No matter what guise he was photographed in, David Bowie has long been one of rock’s most striking physical specimens. And he may have never had a more fitting cameraman than Frank Ockenfels 3. A scrappy young photographer who had made a name for himself by shooting a just-rising Tracy Chapman in 1988, he found himself on set with Bowie the following year. And the singer loved the results.
Over the next nine years, Ockenfels would shoot Bowie a whopping 15 times, forming a professional relationship that would change his life. He made a career innovative techniques, like distorting the image, painting on top of the film or using obsolete camera models. Ockenfels would go on to shoot everyone from Angelina Jolie to Tom Waits to Barack Obama, but the work he accomplished with Bowie followed him around forever.
In conjunction with The Hollywood Reporter’s Magic Hour series, we caught up with Ockenfels to talk his life, career and work with Bowie.
You’ve shot David Bowie extensively over the years, and I imagine he was one of the most photographable people in rock. In general, what physical or behavioral quality in someone makes them an easy photographic subject, or vice versa?
A collaborative nature would be the best way of putting it. In everything I do, I look for the collaboration in getting the person involved in doing the image. David was always like that in the sense that he never came to the shoots with ideas. He’d just say, “This needs to be done for an album,” or, “This needs to be done for a promotional image.” He was always open to a conversation about the approach on how to do it. I might be doing something and he’d say, “What about this?” We’d go back and forth as we were taking images for different things. It was pretty amazing, the timeframe when I was doing it. I was a young photographer and I hadn’t worked with anyone at the level of David. I probably never will again. His openness, understanding and support in doing the work was pretty amazing.
Not only did he create beautiful music, but he was a striking physical specimen. Is there anyone these days who ticks both those boxes like he did? Who’s our Bowie now?
I don’t know who that is, to be honest. I think a lot of people try to be that. There’s a major need. I think that’s a problem with a lot of art, is that people step backwards. They try to replicate or do what’s been done already. I think the problem is that they would stop and move forward in the way that David did, which is being the truest point of who they are and constantly being open to change.
I feel like artists like Bowie or the Beatles were given the space to camp out in the studio and “find themselves” in a way that artists aren’t granted in the age of streaming and social media. Would you agree?
Back in the day, when David was making music, bands were given three-record deals. You were given a deal where you came in and guaranteed you could produce three albums for you. Now, you walk in the door and your Facebook page has to have x amount of followers. I see a lot of young musicians now whose album may not come out for a year after we shoot something, but they trickle stuff across Instagram and Facebook, and try to get the buzz going before they put the album out. There’s nothing wrong with it, to be honest; it’s just a different way of doing things. It’s an interesting time with what’s happening.
Maybe that wouldn’t be conducive to the next Bowie, but it’d be conducive to something else. When he would release something kind of unconventional or bonkers, people seemed to try and give it the space to breathe or just roll with it. Now, when someone tries a transitional album, people on social media are like “They’re done.”
When you take chances, it’s hard. And you have to understand why you’re taking the chance. Are you taking the chance for your art, or are you taking the chance to be controversial in saying certain things? Those are very different conversations. It’s the stretch of an artist, that each album David made, he attempted to go out and try to redefine himself. It’s like most people. Some people keep haircuts from high school and that kind of shit.
But David would sit there and talk to younger people. When people in their twenties would ask David what he was listening to, he would kind of talk to them because he wanted to know what was happening.Because obviously, at a certain point, you get stuck into a bubble, and you can’t just do the same things over and over.
David would walk into a photo shoot with his Samsonite suitcase and guitar case, in his Yankees hat and his long coat and his sneakers, and you wouldn’t know it was him. He’d just walk in and say, “Hi, what’s going on, we’re taking pictures now?” It was never the pomp and circumstance of nowadays when you shoot somebody, no matter how small they are. The management and personal assistants come in and there’s no one-to-one with somebody or honesty to it.
Did you catch a similar effect when you shot Kurt Cobain?
No, Kurt was very different. It was just for the cover of a magazine back in those times. I shot Courtney [Love] about a year prior to that, and they came to the shoot with it being said not to shoot anybody separately, to not shoot Kurt without Krist or Dave. All the pictures I shot of Kurt that everyone knows, like the one on the cover of SPIN, were cropped out of a group shot. It wasn’t a single image I had of him.
But he was there. He was very open to listening to what I had to say. We were talking and trying to figure out the picture. And then when Courtney walked in with their nanny and [Frances] Bean, he basically became a dad. He got down on the floor and he was playing with her. Everything stopped. It was amazing, because you could see how much he loved his daughter. It was kind of amazing to see someone just stop the whole day for that kind of thing.
I’m sure that SPIN image is how so many visualize Kurt. And Jim Morrison and Bob Marley have become less individuals than T-shirts or tote bags to an entire generation of listeners. Any thoughts on how iconic images can make people sort of static in the public consciousness?
That picture of Che Guevara, they stick it on everything now. And no one understands who the man was or what he did. The Bowie stuff is everywhere now, too, and it does sometimes boil down to just an image in which people define him by that image. In general, they were more than the image being held out to the universe.
Have you tried to give your subjects more humanity than other photographers?
I don’t think anyone shoots a picture thinking it’s going to be iconic. I think it’s when the picture becomes true is when everyone kind of reacts to it. Because they’re not used to seeing that. There’s a pomp and circumstance to the candy-coating of pop music. People make these images and you basically just spew them out. They’re so concerned about looking good that they’re not thinking about the other side of it. Some of the best photographs of the world are of people who don’t look the best, but there’s a truth to them.
Even with David, we did a whole series of distorted images of his face, and he loved it. The first time I’d photographed him, I didn’t try to do that basic picture of David Bowie looking back at me, you know what I mean? I did it in a very different way, and he responded to that. And that’s probably what clicked in his brain, saying, “Hey, maybe this kid has something else to say to me.”
But of all the pictures I shot of David, there’s one that’s iconic, and to me, it’s not iconic. It’s the picture of the back of him with the Union Jack on, the jacket that Alexander McQueen made for him. It’s at the Bowie exhibition, it’s floating around on book covers, and people always reference it. It’s the one picture everyone knows I did of Bowie. But it’s not the best picture I did of David Bowie. Far from that. It’s not the most honest or real. It was a very contrived photograph for an album cover idea.
Sometimes it’s out of your hands as to what people appreciate and why.
I’d say in general! I think if we all sit around worrying about what people think of our work or if are concerned about our work, and you listen to that, then you’re not living the life of David Bowie. That’s the best way to say it. You’re concerned about others and what they think of your work, and as you’re taking the picture and pushing the shutter down, you’re saying, “Ooh, is someone going to like this?” The minute you start doing that, you’re not producing what is true. That’s the best way to say it.
But we live in that society where you have to worry about every little turn. You know, like, “Is this going to offend somebody?” You can say the sky is blue tomorrow, and it’s going to offend somebody, you know what I mean?
You’ve also shot Tom Waits, another great songwriter who’s at a level where he can pull off sort of a wackadoodle public image on top of the songs. In every ‘90s photo of him, he’s in a dark field with scarecrows, old tires…
Well, that’s his truth. That’s who he is. That’s how he sees himself. That’s what he wants you to see, the character. David Bowie was a character. He said it himself. That was a persona. I think that people forget that sometimes when they get wrapped up in any of his actions. He didn’t politically go out as David Bowie and say things. That was a different person, the performer.
I think that’s the same thing with Waits. During the day, I shot a picture of him and I was shooting a roll of film, and it was the most simple thing I was doing with him. As I was shooting, he was just looking at me, and I liked the light. I thought he looked really kind of handsome. Then he started slowly moving into a growl. When you watch every progression on the roll, he kind of starts growling at me.
And I sent him the first picture — and this was back in the day of answering machines — and I get home and there’s a message from him. [Affects voice] “Hey Frank, it’s Tom. I’m in Berlin. My wife got the picture. She says I look handsome.” I just remember getting that and being like, “That’s the best message I ever got!” That was it! It wasn’t like he was happy or not about it. I just took the picture, and his wife thought he looked handsome.
The line on Bowie, especially after his passing, was, “Oh, let’s talk about all his characters!” But I attended a talk between Jeff Slate and Tony Visconti recently, which really shed light on who he was in the day-to-day. Specifically, his intense privacy. Visconti would leak some insignificant detail, and Bowie would kind of go, “That is private.”
This was before NDAs were ever signed or that kind of stuff. No one ever asked. You were just smart enough to know not to do anything. And now with this idea that you have to somehow sign this piece of paper because it’s going to supposedly not talk about the shoot…well, you shouldn’t talk about the shoot anyway! When you work with or have dinner with someone like that, you appreciate that.
I went to dinner with David one time. I tell the story to friends, but I don’t talk about it in public. That was my moment. That was my nice little moment with David. And it was that personal. If the next day it ended up on the front page of the New York Post, then who are you? Who are you as a friend? What is it you think you gained? You want a little recognition for yourself. That’s all you wanted at that point.
You forget that we’re not the celebrity. When two artists sit together or do something together, that’s just what they do. But if you do it on the basis of getting some fame or recognition, then I don’t relate to that at all.
Which leads to the question I had prepared, which sounds cheesy now that I’m reading it off a page, about who your “personal Bowie” was.
Well, I had Bowie, so I don’t have one! You get one in life. And that was it for me. That was the most amazing gift I could ever be given as a photographer. The moments you spend. I think I had an eight or nine year period with him, and over that time, we did 15 shoots that were all for different reasons, and I ended up in different places with him, just doing things and having little conversations. That was a gift. There is nobody else who has come even close to the support and collaboration that I had with David.