Photographs by Beckett Ockenfels
We talk with Frank Ockenfels about fatherhood, photography, and raising boys one of whom is a budding photographer.
Heidi: Why do you think your older son Beckett is a good photographer?
Frank: Composition and light. He figured it out quickly which is kind of bizarre and he knew what good light was which is kind of funny because I would say that’s the biggest problem with a lot of younger photographers. He sees light really quickly and understands this is a good piece of light, or that over there is an interesting piece of light, even if it’s the most basic. I built the daylight studio upstairs and he immediately saw how beautiful the light was and how simple it was. Almost so much that he wouldn’t take a light out and try to light something differently.
So he just looks for the available light and well, he sees it. Now, will he use it is another question! But when he goes to take pictures for himself he’s always trying something. He’s done simple and when he does simple, he doesn’t think much of it.
A friend of his asked him to do a couple of lookbooks for friends who are young fashion designers. And he dismisses the pictures, but the light is beautiful and simple and exactly what is needed as people want to see the clothes and the fabric. But then on the same hand he’ll turn around and use a LED panel that we have here. It can be set to constantly change colors so he shot images with the it rotating like a party light, moving and flowing through things. Then he was doing slow-motion pictures of his friends blurred and the colors were moving through it. When I was 17 THAT was not my brain.
Has Beckett taken any formal photography classes?
Diane found a photo class for high school kids at SVA. He ended up taking a class from a photographer Clay Patrick McBride I met when I was just a kid.
Clay told me “Go be a photographer, man. Your work is great.” And so, oddly enough, without us knowing it, he ends up in Clay’s studio lighting class.
Anybody who was around me started laughing, “But, he stands around you all the time. Why would he go take a class like this?” and I thought he should take the class and forget he know’s anything and listen. Listen and do it the way the instructor is telling you and then take it and learn that process. It’s not like telling you do it the for the rest of your life like that.
You’re learning and feeling how they see. But first, execute what they’re asking you to do. He and Clay totally butted heads because Beckett is very straightforward. If he likes something he likes it, if he doesn’t he doesn’t. If he doesn’t like to do a certain style he doesn’t want to do the assignment.
What do you say to encourage him?
My response: “Well, welcome to the world of photography. You’re always going to get assignments you don’t want to do. But you have to go above and beyond what that is. I think the hardest jobs to do are the ones that everyone thinks you’re amazing at. And the ones that are the easiest sometimes, which people don’t really get praised for, are the ones where you are given something to push.
If the directive is “Shoot this can on this white seamless” I think that’s easy because you know you can do it, but the fun part is how much more are you able to push it? It’s funny to watch your kid at 17 have just such an incredible eye and not really 100% embrace it.
Nowadays his generation of people do multiple things. You become a photographer, get connections, then become a fashion designer, you can be both. You can be an actor and a fashion designer. Actor, musician. Musician, actor. Everything is overlapped in using the opportunities to get you where you want to go. And using your education along the way to do so.
How much does Beckett talk about you influencing him?
Not at all.
When he wants to do something he’ll say, “Just tell me how you did this.”
And I’ll say, “Okay, and I still need to show you?”
“No. Just tell me.”
And then, he’ll go and try it himself and he’ll find his own answer to whatever that is, which is great. Clay told him, “Don’t be your dad. You’ve got to be yourself.” Which at 17 or 18 years old can be tough, he’s going to be influenced by me. He’s standing around me, he works for me, he sees how I shoot. Like any assistant would be influenced by the photographer they work for when they go to do those things for themselves. They’re definitely going to have in their brain, “Oh, this is how I just saw it done.” The key is what you do with that knowledge, and where you push yourself to take it.
Paintings by Diane Ockenfels
How did you raise two boys?
I didn’t raise the kids, Diane did. She really was always here for them, when they were younger, they would always rely on her more. If something went wrong, they would immediately go to her, not to me, which was tough when I realized it.
At what point did you start worrying about your boys?
I think with the boys, it’s interesting to see them grow up and all of a sudden being worried.
Every parent worries about what the kid’s going to become. You want them to succeed at what they do. With Cooper, my younger one, he started out being the kid who needed more hands-on because he was not very focused. And all of a sudden he hit high school, we don’t worry about him at all. He goes to school at 6 o’clock in the morning and comes home at 9 o’clock every night. And he’s just tremendously active and proactive in the sense he’s A, B student plus he’s involved in the theatre program. He wanted to play bass about a year and a half ago and just started learning online. Essentially he taught himself how to play. Now he’s in the school jazz band and they’re teaching him how to read music.
Where Beckett is the complete polar opposite. He’s a tremendously talented photographer but doesn’t push forward at all — doesn’t have that thing to every single day stand up and go take a picture.
Did you take photos everyday as a teenager?
I probably didn’t have that till I got to New York and probably my third year of college is when I finally hit it where I was like, Oh! This is something you do every day. Every single day, you wake up and you have to take pictures and to basically answer that question that’s in your head. That is the reason why you would become a photographer. Why is it that one person figures it out while another person doesn’t figure it out? There is no rhyme or reason even though there’s a passion in photography on both ends equally. At my workshops people are looking for me to for the answer, I wish I had the golden ticket. “Look at my book and tell me why I can’t get a job.” I tell them,
“Don’t look at me. I can tell you what I think and what I see in your work and what I don’t see in your work and how you’re presenting it to me, but I’m not the one hiring.”
to be continued next week…