Frank Ockenfels: The Great Collaborator

Frank Ockenfels: The Great Collaborator

Frank Ockenfels’ style of commercial portraiture is uniquely personal, and many would even say risqué, but he has an openness that allows him to be receptive during a campaign, sometimes even incorporating the myriad ideas and demands of a client while in the midst of a shoot. His rare talents and his enthusiasm for collaboration have resulted in a stunning portfolio of images he has created for the music industry, the film industry, television junkets and nationally syndicated magazines like Rolling Stone, Esquire, Premiere, Wired and many others.

The visual world of Frank Ockenfels doesn’t revolve around the myth of the isolated photographer working alone behind the camera’s viewfinder or staring at a computer monitor. Instead, his photographs reflect his ability to inform, educate and inspire those he works for and those who work for him.

“Having worked as a director, I understand the importance of being a collaborator,” Ockenfels says. “Regardless of what others may say, if you don’t collaborate, you’re screwed. Everyone has to work together. Everyone has to work as a team in order to make that final product. You can’t do everything.”

A commercial photographer and director with a fine-art sensibility, Ockenfels has been producing stunning work professionally for over three decades.

And whether the images are used to promote and market products, television shows, music albums or motion pictures, he thrives on the ability to face a myriad of challenges on the way, satisfying the photographic needs of his clients.

“I think people miss the point that great photographs come out of collaboration,” he says. “The photographer is responsible for the vision, but you have to listen to your assistants or anybody else who’s on the set, including the client. When I’m working as a photographer, I’m answering questions and trying to solve the problems of the moment.”

Ockenfels’ approach to lighting and composition is inspired not only by legendary photographers like Irving Penn, Robert Frank and Duane Michals, but also by painters such as Anselm Kiefer, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Their influence is seen in both his nuanced approach to lighting and the personalized sketches and notes that make up his illustrated notebooks.

The Art Of Problem-Solving

Though many clients may come to him with detailed drawings and illustrations of the photographs they want made, Ockenfels recognizes that they’re depending on him and his skills as a photographer to bring that concept into a visual reality. It’s not as simple as setting up lights and depressing a shutter-release button.

“Few people talk about the issue of problem-solving, and the issue is that they feel that the problem involves giving up,” he says. “I’m a commercial photographer, and if somebody has hired me and they’ve paid me to be there, I have to first try and do what I do. I have to be ready to present what I believe is the answer to the problem, and if they don’t agree with me and they want to go in a completely opposite direction, it doesn’t make sense to fight them. It only makes it more of a challenge, which is kind of fun to get them to come back around to see the better way of doing it or to polish their idea to the point that it’s the best that I can possibly do for them, even if it’s not what I wanted to do for them or which I don’t think is the answer. It’s still my job to produce a great image for them.”

Frank Ockenfels: The Great Collaborator
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.”

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.

Frank Ockenfels: The Great Collaborator
“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.”

A Personal Expression

The process of what happens to Ockenfels’ photographs doesn’t end in an upload to a client or a billboard or even a traditional portfolio. His images often find their home in the personal journals he creates. Though they started as tech notes from shoots, his inclusion of Polaroids, writings, drawings and found items led to the creation of very personal documents of both his professional and personal life. Friends and clients often requested to see these books as much if not more than his latest photographs of famed celebrities.

“The notebooks were basically rants after photo shoots,” explains Ockenfels. “I’d come back from a shoot, basically going through them and thinking about all the things I did or didn’t do. So sometimes I’d come back and would pull elements together, be it anything from a parking stub or a piece of paper I found on the way to the shoot.”

The sharing of these notebooks was limited to what he might happen to have in his bag or his studio, but the advent of digital and an Epson flatbed scanner provided him with the means to create reproductions of these personal pages, not only in printed copies, but also on his website.

“I recently had an exhibition and was able to make editions of the journal pages and sold them,” he says. “People enjoyed seeing them on the walls, but now they could have the opportunity to purchase them and take them home if they wanted.”


Ockenfels’ willingness to take risks and contribute to the concepts presented to him allows the photographer to place his own personal touch on the work that he creates.

“When people look at a small body of work of any photographer and claim that’s who they are as an artist, it doesn’t really define the artist,” he says. “Some people look at Avedon’s work in The American West, and they think ‘4×5 camera and white backdrop,’ and feel that defines the totality of his work. It’s only a small part of what he did. It’s too easy to forget that we’re supposed to have depth and we have to basically do a lot of different work and see differently. I just happen to be a good photographer. People like my work. I got lucky. I got to be the one that the magic wand touched and said, ‘Okay, you be the one.’ But there’s no special reason that I’m the one doing it. I’ve taken the opportunities that people have given me and I’ve gone beyond the expectations o
f what people thought was supposed to have happened.”

Adds Ockenfels, “The work is being done in an atmosphere of trust and appreciation. It’s amazing that someone is throwing money at me and saying, ‘Go play.’ Occasionally, they’ll put some roadblocks in front of me, but it’s fun to get in there and figure it out.”

To see more of Frank Ockenfels’ photography, go to Ibarionex Perello is a photographer, a writer and an educator. He’s the producer and host of The Candid Frame photography podcast,

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