I was trying so hard to use this one camera with him because I thought it would be really cool, and it was a disaster. And luckily, I don’t know where it came from, about an hour into it, because we had him for two hours, it suddenly hit me and I just said, “fuck it, put this camera away, give me this,” and I started shooting with everything else, and then the pictures happened. But sometimes, it’s the same thing, you can’t force one thing on somebody, there is no one way to basically say, “if I always put this light here, everyone is going to look pretty.”
It’s like eh, they might, but they also might look flat and mushy. Some great lined face or chiseled face, if you put too soft a light on it, it’s going to look awful. You’ve got to give it some kind of tooth sometimes, help it out. And I like the interaction…
That’s what it is, it’s part of taking a portrait of somebody. It’s the conversation with the blank canvas, if you think about it. It’s the same thing as looking at the blank page of a journal. It’s like, “what are we doing?” There’s a pile of stuff sitting here, that’s been sitting here forever, how am I going to put this together to say something? You look at somebody, and most people nowadays have been shot so much they have no interest in being in front of your camera, so the conversation starts out by, you know, what can you get the person to do to slow down just to basically have a moment. And usually, like when I shot George the other day, I was supposed to have him for an hour, then they came out and said can you do this in 30, and then they said how about 15, and you have to know that that is how it’s always going to go. So I’m like it’s fine, whatever. But from that, you got to know that you have to get the person interested enough to kind of sit there and be themselves for a moment. Not who they think they are, not who they want to be, just that honest look right in the camera for a second. And a lot of people don’t want to have that happen, and that’s fine, you know what I mean, especially doing editorial is where you really want to do that.
I remember, I spent a day with Sam Rockwell, and he showed up and he was hung over. And he apologized, and he just sat there and you could see it in his face, and I was like, “cool, let’s go.” So I just kept on shooting him as he moved around, and of course he was supposed to be wearing suits, and he didn’t wear any underwear, and he looks at the stylist and goes, “did you bring any underwear?” And he’s like, “no,” and he’s like “okay whatever, let’s do it.” So he’s just moving around, and several times he’d be lying on the couch between shots, and I just started shooting him there, because it made more sense for the day. And he was great, he was amazing. I think even if he wasn’t hung over and wasn’t under the weather, whatever, he still would have been that person, he has that thing about him that didn’t take him off his game, just had more to kind of offer, in a sense of that, and he allowed me to do it, because some people would be like, “no, I don’t want to be that way.”
It’s great when somebody wants to play.
Yeah, I’ve had people walk in and go, “you’re the last person I want ever to photograph me, I think your style is too dark and it’s weird, and you’re not somebody who should photograph someone like me and I don’t know why they picked you.” And I say, “maybe that’s the fun part, maybe together we can find the picture that is what we would do together.” And then they kind of look at you cause you don’t get offended by it…I just keep smiling and say, “okay, let’s do this, let’s try this, you don’t like that let’s try this…” And then you’ll find the picture that you two are supposed to take together. The thing about it, and I don’t see it as much as others, but people always say, when they’ve seen the photos, “yup, that’s you.” And I say, “I don’t know if that’s me there, but if you think that’s me, then great.” It’s obviously because I edit my own stuff, I don’t let anyone else edit it, and all my portfolios on my website I edited and put together, no one else does it. I’m a little bit of a control freak, how’s that?
But you know what it is, everyone says I’m a control freak…I always kind of laugh about it when I say “I’m a control freak about that…” In doing it, I see what I was trying to say, or I see how some things go together. It’d be like saying to someone: “here’s the canvas, here’s the paint, this is what I want it to do.” Or even the sense of, it was the hardest thing, I had a show in Amsterdam, it was the hardest thing watching somebody else hang my show. And I trusted him, because the guy is amazing, and even the point of what he picked out of my work to hang on the wall was like, “really, that’s what you want? You want this 4 feet by 6 feet? Why do you want that print that big, I’ve never printed anything that big in my life.” And he goes, “it’s going to sell, you just have to trust me, it’s going to be amazing.”
And sure enough, he sold them. And I was like, “okay, I’m not the smartest guy in the room, I’ve got someone else who can see my work in a different way.” I think when it comes to what I have to go out and recreate and do for people…I just finished the overview, the overview of my website is everything. I just did a new one, just went up this morning and I hadn’t done a new one in two years; my website hasn’t been updated in two years! Which is hard for me, I just don’t have time to do it. So a new music section is up, and I added stuff in for all the rest of the things. And I decided that the journals didn’t make any sense to have on right now, and my sons, two boys, which I have the whole thing about my sons growing up kind of on there…I think it’s kind of run the gamut, the two boy thing, because now they’re teenagers, they’re not cute anymore. They’re annoying teenagers, which is kind of funny, and they’re still funny and do things that make me laugh, and that are photographically interesting, to be photographed. I saw this amazing documentary on Ralph Steadman, who is one of my heroes.
I love Ralph. The crushing point is that, I’ve only met two of my heroes, photographically. Luckily they were both amazing experiences. The third one I chose not to meet, and thank god, because if he had looked at me and said, “I don’t get it,” I’d be like, “aaarrrgghh!” IT would hurt. And it’s like anybody ever walking up to me and saying that they’re totally inspired by me, and me not getting what they do. So I am always very conscious of that, I never tell anyone that they can’t be a photographer. Everyone can be a photographer.
I met Robert Frank, and I spent a lot of time with Duane Michaels, who were my two favorites. Irving Penn was who I didn’t meet.
Yeah, and I had an opportunity to meet him.
Yeah, but I’ve heard a lot of things about him, too. His studio manager booked me one day and said “would you like to meet him?”
“Yeah, I’m okay, you know what, I’m totally fine. I don’t need to meet him to have him validate me or anything.”
That would have been the only reason to go meet him, because it wasn’t like I was at some place meeting him. I would have to physically go see him. And she said, “well do you have any of his books?”
“I have a lot of his books,”
“Would you like them signed?”
“Sure, how many?”
“Just give me everything.” So I gave her every book I have of Irving Penn’s, and the only caveat was that they had to be signed to somebody. They weren’t just signed.
So they’re signed to my sons, I had him sign them to my sons, because my wife and I have doubles of books, and so they all have them signed by Mr. Penn. And then Robert Frank I met, I was shooting John Hiatt, for…who is…
Well done! That’s an abstract one!
I was shooting John for Rolling Stone for a bullshit little quarter-page picture, and he was doing Stolen Moments With John, and I’d been flown out here to shoot him for Rolling Stone, and said he got there really late, I was really hustling to take his picture really fast, and I take this crappy Polaroid and I throw it to the ground, we’re in this alley way off of Sunset. And I’m shooting John and he says, “I’m really really sorry, but we were doing this really great shoot, and I told the photographer to come meet you, because I thought you might really want to meet him.” And I say, “okay yeah, we kind of have to go, the light’s going,” and I’m shooting and my assistant is standing there, and I see my assistant kind of turn, and there’s this scattered grey-haired man with a down jacket, and an old camera bag around this thing, and he walks up, he’s picking up the Polaroid, and just as I’m about to say to the assistant tell him to not do that, John looks at me and goes, “Oh Frank, this is Robert Frank.”
And it was just like Whaaaa, in the middle of trying to get this awful portrait I was doing of John Hiatt, I’m meeting one of my gods. And that’s how I met him, and to me, that’s how it was interesting. And he was amazing because we were two photographers meeting, he tremendously appreciative of what I was doing of like, “oh my god, this is really kind of interesting what you’re doing.” And he was, Robert Frank is the preeminent like amazing kind of fly-on-the-wall photographer, in a sense to me. I think he just sees things and doesn’t really give a crap what anybody else says, just his eye is amazing. And then Duane Michaels I taught with out in Palm Springs, he was teaching and he was being honored, and we sat and had dinners together, and I got to just observe him, and sit across from him, which is the great thing about Palm Springs Photo Festival, is I’ve been able to meet a lot of people that I’ve liked…I don’t know why I got on the thing about photographers, but…
Yes! Steadman, I just like his insanity, and he had, Johnny Depp did a documentary on him, if you haven’t seen it, it’s pretty unbelievable. And it’s called…
Yeah, For No Good Reason (is the title of the documentary). Which is why you do art: for no good reason. His process is like, “I’m just going to do this, and I’m going to see what happens, if I can’t do it I’m going to…” I know what that is, I know what that is to be that. I would love to be him, I love his insanity, I love his how he jabs at people and how he’s able to draw and how he’s able to kind of make people really look at things through his art, I think it’s amazing. I wish I was that person, that’d be great. With that, I love his kind of throwing things at things, which is exactly what I do with a lot of my work, I just kind of throw things at it some times and see how it goes.
From that, I basically was trying to think of things to call a new piece on my website
that would be a category you could look at that would say that would be like, “this is kind of what the journals and everything else are.” So I made a category called “Just Because.” So it’s going to be a category in there, it’s going to be everything from drawings to journals to photographs that I’ve chosen to take, and have no rhyme or reason why I took them, or nudes, or anything that I had shot. So it’s going to be this mish-mash, just completely…they could be from jobs, things people have seen in the past, and blah blah blah. So with that, came that, and it is in complete inspiration of Steadman, and granted I get a lot of people say, “that’s very Steadman,” and it’s like, that’s fine, I don’t really care. I’m not trying to steal, I could never do what he does, and it usually is incorporated within what I do, I mean, it would be…my work would be closer to do a Sigmar Polke than a Ralph Steadman, cause I draw on my photographs.
So, Steadman doesn’t draw on his photographs. I mean, he did the thing with Polaroids and everything, but he doesn’t…it’s a very different kind of thing, to me. I think it’s just one more step in the process of throwing shit, and granted I scrawl and I have my little characters I draw…
It’s the same way of saying that people will look at me and say, “that’s very, your style is very much this, or your style is very much this.” We are all influenced by who we chose to be inspired by, the reason why we started. David Bailey was a big photographer that I completely emulated when I was young. One light, outside, over powered day light, black and white, intense portraits. That was two years of my career, that’s all I did, by myself, my bicycle, Hassleblad, one lens, Norman 200B: if I had to do your portrait, that was how you got shot. They were very much in the vein of his pictures of that time frame, and that’s fine, I don’t care, and I learned from that and went to the next thing, and then I would get obsessed by hair and makeup lights, like I would go down to Canal Street and buy multiple outlets and things to put lights in, and I’d carry them around, and that’s how I’d shoot everything. Iit was a constantly just learning of what I could do with what each one of these things is.
Yeah, that I made myself. Through that comes the ability to think on my feet and kind of pull from things. It’s sad, because photographers now rely on their assistants, and it’s funny, I worked with a digital tech recently, I had to use another digi-tech because the network wouldn’t work with mine, and I think nowadays people don’t understand that the person standing next to you in the digital, if you have a full time digital person, which he’s not my full time he works for other people, but if you have somebody whose work you like, and you want that, and that’s the person that comes with you and does it, you’d think that that would complete the thought. It’s like carrying your lab around, almost, saying, “this is my printer.” It’s like having someone take a picture and then saying, “but I don’t want your printer to print it, I want my printer to print it.” In the end, it’s fine, it’s TV advertising or whatever else, but this young guy came on, and he’s this really sweet guy, but I would stand there and he’d start telling my assistants things like, “you should look at this because I think you’re a half stop off, or you should probably put more light over there.” And he was talking to the assistants, and I looked at him and said, “I don’t know who you work with, that’s cool, but you’re probably not used to working with photographers who light their own pictures.” And he says, “no I’m not,” and I said, “well that’s what it is, I’m the one that lights the pictures, so I’m the one you talk to and then I’ll dictate to the guys, they’re used to that.” Because my guys turned to me and didn’t know what to say. It is what it is, they’re used to a certain thing, and there’s a lot of people who don’t light, or they have one light they do, but there’s a whole group of assistants in Los Angeles that are really amazing at lighting, they haven’t become photographers, they just became lighting technicians, and they get paid very well for doing that, and they should get paid well for doing that, because they’re the ones creating the light.
Yeah. It is what it is, it’s what the industry has become, and it’s fine. That’s why anybody and their brother can become a photographer, if you have a vision you can basically make a nice composition, or can figure out what it is, you can always find somebody to light it for you in town, at this point. Which, when I was directing, was my biggest gripe, you’re standing there, and it took me a while to find the DPs I could work with that would allow me to talk to their gaffers and their grips, and say, “can we put the light over here, can you do this…” Where they’re used to the directors talking to the DP and the DP being the one, Because he could basically be the one who knew the technology or the words or the proper lingo, but I knew it all, because I had done it all. I spent the first twelve years of my life lighting my own pictures and being by myself taking pictures, I didn’t have crews of four to five people, or a whole truckload of gear, or that kind of stuff. If I sit there on the ground while we’re lighting things and I’m not a part of it, they don’t just give me the camera and go, “okay, shoot!” We’ve had the conversation of how I want them to do it, we all tweak together, which is fine, it should be that way.
Yeah, I like it. But that’s where you’re learning, from the moment, you’re in that moment, and you’re trying to create something and you look at the space, and this is what I’ve been given, how am I going to create a picture in this space? The light is, like in Visions of Light, an amazing documentary…
Everyone should see it. Anyone who is creative should see that documentary, period. When they say that you walk in with the excitement of striking that first light, that’s true. You put that first light up, and all of a sudden it tells you so much more about what else is going to happen. I had a couple guys who had worked for a couple big photographers, and I would walk in, the first thing I would do if I was taking a portrait of someone, like if I was doing a portrait of you here, I’d set up the camera and I would take a Polaroid of just this and see what was given to me, or maybe what I wanted to accent. So if I liked that the light was coming in and kind of lighting the side of your face, but I wanted a little more, maybe I would put a light out the window, because the light coming through the window is going to basically pull back enough, we’ll have a similar effect, too, but a little more poignant point to it, coming through the window, as the natural light is. And then I can drop the room and drop it in exposure, but I know I don’t have to light the room any more. It’s simple things like that, instead of us going, “turn all the lights off, I want to make my own picture in here,” which Art Streiber and I have laughed back and forth at all the time with each other, he and I have lectured together, and it’s hysterical. He’ll say one thing, and I’ll say the polar opposite, and I think it’s become almost the Odd Couple of photography in the sense, we’ve done this several times together, sat together in doing this, and it’s an interesting thing, and it’s great. Because we all have a different way of doing it. Nothing’s wrong, nothing’s right.