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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Bill Frakes: Constant Motion

Widely known for his Sports Illustrated work, versatile photojournalist Bill Frakes has mastered the art of visual storytelling

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Frakes shot this image for his own personal work while on assignment for Sports Illustrated at the World Swimming Championships in Perth, Australia. The competition led up to the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. To get it, Frakes laid flat on the practice pool deck. The image was taken in the early morning when the light was low and the pool fairly empty. The light bounced off the lane markers, creating the red and dark blue color reflections. Frakes remarked that more swimmers would have disturbed the even surface and the shot wouldn’t have worked.

Autumn is a thrilling time in the sports world. Football is in full swing, with college campuses going crazy every Saturday and the NFL taking over on Sunday. Baseball reaches its pinnacle, and the NBA, NHL and college basketball are off to new seasons. Standing on the sidelines, Bill Frakes is capturing all of this action for the pages of Sports Illustrated. When it comes to taking influential, awe-inspiring images of world-famous athletes, there’s no doubt that SI photographers are at the very top of their game.

American track star Marion Jones (near left) runs away from the competition, including Greece’s Ekaterini Thanou (second from near left) during the Women’s 100m Finals at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Jones won five medals, but has since forfeited all of them after admitting that she took performance-enhancing drugs.
With a circulation of three million people, the magazine is read by 23 million each week, and photographers like Frakes are among the most revered in the industry. When DPP caught up with the acclaimed shooter, he was in the middle of a typically busy week involving horse racing, a Thursday night NFL matchup between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Indianapolis Colts, and college hoops that Saturday.

“In any given week, I’m asked to do a wide range of things,” says Frakes. “I like making images. There are very few things that I don’t like. Mostly, my work is motion and emotion. I’m in motion all of the time.”

Adrenaline Rush
You get a sense of just how prolific Frakes is when you consider that he spent well over 300 days of 2009 shooting. In fact, over the last few decades, there hasn’t been a year when he has worked less than 325 days of it. Every couple of years, he gets to spend a few weeks sleeping in the same bed on consecutive nights because he’s covering the Olympics. But with his appetite for making images seemingly never satisfied, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

To understand how of-the-moment Frakes’ work is, just glance at his growing collection of SI covers. One of his early shots is considered a pinnacle in SI portraiture, with New York Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner dressed as Napoleon perched atop a white horse, marking his return to baseball after a three-year exile. Then there’s Pete Sampras at Wimbledon during his reign as the top men’s tennis player. Or the covers featuring the dynamic duo of Jimmy Johnson and Dan Marino when one coached and the other quarterbacked the Miami Dolphins in the ’90s, sprinter Michael Johnson winning the 200 meters at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, NBA star Lebron James leading his Cleveland Cavaliers into the play-offs. Alabama beating Florida in the 2009 SEC Championship game to stay undefeated. The team would go on to win the national championship. And most recently, the covers for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament preview issues. His portfolio is full of unforgettable moments and faces that are etched into the annals of American sports. But to label Frakes as simply a sports photographer would miss the point of what he does, and that is to tell stories visually.

“When I try to delineate what it is that I’m doing, what my job is, saying storyteller doesn’t explain it to most people, but that’s what it is,” he says. “Whether it’s telling the story of a football game or Mount St. Helens erupting or Ted Bundy being executed, that’s my job. I remember covering the 1988 presidential inauguration of George Bush, Ted Bundy’s execution, the Super Bowl and a riot, all in the same week.”


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