DPP Home Profiles Frank Ockenfels: The Great Collaborator

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Frank Ockenfels: The Great Collaborator

Frank Ockenfels blends light and teamwork to shape his photographs and his career

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Ockenfels’ willingness to take a chance with his photography often results in images with a certain gravitas beyond the typical glamour shot. He works primarily with musicians and celebrities, and his ability to get them to become part of his collaborative process has produced imagery with a certain depth not generally associated with high-gloss celebrity portraiture.
The images Ockenfels has created for television shows and films such as Mad Men, Jonah Hex, Wanted and the Harry Potter series have circulated around the world. So it’s easy to associate glamour with what he does and discount the demands being made on the photographer to deliver. Increasingly, studios are expecting greater variety, but providing the photographer less time to make it happen. Turnaround can be mind-numbingly brief.

“We were shooting for the film Wolfman in London, and Benicio Del Toro had not been seen in full make-up yet, and the very next day they were going to be out in the street and the studio wanted to have a picture in the press that they owned before the paparazzi got involved,” Ockenfels explains. “So we were shooting until 7 p.m. and the digital tech was dropping those images into a drop box for the studio at Universal. So, at 8 o’clock in the morning in California, the executives were looking at what we had just finished shooting an hour ago. I hadn’t even seen everything yet myself.

“In the old days,” he adds, “you put up a gray seamless and you’d shoot four or five ideas, but they’d want you to pretty much nail the lights to the ground because everything had to match up. Now, you set up those little marks on the floor and you have six or seven light setups and I can go light or dark in a second. All we have to do is shoot a couple of frames and then go over to the monitor and ask the client if that’s what he or she is looking for.”

Thinking Analog, Shooting Digital
For Ockenfels, the digital workflow has made his job easier. The ability to share his work on a monitor has helped him to communicate and educate his clients about what they’re trying to achieve during a shoot.

“I was ‘anti-monitor’ at first,” he says. “I used to joke that photographers already have a voice in their head that’s constantly speaking while we’re shooting. I didn’t need three more voices behind me going, ‘Is that really the right thing?’ Sometimes, the client will come over and start asking for things, and in the back of your mind you’re thinking that it’s not going to work and it’s a complete waste of time and energy to go toward that. So you try to find that happy balance and still make the picture. The monitor helps with that because you can show somebody really quickly what does and doesn’t work.”

Many of Ockenfels’ shoots involve state-of-the-art equipment, including the Hasselblad H2, Nikon D3 or D700, and multiple Profoto packs and strobes. However, he’s the first to tell you he frequently challenges himself to go beyond the obvious and not settle for just what the technology can deliver.

“As with any tool, if it comes out nice and sharp, everyone begins to say that this is the only way you need to use it,” says Ockenfels. “People begin to say you can’t do this or that, but it’s the people who started doing the things you aren’t supposed to be doing that helped change the way we see things. For example, I used to shoot with a Fuji GX680 and I handheld it, wide open at 1/8 sec., and I didn’t think twice about it. And anybody who saw me with it would say, ‘Isn’t that a studio camera?’ But it’s what I used and I liked what it did.”


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