Jesse Frohman

November 13, 2013

Photographer Jesse Frohman is…well, he’s a badass. He can shoot portraits, still-lives, landscapes—you name it, and most likely, he’s not only done it, he’s done it well. If his quite evident talent weren’t enough to make him awesome (you can check out his website here), he’s incredibly knowledgeable about art in general and photography in particular. He’s passionate about the creative process, fascinated by the way it works in himself and in others. He’s also kind and generous with his time. In short, he’s not the artist as a young man (yup, we’re sticking in a reference to James Joyce), rather, he’s the artist as a mature man: confident in what he’s accomplished and willing to share what he’s learned. We’re sure that Irving Penn, his mentor, would approve.


You were the last person to shoot Kurt Cobain. What was that like?

You can’t look at it from the perspective of where we are now and how we think of him. He wasn’t thought of that way at that time. It wasn’t a foreboding moment. I wasn’t, “I better make this a value-packed shoot.” It was just another shoot, and he was just another great musician.


Irving Penn was one of your mentors. How did that come about?

I met Irving Penn through a friend of a friend of my mother’s. He was shooting for Vogue that day, in a rental studio. I walked in, and I didn’t meet anybody else. He pulled me over to the side of the studio, and we had this interesting conversation. He looked at my pictures, and he asked me all these technical questions, like what sort of F stop I had printed at, and I had no memory of those kinds of things. I don’t know if anybody has any memory of what aperture you set your enlarger lens. He looked at some of my platinum prints and loved them quite a lot, because that’s what he was famous for doing as his real hobby. He asked me about what I wanted to do.


I said, “I’d like to work for a master such as yourself, and then go out on my own.” We finished up talking and he said, “I love your work. You’re obviously very talented, but we won’t ever work together.” And I said nothing. I was stunned.


He said, “Well, I can see by your reaction that maybe you need some explanation. You know my brother Arthur Penn.”


“Yes,” I said. “The famous film director.”


“Well,” Penn said, “When Arthur wanted to go into filmmaking, he had to work for a studio. He went into one office and said, “I’d like to work here.” They said, “We have nothing for you,” and he said, “Well, I’ll do anything, sweep the floors, work in the mailroom, whatever.” He was insistent, and they found him a job. One day, a producer walked in and said, “Who are you and what are you doing here?” and he said, “I’m Arthur Penn.” They talked for a bit and the producer said, “You’re much too qualified. We need to find something better for you.” And within six months he was assistant directing, and in a year he was directing, and that’s the story.”


I said, “That’s a great story, and honestly, if you wanted me to sweep the floors, I’d be very happy to. But I already know how to sweep floors, and I really want to learn how to take pictures.”


He said, “It’s very nice to meet you, good luck,” and that was that.


Did you stay in touch with him afterward?

The funny thing is, I was working for a photographer who had a studio in the same building. So I would see him in the elevator, and he might grunt a hello–he wasn’t really friendly. I knew his right-hand woman, though, and she was very friendly. One day she invited me to show, and I went, and the next day she asked me if I would like to meet [Penn] again. I didn’t know why, but I agreed, and I went to his studio. He interviewed me again in the darkroom. I cut him short. I said, “Excuse me Mr. Penn, but I don’t think I’m the right guy for the job.” It was a combination of talking to your grandfather and a professor and the Dalai Lama. You hung onto every word, it was very profound and very serious. He was asking me very technical questions, and I knew not to waste his time this time around. So he said, “Well, can we meet again?”


I said, “Sure.” The next day I got another call asking me to meet him again. At this point, I was working so many hours that we had to set the meeting for the weekend. He lived on Long Island not very far from my parents, so I went out there, and we sat around the fireplace, and somewhere in there he offered me a job. It was the best conversation about photography I ever had in my life–it was a three hour talk.


When I left I called my father and said, “Dad, I’m going to work for Penn, I’m going to be his apprentice.” That means you’re the low man on the totem pole, right above the guy who sweeps the floors. The next day I got a call from [Penn’s] right hand woman, telling me that Penn wanted me to take over the studio and be his first assistant.


I said, “Well, I have to think about it,” because I was thinking was he crazy, that I didn’t know the things he was looking for, or that he was very clever and saw something in me that I didn’t see myself. Apparently it was the latter. It was about growing into it and learning. The technical stuff is something anybody can learn if you’re smart, it just takes a little time. It’s about temperament and dedication. He didn’t want somebody to come in and then leave six months later. They interviewed 100 applicants, and I was the only one who turned him down. He liked that.


What did you take away from your experience from him?

I think the most important thing I learned from my time with him was how to light. How to see.


Who are three artists that you’d want to hang out with?

  1. Well, I have to say Picasso for sure. True genius. So versatile. Reinvented himself over and over again. King of kings of artists. I’d hang out with him in his studio. I’d like to be a fly on the wall and just watch him work. I’m fascinated by how people create.
  2. Avedon. I’d watch him work, and I’d go out for a drink with him. I’d do everything, short of sleeping with him. I met him a few times. He was friends with Penn. He was such a charmer. I heard he could be really difficult, but he was brilliant in making his pictures. They seem so simple too, but if you look at the breadth of his work, it has a lot of depth. He made wonderfully inspiring and different pictures of people with such simple means. I always wanted to be there on the shoot, next to him while he worked, while he shot his portraits. Early on, I was very influenced by dance. I took dance pictures–it was one of the first things I took pictures of. I met a lot of choreographers. Although I don’t really enjoy making dance pictures, because I find it a limited kind of photography, I do love the motion, and I like the energy, capturing the energy in portraits. That was what was so brilliant about Avedon. He really was a choreographer, a director, and he really knew how to direct people to get the energy and the emotion out of them.
  3. The street photographers, Garry Winogrand and William Eggleson. Eggleson for color, of course, and Garry Winogrand for his energy on the street. He also had a wonderful energy. I was always fascinated by looking at Garry Winogrand’s contact sheets. There was a great show at the Museum of Modern Art a few years ago, and they had some of his contact sheets. You can see the ones he circled. It’s very different from shooting a portrait in a studio. You see the way he’d move around, the way he danced along the street to get the picture that he wanted. And it was a dance. Sometimes he’d shoot one picture, one frame, and sometimes he’d shoot a few. He was never one to really study a subject and shoot for a long time. Just a few frames and then he’d move on. It would be wonderful to walk along with him and see what interested him. Same with Eggleston. I’d love to do that.
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