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

Ockenfels’ desire to take technology that many photographers possess and somehow make it his own is exemplified with his sitting with legendary rocker David Bowie. This was his first experience with the singer, and by the time Ockenfels had arrived, three other shooters had already photographed the performer.

Recalls Ockenfels, “Bowie looks at me and says, ‘So, what are you going to do different than what the other guys have done today? Where’s your Octabank?’”

The photographer’s response was a surprising one. He took out a flashlight and explained that he was going to turn off the lights in the room and simply paint him with light. When he was done making the photographs, Bowie looked at the finished result and simply said, “You win.”

Creating Impact
Ockenfels’ thought behind such an approach is a simple one. “It’s easy to take the pretty picture,” he says. “It’s easy to take the obvious picture. But when you’re looking through a magazine, what stops you to look at an image and say this is the one picture I want to linger on? This picture comes out and it’s still David Bowie, but it’s an image that shows that you took a chance.”

On editorial shoots, Ockenfels sometimes foregoes the truckload of gear and keeps it simple, harkening back to the earlier days of his career when he was using nothing more than a Hasselblad and a Norman battery pack with a single head.

“I have a tendency when I’m shooting editorial to try and take less,” he says. “I’ve shown up with just one camera and a silver reflector, knowing that I need to remind myself why I’m doing what I’m doing.”

For Ockenfels, it’s about the awareness and the control of light, regardless of whether it comes from a strobe or a reflection off a window. The ability to see and evaluate light for its harshness or softness, its warmth or its coolness, becomes an essential skill because understanding how light occurs in the real world informs how he uses artificial light on location or in the studio.

“So if I want to take that hard piece of light that I saw and translate it to what I’m doing with strobe,” says Ockenfels, “how do I do it? If you set up the lights in the same way, every single day with every single subject, you’re not considering that every person is different and will respond to that same light differently. After a while of doing this, you can pick up a camera and forget what the process is based upon. It’s based upon light and the understanding of light and using that light to bring in the viewer to what you want them to see. It can be what you include or exclude in the frame, but it’s the light 10 times more.”


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