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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 saw the last seven minutes of an exhibition rugby game in Gainesville, Florida, and that was enough. The women played the game wearing old prom dresses to raise money for breast cancer research.
Over his 25-plus-year career, Frakes has worked in more than 125 countries, with his photography appearing in nearly every major general-interest publication. He was recognized by his peers as Newspaper Photographer of the Year in the prestigious Pictures of the Year competition, won the Gold Medal from World Press Photo and was a member of The Miami Herald staff that won the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of Hurricane Andrew. He even went to law school.

Photographing the speed, action and urgency of a sporting event is something that Frakes is just plain good at, and he enjoys the technical challenges of getting images that transpire very quickly and typically just once. Often, the most poignant part of still sports imagery is the way a photographer can freeze a moment, capturing the pure and raw intensity of an instant that viewers would never see otherwise.

“I can tell a lot by body language, the speed of motion, language,” he explains. “I’m so familiar with a lot of athletes that I can just tell.”

Given his motivation is to make pictures that are driven by personality and emotion, it makes sense that “the most exciting two minutes in sports” remains his top event to shoot, even after having covered more than 25 of them.
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.
“I wouldn’t say horse racing is my favorite thing to shoot, but the Kentucky Derby is, for sure, my favorite event,” says Frakes. “There’s no greater place than Churchill Downs on Derby Day. The entire spectrum of human emotion is on display. It’s a great cross section of Americana—the art, food, culture, images, sounds and smells. You have people from all walks of life, and they’re all having a great time.”

A portrait session featuring former Olympian divers. The image was used for the cover of Nikon’s F5 brochure.
Covering the Derby requires Frakes to do a lot of calculation and planning. He begins organizing his gear and drafting plans several months beforehand. Predicting how the horses will move is impossible, so he calculates whatever he can, like speed, exposure, focus positions and camera positions. He tries to visualize how the race will play out and places the cameras in various positions, mostly around the finish line. Since he knows where the horses are going to finish, how fast they run and the length of the track, he can figure out when to trigger a shot.

Frakes is always trying to give readers a fresh perspective that they can’t find elsewhere, so he puts the cameras in places where there may be a chance for him to capture something extraordinary and starts firing them before the horses arrive and continues until after they’ve left.

Beyond Sports
Frakes landed at The Miami Herald, which at that time was one of the top newspapers for photojournalism in the country, fresh out of school. While pounding the streets to cover riots, murders, natural disasters and conflicts around the world, he learned the essence of shooting on a deadline as opposed to waiting for inspiration or more optimal conditions. From a news perspective, few American cities offered more excitement than Miami in the 1980s, and few daily newspapers were more aggressive and well-funded. The switch to magazine photography, and particularly SI, afforded him a bigger and different audience, more resources and the freedom to pursue other work.


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