Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – 24 September 2021

This week on Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – kick off this long weekend in Melbourne (lucky us, how many states have holidays for the football grand final?) with my interview with American entertainment photographer Frank Ockenfels which I wrote in 2015 for AFR Weekend. Plus check out Magnet Galleries virtual exhibition Still Living at home in Lockdown which ‘opens’ on Sunday.

Also Shiho Fukada (filmmaker and photojournalist) and Keith Bedford (filmmaker and photo editor) have released a new film, Living While Black, In Japan featuring Rivonne Moore, Henry Moreland Seals, Tamru Grant, Ebony Bowens, LaTanya Whitaker, and Tyrone Jones.

From the archive:

Frank Ockenfels: The photographer who lights up the stars

Adrian Brody (C) Frank Ockenfels

Asking David Bowie to take his shirt off is a daring way to start a conversation with one of the world’s most celebrated musicians, but that’s exactly what American entertainment photographer Frank Ockenfels did.

It was 1989 and Bowie was on a publicity tour for his band Tin Machine. Ockenfels was the last photo shoot for the day. Bowie asked him what he was going to do that no one else had done. “I said, well if you guys all take your shirts off I’m going to light paint you with the flash light. David started laughing and said okay I’ve got to see this”.

The dare paid off and for the next six years Ockenfels collaborated with Bowie on numerous shoots. “David would call me up and we’d discuss the album he was working on and create images that would illustrate what was going on in his life. It was an amazing time”.

Amazing and daunting. “I was working with probably one of the most creative musicians to ever walk the planet. As an artist himself David is a tremendous painter and sculptor and he can be photographed by anybody, but for a time he just wanted me. Every time the phone rang and he asked me for something else, I was like, oh god what am I going to bring differently to the table?”

(C) Frank Ockenfels
(C) Frank Ockenfels
(C) Frank Ockenfels

But Ockenfels is rarely short of ideas and solving creative problems are the hallmark of a thirty-year career that has established him as one of the leading entertainment portrait photographers in the US. Asked what is the key to his success, he is resolute: “anything can be done, there are no rules”.

His love affair with the camera began when he was a teenager growing up in Lockport, a suburb of Niagara Falls. In his final year of high school he was the Yearbook photographer charged with shooting hundreds of portraits. In 1978 he moved to New York City to attend the School of Visual Arts where “the street was our campus”. There he learned to read light as others would words.

After college he worked as a photographic assistant before getting his “big break” in 1988 with a portrait of Tracy Chapman for Rolling Stone magazine. Her album took off and the photograph ran full page. All of a sudden the phone started ringing. “Rolling Stone was your license to kill at that point,” says Ockenfels who found himself in demand, shooting the hottest names in music.

During this time Ockenfels experimented with a range of photographic styles, jotting down ideas in his journals. “At first I was just making tech notes. That morphed into keeping Polaroids. I started drawing on them or just ranting about what I did and didn’t like about the shoot. Then I began collaging”.

These journals inadvertently became his portfolio, conveying a distinct visual signature. “They were just for me, but clients started looking at them and asking me if I could do certain styles they saw in the journals”.

Ockenfels journals are now considered works of art and he’s published various limited editions.

Angelina Jolie from Frank Ockenfels 3 (C) Frank Ockenfels

After more than a decade in music, Ockenfels rolled into film and TV, applying his idiosyncratic approach to shows like Mad Men, House of Cards and Breaking Bad and movies such as Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean and Shades of Grey. In recent years he’s also shot numerous editorial portraits from George Clooney to President Obama.

Barack Obama (C) Frank Ockenfels
George Clooney (C) Frank Ockenfels

But it is the avant-garde that fires his passion. “A lot of my clients let me see how far I can push the images”. His portrait of Australian film director George Miller is a case in point. “Wired magazine commissioned me to do a frank portrait”. He laughs saying he’s not sure what that means. “But they like it when I go off the deep end”.

For the Miller shoot he gaffer taped 1930s lenses to a modern camera and showed up with circuit boards and wires hanging out the front of the camera. “George just started laughing. He was taking pictures of the camera and me. He couldn’t believe I was using it, but I showed him the Polaroids and he was like, this is really cool…When I got the contact sheet I drew all over it and that’s the image the magazine chose to run”. 

George Miller (C) Frank Ockenfels

Not all his subjects are as amiable as Miller. Take David Lynch. The first time Ockenfels photographed the film director Lynch told him, “You’ve got as along as it takes me to drink my coffee. When I’m done, you’re done”. The next time there was another caveat. “You can shoot me in the front hallway of my house. Bring only your camera and assistants”. Ockenfels had his assistants use silver card to bounce light through the door. “Lynch thought it was hysterical. But it worked”.

David Lynch (C) Frank Ockenfels

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