Key Arts 2012: Frank W. Ockenfels 3 to Receive 2012 Honorary Award

Frank W Ockenfels 3 Portrait - P 2012

Frank W Ockenfels 3 Portrait - P 2012

The veteran photographer's success is no trick of the light — or is it?

This story first appeared in the Oct. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

As a budding photographer in the suburbs of Niagara Falls, Frank W. Ockenfels 3 honed his chops shooting portraits of his high school’s ruling class of jocks and cheerleaders, of which he was emphatically not a member. Hundreds of album covers, movie posters and celebrity portraits for Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and The Hollywood Reporter later, Ockenfels still brings to each an avenging nerd’s humility tempered by an unsparing eye for emotional veracity.

PHOTOS: THR's Key Art Award Winners 2011

He invokes the dictum of the legendary Hollywood portraitist and Marilyn Monroe confidant Milton Greene -- that to place a celebrity on a pedestal is to photograph a lie -- and insists on eye-to-eye intimacy with his subjects, then gently hectors them to join him on the furthest reaches of a slender limb of convention, which photographer and subject know can snap at any moment. Photographing David Bowie for the first time, he persuaded the skeptical singer to remove his shirt then darkened the set and painted him with the beam from a single flashlight. Bowie was so pleased with the result that he hired Ockenfels to shoot the cover of his 1997 album Earthling.

That creative tension perfumes Ockenfels’ photographs with a whiff of intrigue that transcends and transforms his subjects no matter how thunderously famous they might be. In a genre where individuality is actively discouraged, Ockenfels finesses the demands of enterprise with his own artistic license. A meticulous planner, he deliberately leaves room in every shoot for improvisation without a net. “I like to make my pictures look like a moment of potential failure,” Ockenfels says. “In that moment, there is something fragile that can fall apart but instead becomes something special. That can’t be re-created.”

Ockenfels’ portrait of Jon Hamm as Don Draper, smoldering Lucky Strike in hand and inscrutable expression on his midcentury mug as water fills his office, is instructive. Conceived as a teaser for Mad Men’s third season, the photo easily could have been composited with digital trickery; instead Ockenfels and Brad Hochberg, founder of the Burbank advertising agency Refinery and a frequent collaborator, prevailed upon AMC to build a replica of Draper’s office in a tank on the Paramount lot and flood it with hundreds of gallons of water. “That shoot could have gone wrong in so many ways,” Ockenfels recalls with considerable understatement. “It’s one of those moments where you realize that everything that came before were tests to be able to stand here as a photographer.”

VIDEO: 2012 Key Art Awards Trailer

Obsessed with light and its revelatory qualities -- “a real piece of light is a moment in time” -- Ockenfels creates with whatever tools are at hand: collages from Polaroid snapshots (a nearly dead medium he refuses to forsake) or hand-sewn mixed-media journals that draw upon his photography and sketches. “I don’t see myself as a photographer,” he says. “A lot of my photography comes from other stimuli. That’s the fun part.” Says Hochberg: “He blends all the artistic talents he has into a photograph. He’s not taking a picture but creating an image.”

Self-inflicted creative destruction, Ockenfels avows, is the goad that keeps his work relevant, and he thanks his benefactors for providing him enough rope with which to hang or thrive. “I have had great opportunities to fail,” he says. “When you don’t fail, it’s because you know your ground. You have to change that path constantly to grow as an artist.”