Having traveled with camera in hand to every state in the Union and more than 135 countries has given Nebraska native and Nikon Ambassador Bill Frakes a global perspective. Yet in recent years, it has been his home state that the visual storyteller feels most compelled to share with the world.
In 1979, Frakes started his documentary/photojournalism career at the Miami Herald covering subjects ranging from Hurricane Andrew to Cuba. He added sports to his portfolio when fellow photographer and former Sports Illustrated photo director Heinz Kluetmeier recruited him to do a wide variety of assignments for the magazine, many with feature and portrait components rather than simply pure action. That relationship evolved into a long-term staff position. In addition to his long-term personal project, freelancing for clients around the globe and shooting sports for ESPN, he maintains a visiting professorship position at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, which, as he explains, “allows me to spread my love of the state through education.”
Frakes continues to evolve with the times, co-founding Straw Hat Visuals in 2008 as a transmedia company integrating stills, audio and video to create dynamic multi-platform stories.
Bill Frakes Q&A
DPP: What’s the idea behind the Nebraska Project?
Bill Frakes: Nebraska was admitted as the 37th state to the Union in 1867, so this year marks the 150th birthday of the state of Nebraska. The Nebraska Project is a love song to the place that’s given me so much.
It’s a compilation of work my business partner, Laura Heald, and I have done in the state over the past three years, much of it specifically created for the nebraskaproject.com. A number of our creative friends in the state—Brad Mellema, Joel Sartore, Ted Kirk, Katie and Kevin Morrow—all pushed me to put our work into one place. As Nebraskans, we’re all immensely proud of where we’re from and hope to get the world to take a look. Anyone who hasn’t gotten off the interstate running through our state has no idea what’s out here.
DPP: How do you go about capturing the essence of a place such as Nebraska?
Frakes: This is the American West. The last frontier. It’s a big open space. A place of cowboys and poets, bison and meadowlark. Flat lands and the Badlands. With uncomplicated sightlines, and virtually no pollution, you can truly see forever on the plains of the Cornhusker State. There is an exotic component to the simple strength of the safety that envelops you there.
We keep looking, listening and appreciating what we find around every corner. There is nothing better than pulling up chairs at a small diner in a rural community and asking, “What’s good here?” They’ll tell you about the food, then the locals, then ‘what’s doin.’” At that point, it’s a story smorgasbord, and we enjoy the feast.
We’ve been to each of Nebraska’s 93 counties more than once in the past three years.
DPP: How are you documenting your state from a multimedia standpoint?
Frakes: I’m a fifth-generation Nebraskan. My parents were both teachers in the ranch country in the western part of the state. My business and creative partner, Laura, wasn’t born in Nebraska, she’s from Florida, but she’s embraced the state and likewise it’s adopted her. She and I have been working together for a decade now.
Our process mirrors that of the state. We’re not fancy; we just believe in constant, hard work. Many days we spend 20 hours gathering the ingredients for our stories.
I use Nikkor optics for everything. I have a pretty good collection that I’ve acquired in the almost 40 years I’ve devoted to my work in photojournalism. I have well over 150 lenses—I just can’t bear to let go of them. If I sell a lens, it’s got to be to a friend, and one I know will give them a good home.
The Nikon D810 and D810A are our workhorse bodies for time-lapse, the Nikon D5 and D500 for both stills and video. Doing video with the same equipment I shoot stills with makes the process seamless for me.
Laura sometimes shoots on a RED camera when the motion calls for 8K video or super-slow motion. The RED allows us to use all of our Nikkor glass natively, and that’s huge for us.
We use Gitzo and Manfrotto supports. Their tripods and monopods have been a constant in my gear collection almost as long as Nikkor lenses have been in my camera bag.
For smooth video, we rely heavily on our Freefly MoVI. For a majority of the Nebraska Project work, we used the MoVI M10, but we just got the MoVI Pro and are excited to bring it out to the plains.
For moving time-lapse, we use Cinevate’s motion control package. The system is heavy—which is important in the constant wind of Nebraska—and incredibly consistent and user-friendly.
DPP: Are you using drones?
Frakes: We do use drones. When we can afford it and we have the space, we prefer to fly Nikons on the Freefly ALTA. The Freefly system is incredibly smooth and robust. When the budget doesn’t have much wiggle room, we will use Laura’s DJI Phantom. For the money, they are good quality and incredibly compact.
DPP: What are you doing to get the most out of the skies above the Great Plains?
Frakes: The skies are big and open. For stills, I do use various graduated ND filters, polarizing filters and sometimes underexpose. But mostly I just wait for the light to be right.
DPP: What are the most difficult aspects of taking on such a large project?
Frakes: Financing, without question. For every hour we spend in the field making images and gathering stories, we spend 20 hours working on generating revenue. Having a crew on the road for weeks on end is expensive, even though we do everything we can to keep costs low.
The second most difficult aspect is figuring out how to allocate the resources we do have. This is possibly the most important work I will do, and I need to get it absolutely right.
DPP: Where are the must-visit places in Nebraska you would recommend to your fellow photographers, and when are the best times to go?
Frakes: The Platte River between Grand Island and Kearney, near Alda, during the crane migration. The Crane Trust has great hides. Grand Island is the gateway to the Sandhills and also the home of Nebraska’s State Fair. Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff are historically important and visually stunning. The autumn, no question, is the best time to be there.
Highway 2 runs through the Sandhills. The road meanders through a land full of sublime beauty. Get a Mari Sandoz book or a copy of Jim Harrison’s Dalva and take a slow Sunday drive and stop along the way. It’s incredibly calm and tranquil. Besides Sandoz and Harrison, this state has been home to Warren Buffett, Marlon Brando, Malcolm X, Crazy Horse, Fred Astaire, Buffalo Bill Cody, Willa Cather, Ted Kooser, Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson, Susan La Flesche, Bright Eyes, Standing Bear, Gerald Ford, Montgomery Clift and Henry Fonda, among many others.
My favorite spots are places I’ve known my entire life. Young’s Western Wear in Valentine. The Olde Main Street Inn in Chadron. Bassett Lodge and Range Cafe in Bassett. The Sandhills Boot Company in Cody. Nebraska’s Big Rodeo, which started back in 1921, happens in July in Burwell and is a must-see. High Plains Homestead on the edge of the Oglala National Grasslands in the northwest corner of Nebraska may have the best pie in the world. Visit any small town in Nebraska. You can’t help but smile.