Frank Ockenfels III photographs celebrities in ways you wouldn’t expect. In a world where everyone has easy access to Taylor Swift’s Instagram selfies and Kim Kardashian’s snapchat stories, his provocative portraits of the rich and famous somehow seem a lot more real than those “candid” social media posts.
Perhaps this is because when Ockenfels is commissioned for a celebrity portrait, he doesn’t approach his subject with any preconceived ideas. For example, when he photographed Angelina Jolie, he sought to capture what he calls “the overall feeling of Angelina.”
“The day I photographed her she had no interest in being the sexy, beautiful girl. She wanted to have all her clothes on and be considered as an actor,” he says.
“What I try and do when I photograph anybody, men, women or children or whatever, is try and see who they are. I'm not a photographer who comes to the set with personal perceptions—I like to see what they become.”
He created the Angelina portrait in his journal, splicing two images together and drawing an X on the actor’s famous mouth. “We played on the idea that people always talk about her lips,” Ockenfels explains.
Spending your life getting up close and personal with the world’s sexiest women sounds like a dream job, but it’s also a loaded one. When discussing Vanity Fair’s controversial Margot Robbie cover story, and its accompanying Sports Illustrated-style bikini photographs, Ockenfels points out that women deserve a choice as to how they are presented.
“Latent sexuality can be kind of boring,” he says. “Especially if you're trying to make a statement like that. The thing about celebrities is that they don't always want to be presented that way and you have to respect that. You have to be smart as an artist and photographer to kind of say, okay, then I'll meet you and spend some time with you and find what the most real representation of our moment or time together.”
When it comes to taking the photograph of a stunning model or actress, you don’t have to force things. “A sexy picture of a woman can be a very simple portrait,” Ockenfels points out. “That's the most honest thing you can do. If sexuality is part of what they're trying to put out then it's definitely their choice.”
Developing a relationship with your portrait subject definitely pays off. Ockenfels became a go-to photographer for David Bowie, after the two hit it off during their first shoot together. He went on to stage fifteen shoots with the musician.
"It's a great example of when you're younger and you meet somebody and they get you and appreciate you and start requesting you,” the photographer says. “He asked for me and he was amazing because he never came with a preconceived idea, he would only show up and he always trusted me and listened to me…he was an amazing person to photograph so many times.”
“It's humbling to say the least, to have someone like that trust you so much.”
Over the course of his career, Ockenfels has seen a change in how famous people choose to market themselves. “Nowadays with celebrities that's increasingly hard because there's just so much that is guarded, no one wants to show and tell,” he says.
While the celebrity Instagram account is ubiquitous, Ockenfels says that these supposedly candid representations are much more opaque than they seem.
“Look at the comparison between an Amy Schumer Instagram post and a Kim Kardashian Instagram post,” he says.
“It's so much more interesting to me seeing something unpolished…the whole selfie thing—finding a certain perfect angle, it's so boring.”