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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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From Frakes’ SI Favorite Shots gallery. He had gotten stranded after a game and had to drive all night from Oxford, Mississippi, to Charlotte, North Carolina, for an NFL matchup between the Carolina Panthers and the Tennessee Titans. Frakes got there in time to see Titans wide receiver Justin McCareins get sandwiched on a hit by Mike Caldwell (59) and Jarrod Cooper (40). “My head was pounding from too much caffeine and no sleep, but I don’t believe I’d want to trade places with Justin,” says Frakes. “That just had to hurt.”
With his partner Laura Heald, Frakes has a production company called Straw Hat Visuals, where he’s able to direct television spots, music videos and short film documentaries. They frequently create multimedia films that integrate high-definition video with stills, often turning them around in several hours, both for the SI website, SportsIllustrated.com, and other clients.

His multimedia work is where the emergence of video-capable DSLRs, like the Nikon D3S that he uses, has made a difference in the way he works. When Frakes first started, he shot with a high-definition video camera and some still bodies, and then merged the two together. Now, the process is seamless and faster because he doesn’t have to switch. Another advantage is that, fundamentally, he’s using technology that he already knows with a tool he has used throughout his whole career.

“I can shoot video with equipment that’s been in my hands my whole life,” says Frakes. “Where your hands go, where your eye goes, makes a difference in how your mind works visually. I don’t have a lot of time to waste because I’m often shooting a wide range of assignments for a variety of clients, so the transition has to be seamless.”

Camera bodies have come a long way from those Frakes grew up with—no autofocus or auto exposure or even internal light meters. While the technology has changed enormously, the way he takes pictures hasn’t, and that’s because he has always viewed the camera as simply the capture device. It’s his mind, eyes, soul and heart that are creating the images, Frakes says. His willingness to get to know his subject and his ability to capture stories that are driven by emotion is what has pushed him to the top of his field.

The digital age hasn’t altered how Frakes captures photographs, but it has profoundly affected the way he manages them. When he’s shooting an event like the Olympics or the Derby, he ends up with thousands of images. He’s also on deadline and spends most of the year on assignment, so having the images he needs accessible to him at all times is especially valuable. Frakes can retrieve 30 years’ worth of images in a matter of seconds. As he converts his film archive to digital, he’s able to keep photographs that were taken decades ago relevant and available.
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.

Climbers going up the side of Ayers Rock in Australia’s Northern Territory.
“I can do all of the editing myself wherever I am and transfer it electronically to my archive,” says Frakes. “With my MacBook Pro, Final Cut and Aperture, my production studio is with me wherever I go. Before, working on a music video or documentary film meant I had to go into a studio. Now, I have it at my feet.”

But what’s most important to Frakes is that new technology allows him to constantly upgrade the way he works. Just using it to make the work easier would be lazy, he says. And while that mind-set may be okay for some, for Frakes, he’s using technology to tell better stories and communicate in ways that he couldn’t before. Early on, he got into the habit of giving 100 percent to every job—no excuses. It’s an attitude that has served him well and one that he emphasizes when he’s teaching or speaking to young photographers.

“Because I’m so prolific, I work more than anybody,” says Frakes. “One of the messages that was drilled into me is that you need to do your best work on every assignment. Some of my favorite images were made on assignments that no one wanted. If you asked me to list my favorite 10 or 20 images over five consecutive days, I’d give different answers every time. I tend to like whatever I last shot. I just really love images.”

To see more of Bill Frakes’ work, visit www.billfrakes.com. You can see Frakes' multimedia work at: www.strawhatvisuals.com.


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