Before Frank Ockenfels became a go-to key art photographer for FX and AMC’s culture-shifting dramas (and comedies), and before he became a chameleon-like promo artist as adept at capturing with an image the sinister historical fantasy of Starz’ Da Vinci’s Demons as he is the goofy nonchalance of Charlie Sheen’s Anger Management, and before he received an Honorary Key Art Award from The Hollywood Reporter for a distinguished career taking pictures of TV shows that are often as memorable as the shows themselves – he was a music photographer on his first TV campaign in Texas, shooting on a chilly day on a deserted road somewhere outside of Dallas.
It was the early ‘90s and the production was the ABC movie-of-the-week Murder in the Heartland, which chronicled the serial spree killer Charlie Starkweather (Tim Roth) and his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate (Fairuza Balk). Grey Entertainment was then the agency of record for ABC Television Movies, and a woman who worked there named Kimberly Rock “put her job on the line to hire me,” said Ockenfels.
Up until then, Ockenfels had made a name for himself with portraits of Tracy Chapman, David Bowie and many other musicians for the likes of Rolling Stone and other publications. Fascinated by tricks of the light, his works showcased a wild creativity, imaginative ideas brought to life in prints frequently altered by scribbles, rips and collage. They were works of art but they weren’t exactly what you would call commercial.
Still, Rock “thought my style was more what the TV industry needed to be doing,” said Ockenfels. “Not so clean, off the cuff.”
Out in the vast, open landscape of Murder in the Heartland, that off-the-cuffness was about to be tested, for nature was in no mood to cooperate with Ockenfels’ first shoot for television.
“We went out in this old Desoto with Fairuza and Tim,” he told Brief. “And just as we got out there, this massive cloud front came in. At the time, Ockenfels “wasn’t really that prepared in the sense of, what happens if everything goes wrong in terms of lighting? I used to just use whatever was available and kind of create out of that. In music you didn’t need as many answers. You can basically work off the cuff and each picture can be different.”
So Ockenfels didn’t fight what the world had given him. The light wanted to be gray and gritty, so he went with it. He pulled out an old 4 x 5 Polaroid camera – one of those old-timey accordion-looking things – and used it to photograph his actors with a “not so clean and crisp look to it.”
When the weather got too cold, the actors finally took off in a vehicle. “They got about 100 yards from us when the sky broke,” Ockenfels said, “and the sun came ripping across the plain exactly to where we were standing.”
Ockenfels chased after them, stopped the truck. Got more photos, and the shoot “ended up amazingly,” he said. “The pictures are really beautiful and for years I used to have a picture of Tim standing on the bumper of the car in his costume. It was trial by fire and it was a very different campaign for them.”
The black and white photographs from Murder in the Heartland are stark and bleak. Roth has never struggled to express something sinister on camera, but it’s Balk here who rivets, her icy blue eyes penetrating the camera without a trace of pathos or regret. Of the two of them, Roth actually looks capable of a kind of warmth. Balk looks like a stone-cold killer. When Ockenfels took the photos, she had not yet broken through with the 1996 film The Craft, and was relatively unknown to audiences. But her mere presence alone in these images seems compelling enough to have driven interest in the movie. As a key-art newbie, Ockenfels’ images were already making a statement.
As time went on, and the TV work picked up, one of Ockenfels’ great qualities as a key-art photographer would prove to be, as with Balk, detecting that subtle, sometimes unquantifiable essence of what makes a show’s star compelling on screen and distilling it down to an unmoving image.
One of his most evocative and memorable photos in recent years is also one of his simplest: a profile shot of Justified lead Timothy Olyphant, reclined in a chair as protagonist Raylan Jennings, gun raised. It’s a picture that truly speaks a thousand words – the narrative of a gunman enforcer awaiting an unseen assailant; the dangerous affability of the character of Raylan. But it only happened because Ockenfels sensed that Olyphant needed to be “low enough in the chair that he could sit back and get that wonderful, long lean he’s got,” he said. But the problem was, the rented chair brought in by the prop guy had too high a back, so “all of a sudden we’re going, ‘you got to chop the chair up.’”
The chair was chopped, Olyphant reclined, and “it was amazing to shoot,” Ockenfels continued, because “the minute he sits down, everything about him, the way he wears the hat even – he just clicks right into what he needs to be that character. That shot looks simple but you could tell a million actors to sit down in a chair and they wouldn’t do what he did.”
Ockenfels seems to have a photographic memory of every shoot he’s done, and yet he’s hardly a control freak. Though a meticulous planner, his plans also account for things not happening according to them, and some of his most compelling works come from improvising on the fly. Like the Justified shoot. And like a shoot he did for American Horror Story: Coven (Season 3) that included a shot of three women and a very real-looking snake.
In fact, the albino snake was real. There were many snakes of all different sizes and colors on the set. A snake handler, too. But even with the handler’s reptile-whispering talents, it was not possible to make the snake cooperate enough to do what occurs in the image above. Some compositing was inevitable, but Ockenfels was worried about how the “connection” between the slithering creature and the lips of the women would look in post. The place where scales touched skin needed to look real or the whole image would look distractingly “photo-shoppy.”
It was at that point that one of the models said, “‘well, why don’t you put it in my mouth and I’ll put my lips gently on it to show what would be the connection?’” Ockenfels recalled, which seemed like a good idea. “So the handler takes the head of the snake, and the tail of the snake and puts the center section into her mouth,” he continued. “She was so calm. It was amazing… We shoot it and she pulls it out and I said, ‘what was it like?’ And she said, ‘it was really odd because you feel all the vertebrae in the snake constantly moving in your mouth… it was a very surreal experience.’ And the other girls go, ‘well, I want to try it too.’ So each one of the girls did it. It wasn’t on our list of things to shoot. We just did it.”
Following the eerie Murder in the Heartland shoot that kicked off his foray into TV key art, Ockenfels’ sensibility frequently lent itself to darker fare, such as Stephen King miniseries. But as time went on, and gritty cable dramas ascended into the mainstream, dark became the norm, and now Ockenfels’ sensibility is what’s popular. As a result, his fascinatingly skewed worldview has helped define the marketing of television’s most iconic shows: Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Louie, The Americans, Masters of Sex, Bates Motel...and of course, the most iconic of them all:
Ockenfels traces the start of not only his own impressive run of TV key art, but of a renaissance in the TV key art trade at large, to Mad Men, which he was hired to shoot about eight years ago. Each year thereafter of shooting the AMC drama, he would work with creator Matt Weiner to “emulate a certain type of photography,” he said, using his uncanny skills to cut to the heart of the show’s overarching themes of emptiness and loneliness.
“For all the years that Don Draper was in those pics, it was never a headshot of him until the final year, where we just shot his face in a car,” Ockenfels said. “The other years he’s standing in an office or in a [water] tank or on the street [looking at] his reflection.”
In creating those deep, pristine moments of artful ambiguity, Ockenfels believes “[Mad Men] opened up a lot of people to realizing that an interesting piece of advertising art will make you look.”
Reflecting on winning the Mad Men job, composing those graceful images of television’s most graceful show, and then the journey of work that has followed it, Ockenfels says, “I got lucky.” But luck favors the prepared and Ockenfels’ ability to improvise is just another way of saying he’s good at solving problems, a skill that in turn can only come from a deep understanding of the craft, a gift for working with actors, and a fiery passion for what light can do and how it can be captured.
“I keep thinking, ‘how much more can I say,” he said, “and then I get to do something else, or the technology changes, or I teach myself something new… I’m tremendously ADD. I totally appreciate people who have worked all their lives to basically create a certain kind of light and have made a career out of a certain kind of look… My [look] is that every time I see something that’s closer to what I’ve already done I’m like, ‘what’s the subtle change I can make?’ There’d be nothing worse than to work for a client and do the exact same thing I do for Netflix that I do for Starz that I do for FX, etc. I try to give them all something different and do a turn or twist so I can respectfully say, ‘the group of us are creating something new.’ It’s been great in the later parts of my career to be able to constantly reinvent myself.”
Images courtesy of Frank Ockenfels.