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Member Spotlight - Bill Frakes


[ September 5, 2002 ]   Catching photographer Bill Frakes at home is a daunting task. And if you do, you're bound to find the Sports Illustrated staffer working in his home-office in Jacksonville, Florida. "Sure, I'll be happy to talk," he says through the speaker phone. "I'm just doing a little PhotoShop." It's 9:00 p.m. on a Friday night.

Raised in Western Nebraska, Frakes seemingly has done it all: he's travelled everywhere--all 50 US states, and at least that many foreign countries, law school, and has been recognized by his peers as Newspaper Photographer of the Year in the prestigous Pictures of the Year competition, won the Gold Medal from the World Press Photo, and was a member of the Miami Herald Staff that won the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of Huricane Andrew.

His newspaper career was spent covering city crime, national and international news and sports, now a magazine job where he has covered half a dozen Olympic games, at least twice that many Super Bowls and three times that many Kentucky Derbies, in addition to basically every other sporting event you can imagine. And now, a 18-month-old-daughter.

But, fueled by what he says is a sense of both curiosity and disobedience, he's hungry for more.

He told altpick.com about where he is now and where he'd like to go next.

Do you remember the first time you ever picked up a camera?
I'm sure it was when I was very young, but I don't think that counts. I started shooting seriously in college -- at Arizona State University. I stumbled into it. I was finishing a degree in business, on my way to law school, and took a series of photojournalism classes as electives.

I realized that I could communicate really easily with photographs. I was fortunate to find a professor--Conn Keyes--who was a master teacher and coach. After graduating from ASU I still went to law school, but photography was a strong lure. I also have a degree in journalism from the University of Kansas where I got the journalism part of photojournalist, mainly from Professors Gary Mason and Tom Eblen.

I'm lucky, in addition to being afforded an extensive formal education I had parents who cared tremendously and worked diligently to complete my learning.

My mother is an extremely talented visual person. She's a teacher, she's spent her entire life working with children, both in school and out, helping them learn.

She's a terrific artist in her own right. She can see and re-create anything. She can do any kind of shape, any kind of form; she's a wizard at composition. I remember back when I was four or five -- we lived in a small, clean, precise town in Nebraska. Walking with her one day, we saw a big pool of oil that had leaked onto asphalt. It was black on black, and she pulled me over to the side of the mess and she showed me the shape of a hand present in that pool of oil; where the oil sought the crevices in the concrete it was mimicking a hand. I got those lessons daily.

When you grow up in a place like Western Nebraska, you have to look harder to see things. It's a place of serenity and great beauty, just very quiet. I was raised, in a subliminal fashion, to be an artist from the start. Mom didn't put a paint brush in my hand or a camera or a clay pot --she just taught me how to see, and how to work. I don't know if she was trying to teach me to be an artist, but she was trying to teach me shape, texture, composition ... how the lack of something can be just as important to composition as the presence of something else.

What about your father?
My father was an English teacher and had an extreme love of books. So education , art and contact sports were the things that dominated my life.

I was a big kid, 6'4" and around 200 pounds when I was 13, and into most of the folks were I grew up that meant sports. Rough and tumble stuff. And here's my dad, a literature and classical music lover. A bit of a conflict, but they let me go my own way and provided subtle guidance.

He was a Shakespeare guy. When you were getting "The Little Engine That Could" at bedtime, I got "Hamlet." I don't know which is better, but his love of books came through to me and continues to shape who I am.

You studied business administration as an undergraduate. Then law school. Then what?
Law school certainly was a good exercise: You learn how to read, you learn how to think. Probably most important you learn how to do research.

Your first fulltime job as a photographer was with the Miami Herald, how important a step was that in your career?
Huge. I worked with an extremely talented group of photographers, writers and editors. I had to learn how to produce right now--no waiting for a muse, that image is going to be made on deadline no matter the obstacles or distractions, and it better be good. The Herald was a great paper, exactly what you want--feisty, opinionated, well funded, driven to be the best. Miami in the 1980's had to be about the best place for a young journalist--nothing but news and excitement.

You knew you wanted to be a magazine photographer. Why?
It's just a different kind of photography. A bigger, different audience. shrunk. Magazines can be more lucrative. Better resources. Of course that isn't the case in every situation--but it certainly is at Sports Illustrated.

Why sports?
I'm good at it. I enjoy the technical challenges. Things happen very quickly, and often just once. But I don't just shoot sports. My work is motion and emotion. A lot of what I do is features and portraits. Sports Illustrated is a wonderful magazine, diverse and powerful. I do quite a bit of shooting just for myself as well.

YAnd now, you are doing more advertising work than before. Can you explain that shift as well?
IMostly, I'm in it for the challenge. I want to work in different mediums, I want to enjoy collaborative efforts. I'm interested in doing new and different things, like music advertising. I like to stay extremely busy. I do a wide variety of assignments for a diverse client list.

It's not a brand new thing for me to do advertising I've worked for Nike, Reebok, Coke, Kodak, Nikon, IBM. I'm just changing the way I'm going to do business, that's all. The economy's changing. But I'm certainly not going to quit doing what I'm doing, I'm adding not substracting.

You must work literally all the time.
You know, the 21 or 22 days I spent in Salt Lake City at the Olympics was by far the most consecutive days I've slept in the same bed since the Olympics in Australia two years ago.

How do you do it?
I'm really organized. I have something like 40 different cases that are cut to take different kinds of gear. My equipment closets look like a well-run grocery store ... There were times before I was married when I'd be on the road 25 weeks straight weeks without going home... FedEx and I are well acquainted.

My wife, Paige, is a television news anchor. She is extremely supportive of my work. As busy as she is, she always finds time to make my life easier.

I love photographs. Not just my own -- I have hundreds and hundreds of photo books. I take pictures because the things I photograph mean something to me, and it's the best way for me to communicate that. I'm very lucky my vocation is also my avocation.




- Contributed by Kelly McEvers


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