By Jim Colton
“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” --- John F. Kennedy
I've had the pleasure of flying on the Concorde…seven times! Each time as a human carrier-pigeon for Newsweek magazine, hand carrying film (Remember film?) from breaking international stories as varied as Pope John Paul II’s return to Poland in 1979 to President Reagan’s laying of a wreath at a cemetery for German soldiers in Bitburg in 1985.
In all cases, there were also chartered Lear Jets involved to get the undeveloped film (from where the stories originated) to Paris or London. The Concorde would leave at 11:00am local time…and would arrive at 8:30am at JFK…the same day! It was photojournalism’s version of “Beat the Clock.” At that time, it was the fastest way to meet our deadlines with “real” film, as opposed to transmissions…which were not of the highest quality back in a “pre-digital” world. Today, we have “live-streaming” of images from across the globe. My, how things have changed!
More and more people are looking to the internet as their source of information…and entertainment. The standard fare of newspaper and magazine photojournalism is now a hybrid of print and on line distribution. Multimedia production has become a must-know in the photographer’s tool kit. The work of many photojournalists is seen on the internet before it hits the printed page. In a medium that demands instant communication…speed matters.
But quality also matters; especially for long term projects and stories…whether they are photo essays or galleries or multimedia presentations. Great photography is about great story telling. But it takes a deft hand to create good stories, with valued content, that will hold the attention of an audience that has gotten used to absorbing their content in bits and bytes and within a diminished allotment of their time.
So how does one survive in an industry that is constantly changing? What resources can we utilize to our advantage? One way is to diversify. Look for other potential avenues of income that exist outside the predictable and diminishing world of magazine and newspaper publishing; and of course, you have to continually reinvent yourself to accommodate those needs. Few people have done this as well as Bill Frakes.
His photographs have graced the covers and pages of almost every major publication in the world. He was a member of the Miami Herald staff that won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of Hurricane Andrew and his images have been honored with every photographic award imaginable including the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, the Overseas Press Club, Newspaper Photographer of the Year at POYi, NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism and World Press Photo where in addition to winning a Gold Medal he also served as a juror…twice.
His commercial clients include Apple, Nike, Coca Cola and Nikon to name only a few. He is a Nikon Ambassador and has lectured at over 100 universities and continues to give back to the industry at workshops world-wide.
From his award winning photography, to music videos, to multimedia pieces to commercial work, Bill has found a way to expand his vision to reach across numerous platforms. This week, zPhotoJournal has a candid conversation with the talented Bill Frakes as he discusses his multi-faceted visual portfolio and the many paths he sometimes has to simultaneously travel on his ever-changing journey.
Jim Colton: Tell us a little about your early years. How did you first get interested in photography and who were some of your earliest influences?
Bill Frakes: Without question the first and most important influence in my life as an artist was my mother. She raised me from day one to be interested in visual communication—she was physically quiet, but had a very loud intellectual voice. (see link below) My father was a scholar and he gave me the gift of books and research, and I believe I have his sense of humor.
We had a nice little local library in Scottsbluff, Nebraska where I lived. They didn't have many photography books, but two they did have featured Henri Cartier-Bresson and W. Eugene Smith. Smith remains my favorite photographer to this day. And Bresson, well, how much better of an influence can you find if you want to record life as it happens?
In undergraduate school at Arizona State, I was lucky to take some elective classes in photojournalism from Conn Keyes, and there I was a part of a group that included John W. McDonough and Andy Hayt—both who wound up on staff at SI. They always had their sites on Sports Illustrated, but I was just enjoying myself as I headed off to law school.
Getting a journalism degree at the University of Kansas brought me into contact with another group of very talented folks. Barbara Kinney, White House photographer and World Press winner, the National Geographic’s Randy Olson, and Peter Andrew Bosch who I later worked with at the Miami Herald.
Moving forward means looking in every direction. I have to draw on the past, not simply mine, but of journalism and image creation. I need to be aware of the methods of communication that are effective now, and I have to keep an eye to the future—doing global thinking about what dissemination of information routes will be important going forward.
JC: You dabbled a little in other potential careers…including law. What made you choose photography in the end?
BF: Law school…yes…, and in addition to the journalism degree I mentioned from Kansas, I have one from Arizona State in Economics. I’m a storyteller. I write, I do design, and I think I’m a better than average teacher and lecturer. But photography -- both still and motion -- are simply the most efficient and evocative way for me to communicate. Multimedia production allows me to use my entire skill set and multipurpose all of the material I gather across a wide range of viewing platforms.
JC: Tell us a little about your years at the Miami Herald. I understand you were part of a team that won a Pulitzer for their Hurricane Andrew coverage.
BF: Working at the Herald during the 1980's was a dream. It was everything you wanted a national newspaper to be…feisty, well-funded, aggressive—we covered the world with staff and we had plenty of newsprint available to do it with. We had great executive editors at the top of the Masthead--John McMullan and Heath Meriwether. The picture editor I worked closely with, Joe Elbert, is one of the best there has ever been…and brilliant Sports Editors Ed Storin and Paul Anger. Absolutely great writers Gene Miller, Edwin Pope, Edna Buchanan, Carl Hiasson, Barry Bearak, Guy Gugliotta, Christine Brennan, Madeline Blais, Dave Barry, Joe Starita, Liz Balmesada, Bill Rose, Scott Price...the list goes on and on.
The photo staff was equally deep. Michel duCille, Carol Guzy, John Walther, Brian Smith, CW Griffin, Peter Andrew Bosch, Jeffrey Salter, Jose Azel, Patrick Farrell, Mary Lou Foy…and that list goes on and on as well.
Covering Hurricane Andrew was a very difficult assignment. I’d been to a number of natural disasters including 7 or 8 hurricanes, Mount St. Helens, major floods in the US and abroad, earthquakes on different continents and I thought I was well prepared. Photographically I was…mentally too. What I was not prepared for was the devastation to my home town and dealing with so many displaced friends and seeing my entire world turned upside down.
You were kind enough to not only publish one of my images on the cover of Newsweek, but thoughtful enough to laminate the cover and send it to me. It still hangs in my office—not far from an image of you and your father Sandy Colton that I shot at the Eddie Adams Workshop. Working on a team with you at the workshop for many years was great fun and an important part of my career. We managed to shake things up.
JC: Earlier this year, Sports Illustrated announced it was laying off all of their remaining staff photographers, of which you were one. How will this development affect how you work in the future?
BF: I have spent a lifetime making images and telling stories. It's my vocation and avocation.
Sports Illustrated has been a big part of that. Over those years I have been to 10 Olympic Games, 30 Super Bowls, 31 Kentucky Derbies...a long, long list of great sporting events. But through it all it has been the stories--not the events--that have been the fuel firing my engines.
My associate Laura Heald and I spend most of our creative time doing short documentary stories, portraits and advertising work through our production company Straw Hat Visuals. Last year we worked fully half of the year on the Nebraska Project. We spent time on four continents, in countries ranging from Iceland to Thailand, Japan to Lebanon, Estonia to Singapore, England to Switzerland, and more. None of that was for Sports Illustrated.
We are working for a wide range of clients from huge international corporations to small educational non profits. It's still all about the human condition.
I will miss the excitement of picking up the phone and hearing from an editor in New York with whatever challenge that they had for me, the pride in being one of a very exclusive group--Sports Illustrated staff photographers. The best thing about working for SI though was that I was always encouraged to grow; to move beyond the confines of the field of play, to interpret things my way, and to bring back something different. It was a great place to grow up.
I hope I will always get the occasional chance to exercise my voice at the place sports photographers call "The Magazine." They've been great to me, and, I hope, vice versa. I’ll remain on SI’s masthead as a contributor.
JC: How did you wind up working for Sports Illustrated...and why sports?
BF: I had no plan to cover sports other than as part of my daily assignments at the Miami Herald. I expected to wind up at National Geographic or Time; I've always been a photojournalist. The first half of my career at SI, I shot far more features than I did action.
During his first tenure as Director of Photography at SI, Heinz Kluetmeier called me and asked me to do some assignments. It went well, and I ended up shooting at least once a week for the magazine as a freelancer.
Heinz brought me onto the masthead as a contract photographer during his second tenure as DOP, and fairly soon thereafter I became a staff photographer. Heinz was a great mentor and remains a tremendous friend, probably the greatest professional influence in my career. You can ask him as you two are good friends but I am confident he will say that he saw a kindred spirit in me—hard work first, dedication to craft next, and a desire to always get it right—the first time, but a willingness to keep trying as long as it takes to get it absolutely right.
JC: What are some of your favorite stories you produced for SI?
BF: I've loved working for Sports Illustrated. I've had the best seat in the house for 30 years. I've gotten to work with some of the finest writers alive; Marge Schott with Rick Reilly; a week in the life of the Dallas Cowboys with Rick Telander; Australian football with Thomas Keneally; Jeff Lucas with Tim Layden; the Kentucky Derby, about 15 of them with William Nack, and at least another 10 with Tim Layden; Fat Guys in the NFL—a photo essay where we only shot players that weighed at least 375 pounds, and honestly they weren't all fat, they were simply huge; and a photo essay on 6-man football in Arthur, Nebraska.
JC: You once set up over 30 remotes while covering a Kentucky Derby. What's that process like? How many assistants did you need to fire all those?
BF: 30 remotes are pretty normal. I don’t remember a year in the last 20 when I used less than 25. I believe the most I've ever used is 75; that was when we were still shooting film. Set up for the Derby is a long process. It starts days before the actual race. I have to mark spots, scout new areas, make sure all of my gear has arrived and is in working condition.
My actual Derby day starts at 5am, but by then I have already been working for 2 days getting gear in place. It's a physical beating. In the past I used larger teams, but with digital Nikons the process is much more streamlined. I think last year I had four people help. Most of them were just there to push buttons, and provide muscle power.
For the most part, the set-up is done by Laura Heald and me. We set the cameras up; putting the right lens with the right body and attaching them to floor plates or ball heads. We put them in place and wire them and focus. It sounds simple but there are a number of logistical hurdles to get across--time and limited space chief among them.
JC: You've transited from the analog world to digital far better than most. What do you miss (if anything) about the analog days, and for fairness, what don't you miss?
BF: It was much harder to make images with film. You had to expose things right on, you had to focus the camera yourself, and you had to shoot many less frames. Transmitting was a burden, moving one color image from the field to the publication took at least an hour, and that was if everything went perfectly. Physically it was simply tougher to do; you had to earn your images so there was a different sense of satisfaction and respect.
I try hard to respect digital technology. I don’t use the tremendous advances in camera technology to make my life and pictures easier, I use the technology to make them better. There are so many things I can do with the cameras now that I couldn't 20 years ago. I can shoot seamlessly at light levels I didn't even dream of. I can do high quality audio capture. I can do high resolution video capture. And I can use cards so big I almost never have to change them out.
I can get my work to more people, quicker, easier and better. Archiving is a wonder, I never have to worry about my film getting lost in transit, and I always have multiple copies. At the end of the day the viewers don’t care how hard I had to work to get an image, they just want to see it and they will judge for themselves if it’s worthy or not.
JC: You are a Nikon Ambassador. What does that title mean to you and what responsibilities come with that title?
BF: Nikon is extremely generous in their support of professional photographers. I am extremely honored to be included in the initial group of Nikon USA Ambassadors along with some of my great friends and personal heroes.
I believe firmly in sharing what I've learned along the way and Nikon facilitates and encourages that. Education is one of the core values of Nikon; it’s part of their corporate DNA. Education goes beyond sharing technical information; it’s very much about providing inspiration. As a Nikon Ambassador, that’s what I hope to do; provide education, inspiration and joy about photography to as many people as I can.
JC: You have, in my opinion, one of the best associates in the world working for you in Laura Heald. How did you meet and tell us a little about that working relationship over the years.
BF: Laura isn't just an associate; she is half of the process. She started working with me as an assistant at Sports Illustrated. After the Beijing Olympics we started to evaluate what our career goals were in terms of the stories that we wanted to tell.
It was quickly clear that there were a lot of creative options that we needed to explore in video and multimedia in multiple genres. So we decided to transition into motion while continuing to produce still images. That led to our starting Straw Hat Visuals for work we did outside of Sports Illustrated.
We've worked together for more than 7 years; most years about 300 days a year. That’s a lot of time as a team, and we are a team. We balance each other…help each other…and push each other. We are absolutely on the same page creatively. She is a wonderful friend, a fine photographer and the best editor I know.
JC: What is Straw Hat Visuals?
BF: Straw Hat Visuals (See link below) is the production company I share with Laura Heald. Sara Tanner has also been with us from the start and she does amazing things keeping us on track and handling our web site and social media. Our goal at Straw Hat Visuals is to create the highest quality dynamic web and media content by combining high definition video, magazine quality stills and broadcast quality audio to tell stories.
JC: We did a lot of multimedia work together at Sports Illustrated...much of it during the internet’s infancy where publications were looking to re-invent themselves. Do you see incorporating video and multimedia as the new paradigm in publishing?
BF: Laura and I relied heavily on your guidance when we were doing our first multimedia projects for SI, and continue to reach out for your input with our other work. I’m not sure it is the new paradigm, but rather an industry standard at this point. Everyone that calls us with assignments wants video or multimedia for the web, along with still images for print, and for web use.
JC: Your multimedia story, "Let Freedom Ring" recently won a First Place award for News Multimedia 48 Hours from the National Press Photographers Association's Best of Photojournalism contest. It's one of my favorite pieces you've done. How did you find that story and how long did it take to produce?
BF: The Song Celebration in Estonia is an amazing event. It started more than a century ago but for the last 25 years it has especially celebrated the country’s liberation from Soviet rule. I've never seen anything like it. The actual story was shot and edited over 2 days. We spent time doing research, finding shooting locations, and prepping in advance.
JC: You are currently working on a huge undertaking called "The Nebraska Project," which also won an award at this year’s NPPA’s BOP contest. (See link below) Tell us a little about it including how it came about.
BF: My work as a photographer has taken me to 138 countries and all 50 U.S. states. And Nebraska is the gold standard for photography. For the past 30 years working as a photographer for Sports Illustrated has been fabulous; it’s in and out of places covering sports as news. With a few exceptions it’s a series of quick hits, in for a competition or short feature story and right back out, on to the next thing...as it should be.
This collection from Nebraska of stories and images is different. This is home. I've photographed here my entire adult life, but not consistently and never with a specific goal other than to just capture moments I enjoyed.
With the 150th anniversary of Nebraska’s statehood rapidly approaching I've been wanting to do more, to explore deeper, to explain this place I love to anyone willing to spend some time with my photographs and videos. In 2014 we spent nearly 120 days in the state shooting every day. We drove at least 15,000 miles, crisscrossing the state, gathering the materials that are the basis of the Nebraska Project.
It’s a self-financed project which brings its own burdens. I spend a lot of time raising funds and organizing logistics. There is no support mechanism; it’s all us. There is a huge upside to that. Controlling the finances allows us to have complete artistic and editorial control. That means shooting the stories we want to shoot, producing the material we want to produce and displaying it the way we think is best.
Nebraska was my first home, and will likely be my last; that big sky; the rugged beauty of the badlands; the fertile topography of the Corn Belt; the wonder that is the Sandhills; from the skyline of Omaha to tiny Monowi with one inhabitant.
It’s the home of cowboys and poets, buffalo and meadowlark. It's the middle of nowhere, and the center of everywhere. There is no better place to make photographs; the light is gorgeous and the people are open and friendly.
I am a citizen of the world. I fly hundreds of thousands of miles every single year. But I always return to Nebraska. It's the best place on earth…so many of my favorite people live there…it's home!
JC: Are there any other projects on your horizon that you are at liberty to talk about at this time?
BF: At Straw Hat Visuals we have a number of ongoing projects. We are, hopefully, 1/3 finished with the Nebraska Project. Our goal is to work at least 100 days a year each of the next two years in Nebraska. We are also doing a series of workshops this year in Nebraska, Iceland and Cuba. (See link below)
We've made a commitment to education worldwide. We are starting an education nonprofit with our friend Gavin Dykes. We are working on a series of short documentary films about industry leaders, educational methodology and student voice. To that end we are working with Michel Khoury producing a student film festival in 2015 in Beirut. And we have three book projects underway; one technical, one career anthology and one art book.
JC: What advice can you offer to today's aspiring young photographer?
BF: The most important things for young photojournalists remain the same as they always have. Work hard. Master the craft. Initiate don't imitate.
JC: Do you have any last thoughts that you would like to share with our readers?
BF: Get a voice…and then use it!
Bill Frakes website: http://www.billfrakes.com/
Bill Frakes’ tribute to his mom: http://www.nebraskaproject.com/portfolio-item/a-teacher-remembered/
Straw Hat Visuals: http://www.strawhatvisuals.com/
The Nebraska Project: www.nebraskaproject.com
NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism Award: https://nppa.org/spotlight/70732
Straw Hat Visuals Workshops: www.strawhatvisuals.com/blog/workshops/
Twitter & Instagram: @BillFrakes