Despite the pervasiveness of his vision, Frank remains one of the most humble and approachable artists I’ve ever had the pleasure of interviewing. We caught up at Sydney’s Black Eye Gallery, the day after he delivered a talk to a sold out crowd of eager strangers. As a young father darted across the gallery floor to cover his toddler’s eyes before she reached an image of a bare-assed woman, perched on all fours, we spoke about his years photographing Bowie, his ever-growing collection of cameras and the nature of celebrity.
Can you tell us a little about your life as a young person?
I was a horrendous student. I failed everything and had absolutely no focus. Then one day I just started taking photos and my mother was so supportive - she assembled a dark room in our basement and even though she was a single parent, whatever money she could find would go toward helping me get film. It was a really good, loving upbringing despite the fact that I would only see my dad about twice a year. It was strange to have that kind of support at home, because taking photographs wasn’t something people really did in my town. I remember entering a photo competition and winning most of the prizes because no one else had entered (laughs).
Who were your visual inspirations growing up?
I was a big Duane Michals fan - I liked how he’d draw and write on his photos. He was definitely a big influence on my work with my journals. I also loved the portraiture of David Bailey; just the starkness of his work and his playfulness with warm light. He would do these environmental portraits which I loved. He’d just go out on the street and take people’s portraits with natural light, which is something I love to do too.
As I got older, suddenly photographers weren’t as exciting to me and it became all about art. It could be a Richard Serra sculpture or Francis Bacon painting that inspired me. I’ve always enjoyed work that is somehow flawed. When I see things that aren’t defective in some way I usually think they’re kind of boring.
How many cameras do you have? I’m just imagining like shelf after shelf of cameras…Oh my god, all of my shelves and now even my drawers are full! It’s ridiculous! I’ll be in Nashville or somewhere shooting an album cover, and I’ll fall into some camera store and buy a random one just knowing I can put film into it and spend the rest of my day in the hotel room playing around with the shutter. Then I might never use it again.
A friend of mine in New York used to own a camera store and he’d adapt them for me. I’d tell him what I was trying to do and he’d custom make them for me, depending on the ideas I’d have for a shoot. It was always about breaking the rules of what you were supposed to do with photography.
FOR OVER 30 YEARS FRANK OCKENFELS III HAS PHOTOGRAPHED THE MOST INFLUENTIAL FIGURES ON THE PLANET, DOCUMENTING EACH ENCOUNTER WITHIN THE PAGES OF HIS EXTRAORDINARILY TACTILE, SLIGHTLY INSANE JOURNALS. IF YOU WATCH TELEVISION, FOLLOW POLITICS, BUY RECORDS OR VISIT THE CINEMA, CHANCES ARE YOU’RE ALREADY FAR MORE ACQUAINTED WITH HIS WORK THAN YOU REALISE. THIS INTERVIEW WAS CONDUCTED IN LATE 2015 AND APPEARS IN ISSUE 5 OF COLLIDE ART & CULTURE MAGAZINE.
And I guess that’s why your style is so unique to you as an artist.
I get asked if I do a lot of Photoshop because my images can be hard to replicate - but to be honest I don’t even know how to use Photoshop properly. It’s all about playing with the equipment you’ve got access to until you discover a style you like. Someone asked me just last night, “What do I need to know about photography, should I take classes?” and I just told them “You don’t need to know anything - just go out there, take photos and the rest will work itself out”.
Some cameras will work for certain things, but you learn through trial and error. I tried to use a Polaroid portrait camera to shoot Trent Reznor once and it was such a disaster. I had this idea of doing a great 4 x 5 portrait of him, then he showed up with this hair that looked like a crow. I mean, it was really coming off his face!
I remember that hair - I don’t think he shot that look with anyone other than you…
It was disastrous! It just looked so ridiculous and I was like, “Oh fuck, what am I supposed to do with this?”. Eventually I just told him that I really wanted to shoot him in profile. He was actually a really great guy - so supportive and not negative at all. Things happen though. What would you say was the most challenging shoot you’ve ever done?Everyone is challenging these days. They’ll rock up to a shoot and hand me a stack of drawings or lighting references and say, “This is exactly what I need”. Thing is, there’ll be like three different images - one backlit, one front lit and one that’s shot at night, so it’ll be like ‘Which of these do you actually want?’. And all the while you have to remain incredibly… nice (laughs).
Can you tell me a bit about your journals? I know you’re known primarily for your photography, but the journals are so interesting.
They started as tech journals; they were really just a place where I could keep notes on various lighting configurations in case I wanted to recreate certain pictures. From there I began ranting in the margins and adding to the pictures with ink, or cutting and pasting Polaroids, and they took on a life of their own.
Do the journals feel private to you? Is it difficult to share them with others?
There was a time when I didn’t want to show anyone, but I got past it. To me journals are there to express every facet of what’s going on in your brain at certain times. My journals document my growth as a person - being single, being married, having kids. You could go through my journals and see the various stages of my life - even the times where my wife and I were going through bullshit. It’s all there visually and I don’t try to censor it. As an artist, you shouldn’t give a fuck about what anyone else thinks about your work.
You had the opportunity to do 15 shoots with David Bowie over the years. You first shot him in ’89 right?
Right, it was around the time of Tin Machine. I painted him and the band with light for that piece.
And he contacted you to shoot him again shortly afterward?
I was shooting him for Rolling Stone the second time around. He was doing a new album and they needed some shots of him, and he actually asked for me by name. So I did that shoot with him and got to go into the studio to photograph him while he recorded an album. I remember I had just broken up with my girlfriend, so I was really bummed out - then one day he pulled me aside and invited me along to see Laurie Anderson with him, Iman and his assistant Coco. We went to the show then piled into a town car and went to a restaurant for dinner. We spent a long time talking about art and politics, and from there whenever he needed someone to take pictures he’d just call me. It was great because he’s such a creative and supportive person. A lot of actors and musicians aren’t.
In recent years your work has gained a cult following. How does it feel, going from someone who has traditionally captured celebrity portraits to being quite a public figure yourself?
It’s weird! My wife makes fun of me because I’m really bad at taking compliments (laughs). We’ll be out and someone will come up and compliment me on one of my pieces - I’ll instinctively go to dismiss it and my wife will be like, “Jesus Christ, can you just take a compliment?”. I don’t know why I’m like that. I’ve never been good with compliments.
So many photographers are far more comfortable observing the object of attention or affection, rather than being it.
It’s very humbling, I was just talking to my Studio Manager about the talk I did here (Black Eye Gallery). Fifty people turned up and paid just to hear me talk - that’s so bizarre to me. In LA I might expect that because I have friends there, but to be on the other side of the planet and not know anyone… I told my wife about it and she said “Yeah, you’re that guy now” (laughs).
I saw you worked with Die Antwoord recently. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Oh, that was great because I was a fan of them even before I was asked to go over and do the photos for the movie Chappie. When we showed up in Joburg we got a call from Ninja asking us to have dinner with him. So me, the Art Director and a few other people head over to this restaurant and the two of them show up looking exactly how you would expect them to. Ninja is there in his boxer shorts and t-shirt, Yolandi is glowing like a silver orb and ordering champagne. The movie Chappie is just them. There’s no acting there. Ninja is very specific about what he gets involved inbecause he’s worked very hard to cultivate his image and character, you know what I mean? But as people they were unbelievable to spend time with. They were incredibly lovely and so, so funny.
You’ve already accomplished so much as a photographer. Where do you see things heading for you in future? What’s your dream project?
That’s a really good question. I think I want to make a dark room in my house again so I can start doing my work from home. Epson approached me about making a printer for me, but I told them I would probably just cover it in paint and screw with it so it doesn’t print perfect images anymore. Perfect is boring!
INTERVIEW BY ADAM DE VILLE | ALL ART & PHOTOS BY FRANK OCKENFELS 3