THE PHOTOGRAPHER WHO USED TO SHOOT THE ROCK GOD
Maybe his name won’t say too much to you, but everyone has probably seen some of his photographs for one of the movies or TV-series he worked for: Jason Bourne, Harry Potter, Split, Thor, Pirates of the Carribean, Assassin’s Creed, The Walking Dead, American Horror Story… His curriculum is impressive and the long list of actors he immortalized in many amazing shots: Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson, Will Smith, Jared Leto or Dennis Quaid… but also directors like David Lynch and George Miller. Frank Ockenfels 3 obviously has a great portfolio in the music business (R.E.M., Iggy Pop, Garbage, P.J. Harvey, Soundgarden, Fiona Apple, Lorde, Nirvana, Tom Waits… just to mention a few) but my interest focused on him because he photographed David Bowie a remarkable number of times. He is probably the photographer who worked more with the man who fell to Earth in the second part of his career, from when he was the leader of Tin Machine until the beginning of the new millenium. His photos were used for David’s album and booklets (Earthling, Hours… , Reality) and also appeared in major magazines.
I tried to contact the man and he was so kind to grant me an interview. This a great opportunity, as he is not only an excellent photographer but also an uncommonly talented artist. He shared some of his memories about David, shared something about his strange creative proces and the Bowie book he never released… yet!
: Mr. Ockenfels, I recently realized that I have seen your photos for years on different medias – cinema, magazines, TV, CDs, … – without knowing you were the author. As you are usually involved in so many projects I’d like to ask if it is essential for you to be recognized by the audience?
FO3: My name should not be reason to like the work; the work should define itself. Even with the internet and video interviews, I still have a certain anonymity. I am known in my industry but a year ago I did a lecture and asked to give a show of hands who knew my work, about 25% did. At the end of the class most realized they had seen some of my work. The TV-series and movies I’ve had the opportunity to work on are high profile and they are some of the most creative.
: I am fascinated by your work, firstly because your photos to actors, singers and other famous people are simply amazing, but also because I find your collages so beautiful. I think your cross-fertilisation of photos, drawings and words is really interesting. As an artist do you prefer to realize pure photos or the latter?
FO3: Sometimes I make images that I know I will collage and others fall together later. I often create in my subconscious. When I create for myself I try not to over plan, just allow the unknown to happen.
: Since I love your portraits both in black and white and in color, it seems to me that in the first ones you prefer the soften or hollow shades, while, when you use the color, it is strong and accentuated. Is it because you perceive black and white as introspective and color as more energetic?
FO3: I think we see clearer in black and white, color distracts. If I shoot color it has to have more than a purpose of what is real. As in shadow or high light in black and white it should grab you and take you through the image.
: The most amazing thing for me is that it seems you have incorporated the disfunctional effects of your dyslexia in your projects. I am a teacher and I think there are elements of dysgraphia in the words you sometimes add on your collages. Am I right? It’s incredible that you used what once was considered a disadvantage as a successful ingredient in your art.
FO3: A friend of mine, George, makes fun of me for lack of punctuation when I write and once again I believe this is my subconscious at work. Misspelling words or using the wrong words. Because I am dyslexic I have a hard time reading or writing. When I was learning words I wrote backwards and I still do. I found my stream of consciousness easier if I wrote backwards and no words were left out. It was one of the things David loved about my journals, he said he likes the ‘design it created’.
: Do you think that dyslexia, in a certain way, has helped you to bring you to the visual Arts?
FO3: Yes! It was easier to express myself through photography than reading or writing.
: I will not ask you about the session with Barack Obama, because I know it happened on a really bad day for you, but it would be great to know if there is a person you would you like to photograph again…
FO3: The day I photographed the democratic nominee Senator Barack Obama was memorable in so many ways. In the morning I photographed the first African American president I got news my mother had slipped into a coma. I flew up to stand by her bed with my sister and we took our mother off life support. I don’t often think of second shoots with people but I have done many since I shoot a lot of TV and do advertising. I photograph actors in character costumes most often. I often photograph actors I’ve always wanted to shoot, but not how I would want do for myself.
: You collaborated with David Bowie 16 times, more or less. From 1991 to 2006. Some of your pics were managed by other artists – like Rex Ray – and became covers for David’s albums, like Earthling and Hours… and Reality. Which session with him are you particularly proud of?
FO3: It’s hard to pick one. There are images from each shoot that define who I was at that time.
: On the Net I saw an image of some of your photos to David, cut and overlapping. Could you tell me something more about these?
FO3: I worked with my printer doing an edition of 20×24 silver gelatin prints. David always sent me test strips. I often use them in collages.
: I know a book about your sessions with Bowie was scheduled around 2009, for a big publishing company, but then it was cancelled. In 2010, during a interview, you revealed that you were still working on it, and the book also was suppose to contain also your conversations with David. Will it be published one day or another? Why was it cancelled?
FO3: David had made a comment years ago that maybe I should do a book of our 16 shoots since I was one of the few people to have shot him that many times. I put something together and broke it into 16 chapters, one for each shoot. I flew to New York City and showed him, and talked about it, about the images I chose and asked him what he felt about what I used. I told him I felt it would be great to sit and talk about each shoot. ‘The good and the bad’. I met with the people from a publishing company and gave them a chance to show me what they wanted to do. I felt they missed the point of the book and felt the design was weak. They announced the release of the book without my knowledge and I heard of it because David had been made aware of it. He called me saying he was upset that I hadn’t talked to him before publishing. I told him I had no publisher, and now I am still looking for a publisher who will embrace the images and the story.
: Have you ever surprised Bowie?
FO3: My first shoot with David was in Los Angeles, CA. I was the last person to shoot him in a long day of various publicity shoots for the second Tin Machine album. He walked in and asked me what I would do differently than the other 3 photographers that day. I smiled and then held up a flashlight and said “I was going to paint them with light” I said. “With WHAT?” he replied. Then David smiled and said: “Show me”. I created a polaroid and showed him. He smiled again and said: “You win, that is different!”
: I noticed you have a tattoo on your left hand, three ‘points’ that usually appear on your collages. What does it mean? Does it refer to your surname?
FO3: It has two meanings, I am FWO3 – OOO. It is also my sons and I: Beckett, Frank and Cooper.
: Your son is interested in photography. Am I right? The best piece of advice you gave him?
FO3: I have two sons, both photographers. Cooper’s photographs are influenced by his mother who is a painter. Beckett shoots portraits but is his own man. He is crafting his eye, creating his own vision, but there is obviously some influence by me, although he doesn’t look for my guidance, not in structure or critique.
Interview conceived and conducted by Matteo Tonolli
(Thanks to Elena and Jackie!)
The complete interview to Frank Ockenfels 3 is available only on the the third number of our fanzine!