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Frank Ockenfels 3: Out of the Darkness

David Bowie Collage David Bowie Collage
© Frank Ockenfels 3

His spooky, brooding images sometimes scare people, but this Los Angeles photographer has become one of the most in-dmand portraitist of A-list stars.

Frank Ockenfels had a problem early on in his career. His unusual work, with an emphasis on spooky, dark images, scared some people.

It was a real issue: For some time, he actually had trouble getting assignments to photograph women. "It was a label I had for years," says the upbeat and forthright Ockenfels. "My work was seen as too moody, too much toward the dark side of photography."

Working the dark end of the street was a deliberate decision on his part, one born of necessity. "I had no choice but to take this stand in the first five years," he explains. "Everything I did was a 15-minute shoot, no matter how much time I was promised."

Being limited to 15 minutes wasn't the end of it. The bigger the subject, the harder it often was to get their cooperation, even under the lights.

"Bill Gates talked to the magazine writer almost the whole time he was in front of my camera," Ockenfels recalls. "He was so wrapped up in everything else that he seemed almost surprised that I was there."

He made a choice around that time: "I didn't want to be like everyone else. I knew I could set up a big light bank and have them stare at me and go bang, bang, bang — do the obvious picture — or I could do something different."

Divergent paths

Choosing a very different path came naturally to Ockenfels. (For starters, as the third-born "Frank W. Ockenfels" in his family, he prefers "Ockenfels 3" over the more traditional "Ockenfels III" in his formal name.)

He once had Jerry Seinfeld lie curled up in a ball against a concrete wall, not laughing or trying to be funny. The comedian loved the atypical photo, calling it one of the best ever taken of him, Ockenfels says. It made total sense to the photographer. "Most comedians are tremendously dark," he says. "Their humor comes from their complete darkness."

His point in pursuing the dark look is simple: He doesn't see it as darkness for its own sake, but as a pursuit of the truth, a quest to put something real on the page.

A lot of celebrity portrait photography has become about the photographers' presenting their preconceived perceptions of their subjects through propping and styling. "It is the easier answer and the acceptable thing," Ockenfels says. "Actors don't want to be themselves; they're not themselves for a living. I try to break through that, to get into a conversation, to make the photos about something that comes across about the person."

Staying true to this course isn't easy. "There is no support for doing something different-looking," he says. "There is a lot of pressure to do the safe thing, the thing which won't test thought." Music and movies have become largely about playing it safe and staying within parameters, he adds. "Thank God for Irving Penn; that he is still alive and working and making each portrait a stunning image."

Of course it is now a little easier for Ockenfels, his reputation having been firmly established. "I'm not sure I would want to be a young photographer starting out today," he admits. "It is so hard finding your voice, and many don't ever get there. Perhaps they're too busy trying to keep up with the latest thing that's being done and what's seen as acceptable."

Straying attention

Ockenfels has been different for his entire career. Early on he worked with his mentor, the painter Robert Longo, developing visual ideas. Later, he made books and went looking for work. He assisted the unit photographer for "Saturday Night Live," and was offered the job when it was vacated.

Right away, he was working with Tom Hanks, Matthew Broderick, rock legend Keith Richards and his sideline band The Xpensive Winos, and other luminaries.

Ockenfels lasted in this dream job for only half of a single season.

"I cannot stay still," he explains. "My son was just diagnosed with ADD [attention deficit disorder], which didn't surprise me. I'm like that. If I have to do the same project five days in a row — as often happens on film campaign work — it becomes like going to an office job for me."

By the time he walked away from "SNL," however, he'd signed with agent Carol Leflufy and was getting small music industry and editorial jobs. The music work, seemingly always with high expectations and low budgets, was like being at pro-photographer boot camp for Ockenfels.

Actors don't want to be themselves; they're not themselves for a living. I try to break through that.

"There was myself and Danny Clinch and Michael Lavine," he recalls. "We were all doing these band shoots where we needed to produce 12 different looks in one day. Essentially, [we'd] make it look like there'd been a dozen different photo shoots, and get two ideas for an album cover and enough press images to use for an entire year. And there was never any money."

A big break came while he was working with his friend Jodi Peckman, then associate photo editor of Rolling Stone. Ockenfels shot singer Tracy Chapman right before her album hit big, so the images got major play.

"Suddenly it was ‘Who is this guy Ockenfels?'" he recalls of this sudden transformation. "‘He's gota double-page spread in Rolling Stone. Huh?'"

He'd made another smart move along the way. After three years of photo assisting, like most photo-school grads, he realized just how bad he was at it. "I had trouble staying uninvolved on the sidelines," he says.

He bagged the assisting life and sought out unit work on low-budget feature films. The money was the same — lousy — but it gave him the chance to collect images of actors. This was important. "There's a ‘Catch-22' in the industry: You can't get work shooting actors until you've shot some actors," he notes. The low-budget feature work smoothed his path to working with actors, which remains a big part of his work today, along with music personalities.

Happy accidents

Early on, he knew he had a place in the photography world when he got good results with simple, intimate portraits by using his ancient Super D Graflex, a cumbersome reflex camera that is more associated with the likes of Margaret Bourke-White than an L.A. celebrity photographer. "I thought: ‘This is mine, no one else can do this,'" he says.

A Blender magazine session with Christina Aguilera emphasized this point.

The singer spent nearly seven hours in hair and makeup, and emerged in H&M's Agent Provocateur bikini underwear, covered with orange tanning spray and with wire and metal in her hair. The daylong prep had all but cost Ockenfels his exterior L.A. light, which had faded to a hue about as orange as his subject. The art director saw her emerge and was startled, but Ockenfels, thinking he had to do something to deal with the surfeit of orange tones, figured that shooting some black-and-white photos might help.

Using his Super D, he made an intimate, extreme-close-up black-and-white portrait. When Aguilera saw the instant Polaroid print, she was impressed.

"She'd never seen a portrait like that — a lot of people hadn't," Ockenfels says. "It is an innocent portrait, and I think it is more who she is than the more provocative underwear shot. She's not a Britney Spears; Christina has tremendous talent as a singer, and now her career is more about talent than her provocative image."

Blender thought he'd made great choices too, running the powerfully contrasting images side by side, much as they're found on his website (visit fwo3.com).

Happy accidents often seem to work for Ockenfels, who is open to a level of spontaneity that might flummox others.

A breakthrough session with the very young Natalie Portman propelled Ockenfels and boosted his confidence in his offbeat approach. "She was lying in the grass near the shore outside Boston," he remembers. "I was using the Super D Graflex, fitted with a 4x5 Polaroid back, and the hair stylist leaned in and threw a shadow on her face, obscuring half of it.
She looked at me and I told the hair stylist not to move, and I took the picture." It worked, powerfully.

Another time he was working with Lance Armstrong and some flare shot through the lower part of the frame. "It was what was given at the moment, and it helped make the image," Ockenfels notes.

Two-way street

His willingness to accept the unexpected goes hand in hand with his ease in working with art-directed assignments. "It's smart to engage with art directors; the collaboration can often work wonders," he says. "Some ADs are tremendously educated in photography, and it is great to work with people like that. It can help add real variety. I also try to collaborate with stylists when they're really bringing something to the session."

His striking black-and-white picture of pop star Pink, crouching in a corner, wearing wild-patterned long boots and surrounded by dolls, was an AD's idea, he notes.

However, the most important collaboration is with his subjects, he says.

"The best shoots are when the subject gets what you're doing and gives you something more to go with it. It's very different from me standing there saying, ‘OK, this is my next idea,' and using the subject like a prop within a set."

This two-way communication, he says, is the reason he's had 15 shoots with David Bowie, one of the most successful rock stars of all time. Once the two clicked, they went on a roll. "David Bowie and I will talk, and he'll simply say, ‘What are you thinking about, what are you doing lately?' and we'll have an hour-long conversation about an upcoming session."

The best shoots are when the subject gets what you're doing and gives you something more to go with it.

Actress Angelina Jolie is another great collaborator who has tuned right into Ockenfels' wavelength. "Everyone's shot her, but she does things for a point, not just to do stupid pictures," he says. "She's a gift in this world of celebrities."

For Jolie's upcoming film "Wanted," Ockenfels worked with her during a break in filming. She came prepared, overflowing with worthwhile, thoughtful ideas.

"So she's thrown the gauntlet down," Ockenfels says. "Now the challenge is, can I get her to give me the time to execute some of these ideas? She stayed for three hours," much longer than scheduled, and she had surprises.

"She said, ‘I'm going to be bloodied in this next scene. Stick around and see what it looks like,'" Ockenfels says. "I worked with some other actors while she shot, and had to stay until 2:30 a.m., but got to shoot her with blood running down the side of her face."

Fractured images

Ockenfels is also known for his unusual collages of his images and sketches. These evolved from his inveterate need to cut and paste together images, drawings and details of shoots to create tech journals. People started asking him if they could use the collages, so they became another distinctive aspect of his work. Most notably, hugely successful ska-rockers No Doubt and alt-country mainstay Wilco have used this unusual approach to good effect.

I try to treat the famous like they're nobodies and the nobodies like they're famous.

Whether he's seeking to create a straight photograph or a one-of-a-kind melding of sketches and images, communication is the key, Ockenfels says. A portrait is all about having a conversation with your subject.

"I try to treat the famous like they're nobodies and the nobodies like they're famous," he explains. With famous people, that means trying to keep the playing field equal. "If you start out saying, ‘I love your work,' now they're on a pedestal in front of you. I try to say something simple like ‘Thanks for coming, I'm looking forward to taking your picture.'

"I try also to avoid researching my subject and stay away from career talk," he adds. "More to the point is just to have an interesting conversation, to make them feel at ease. Actors don't generally like photo sessions. They're used to having 24 frames per second, and they don't have to get that one frame just right. So getting them at ease leads to a more honest approach and a more honest look on their faces."

After all this time, the 47-year-old Ockenfels acknowledges that he still isn't about "bright and shiny and happy-go-lucky" images.

"I'm more about something that will make you sit up and look at it," he says, like a man who knows exactly what he's after, and who knows how to get it.

IN THE LOUPE: Frank Ockenfels 3

Location: Encino, Calif. He turned his family room into an office/art studio.

Education: BFA, School of Visual Arts.

Preferred shooting studios: Industria in New York and Smashbox in Los Angeles.

Number of employees: One studio manager/producer, who also acts as a sometimes baby-sitter: Cassia Hoffman.

Clients: Apple iPhone, Chevrolet, Samsung, Warner Bros., Miramax, Paramount Studios, Dimension Films and other motion picture studios and record companies; magazines include Blender, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Premiere, FHM, Newsweek, Wired, Entertainment Weekly, Spin, Outside, U.K. Conde Nast Traveler and New York.

Preferred equipment: Fuji 680, Hasselblad H1 and H3. In the past two years, Ockenfels has focused on the 35mm-style DSLR, using the Canon 5D.He says that people can't tell the difference between those digital images and his other work. "I have a closet full of cameras, 60 percent of which I can no longer get film for," he adds. The Super D Graflex, fitted for 4x5 Polaroid, has been used for years for dramatic shallow-focus portraits, plus a Widelux 120 and 35mm for travel and some location work.He's made many fun, surprising shots using a cast-iron Avant Quad passport camera with a four-lens turret, producing images that look like amusement-park photo-booth shots.

Major awards: "I have won awards," he admits, "but since I don't enter the call for entries much, I'm not really sure what."
Advice for aspiring celebrity photographers: "Don't do the obvious," Ockenfels cautions. "Find your own voice. Being a portrait or ‘celebrity' photographer is about the opportunity and what you do with it."

Website: FrankOckenfels3.com

Eric Rudolph
Story Author: Eric Rudolph

Eric Rudolph has written about photography for many major publications. He also runs bwphotopro.com, a website about black-and-white photography.

Eric Rudolph is a Corporate Communications expert who writes about photography for both magazines and corporations. He has wrote major feature articles for leading consumer magazines like PhotoMedia, Popular Photography and American Photo.

Website: www.bwphotopro.com E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
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