Leica Liker is honored to have Frank Jackson, a Los Angeles Street Photographer as our #14 guest. Also Leica Liker’s fourth published photographer!
Many of you might know of Frank Jackson already but to those who don’t, he lives and breathes by light. His work first caught my eye when I was roaming the internet for black and white photographs. Then a photographer friend of mine told me about a black and white workshop that was being taught through Samy’s Camera education academy here in Los Angeles. I took the class and walked out of it having learnt not to be afraid of light but rather to embrace it. I always found photography somewhat intimidating because everything seemed so technical. Frank made it user friendly by showing how even a home lamp can be used to make amazing photographs. It’s all about how you view light. Maybe because he taught himself everything. Whatever it is, he had the “midas” teaching touch. He was a total inspiration. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the great photos I could make. You can read my review of the class I took last year here.
“Sometimes I happen to pictures and sometimes pictures happen to me. We sort of flow between each other like people who dance together for a long time.” – Frank Jackson
When you look at Frank’s images, they exude a kind of moodiness, that only an eye for light and a feel for story telling can bring together. For instance, the image below taken on the ferry passing Lady Liberty in New York. On the surface, a simple photo of people thinking while taking the ferry. But the mood and atmosphere bring out a story – one of a rather somber reflection on what it means to be free by all those in the photograph and by us the viewer. That freedom is actually a fleeting thing. Not one to be taken for granted. I could go deeper and talk about the African Americans and the struggle they had to be “free at last”. Or the woman and all the women who still fight for “equality”. Despite much progress, this image tell us much has yet to be done.
We’ve seen in our series of inspirational interviews with many photographers who have all captured decisive moments. Frank’s images however, are framed to tell a good story. A street portrait of a person not only tell of what a life has experienced, or a thought at the moment, but also what the person is thinking of into the future. Some of Frank’s street scenes capture not so much contrasts, the humor of the moment, or the juxtaposition of life and environment but in my humble opinion, a whole depth of society much in the tradition of some of the masters of street photography.
Frank’s photographs offer a completeness to an experience of both the tangible (story) and the intangible (feeling, mood).
Here is my interview with FRANK JACKSON:
Nickname: To my immediate family I’m known as Jack because I’m the 3rd Frank Jackson in the family.
Currently living in: Los Angeles
Motto: It’s funny, in my life not to have one is a good thing…Do what you say you’re going to do. Don’t tell everyone what you’re going do. Just do it. Then there’s no excuse if it doesn’t get done.
Street/Photographer since: I’m a photographer and I shoot the streets. I’ve been shooting a long time.
Profession/Job: Professional photographer.
Websites: http://www.fotographz.com, http://fotographzfrankjackson.tumblr.com
Organizations or Groups: None. Every time I’ve been in one, if there is great harmony going on then eventually someone comes in for whatever reason and knock the balance off the group. Somehow, it always happens that way. There are people in the world who can always pull a photograph out of nowhere and some people in a group get pissed at it. The highest compliment I can pay someone is: I envy you.
I don’t get caught up in competition. You see it you snap it and have to have the expertise to get the shot. I tend not to belong to a group now. There’s nothing wrong with it. I believe in forward thinking organizations, showing love for photography and keeping illusion out of it.
After college, you worked at IBM. How did you decide you wanted to be a photographer after working there? How were you able to make the transition? I fell in love with photography first. When you get a camera, the first thing you do is to shoot what see out there. So when I got my first camera, a Asahi Pentax with 50mm Takamara lens and a zoom lens, I knew for sure photography would be part of my life forever. My 2nd camera was an Olympus OM1, with a 50mm lens that I bought. I used it for my first photographic job out of college. Then a used Hasselblad, with 80 mm lens landed in my lap and it wasn’t hot, so I got to keep it. It had a waist level finder and worked like a rangefinder. It was beautiful.
Actually, working at IBM repairing their equipment, helped finance my love for photography and all the gear. I made so much money and bought everything. I was a total gear head.
If you keep shooting enough, eventually someone sees your work and they hire you. That’s what happened to me while I was still working at IBM. Naturally, I became a corporate photographer.
How did you decide to teach? I hate the word teach. When a schoolteacher must impart knowledge, it’s to have people pass tests. When you help someone learn something you feel they know it when they prove they learned it I like to keep it simple and find out why people are there in my workshops or private lessons. And if they take a class from me it’s because they are there to become better at what they do. I want you to learn one thing: to open the door to learn other things. Forget about why I do it. Just do it.
Favorite Street Camera & Lens: Rangefinder first- get a good one and learn to look through that view finder window. You can see outside and inside the lines. Afterwards you start to see like that. Leica makes the simplest and the best. But if you have a cheap plastic camera, and get the shot you want, more power to you. My first 35mm range finder was the Leica M5. What a great camera.
Now I own a Nikon D800 and Leica M6 (one of a kind- custom rebuilt for me, basically M6, with old style M3 dials) with 50mm lens and my logo on the leather. Like I said earlier, I was once a gear head. But I gave that up. I am no longer a camera collector.
I want to say, people generally equate pictures with the camera used and not the person. I don’t want to know what camera shot the photo. Some of the best images in world were taken with many non-legendary cameras. Marketing lionized the cameras afterwards. It’s the boutique syndrome. For instance, Rolex makes the best watches. You can say that about Leica or Nikon, etc. They all have their niche. The bottom line: the best camera is only as good as the people who make them ready for use. Like buying a custom made gun. If you can’t shoot with it then you’re not going to eat. Simple as that.
BTW, my cameras don’t look beat up. They always look new when I use them. It’s all about taking care of them, treating them with respect.
Back-up Street Camera & Lens: Panasonic GX1 4/3rds with prime 20mm f1.7 equivalent to 40mm in full frame. Gives film quality files that are amazing to see. People can’t dispute that it wasn’t a film camera. My Sony Nex7 is another choice, but you can only shoot one at a time.
What was your first Leica and why? I got my first Leica before I moved to Los Angeles and took on the IBM job. I saw the Leica M5, the first rangefinder when I sent my Hasselblad in for repair. I looked at it and it was nice. So I asked how much for the Hasselblad. The camera guy said $100 + Hasselblad. Well it didn’t help to have a body. I also needed a lens. I put money down on the 90mm Summicron. What’s cool about the M5 is that you look through a window with a focusing patch. I got a normal lens 1-2 years later.
Which Leica do you love and recommend? I would love to own a Leica MP. It’s really the M6 with a changed plate. I love the look of it.
Favorite photography gadget: I use LED lights from the video department for still work. You can dim and have daylight balance.
Favorite street food: Asian teriyaki, chicken yakitori, Vietnamese or Chinese stir-fry chicken – doesn’t weigh you down.
Do you listen to music while shooting? NO music. I pay attention. I don’t know how anyone can do that on the street. I need my ears to help me see.
Favorite music when shooting and/or editing Photos: I listen to jazz especially ‘round midnight’ vibe. I edit or process my best work between 11:30pm to 4-5:00am in the darkroom-digital for film. Nothing to distract you.
Favorite photo software: Lightroom 4 and Nik Silver Efex Pro and Photoshop
3 Favorite Master Photographers: Andre Kertész, Jan Saudek, and Brassai.
Kertész: Because some one told me that my work is similar to his. He kept it simple and didn’t care what people said. Don’t care what people say – they may not like it but doesn’t mean it’s not good. You can critique the quality of presentation and the correct category But that’s really it.
Brassai: Because that was pure. He was partying with people with a pocket Kodak pocket camera using 120mm film. He got the café scenes. Amazing work- he shot color and I was lucky enough to see an exhibition in Montpellier.
3 Favorite Contemporary Photographers: Albert Watson, Gordon Parks (did a photo of him and spent two afternoons with him), Howard Bingham (he was able to get Mohammed Ali to feel comfortable- he is not pretentious). I got to shoot Ali- They did a beautiful exhibit of him with a Hasselblad. I have it on film. I have to get it scanned. It’s of Ali walking in front of Binghams’ exhibit. I got to sit with him after he got Parkinsons and he was still the joker.
Which 3 photographers’ prints do you own? I only own a Melvin Sokolsky - 8 x 11 color print. I want to float him in mid-air.
Color or Black & White? Both. Cameras don’t know the difference. B & W taught me to be very good with color. B & W is about feeling more than you see it. If you do color right, you’ll see it and feel it.
Shoot Film or Digital? Both.
If Film, what type of negative? Tmax 400 exposed it at 200 and I process it myself. Other is B & W is Ilford SP2 exposed at 200 and print conventionally at lab.
Is there a special time of the day you like to shoot or is any time good? Light happens all the time. But I like anytime before 11:00am or after 2:30pm so you have to be ready. For overhead light like noon, you have to get exposure dead on.
How do you define street photography? Well, most anything shot outside in some kind of city. I guess you can get street landscape of wider shot farther back. It’s the way you look at it. Street photography is about isolation- there may be a lot of things going on but shooting one thing- an accent, or person, is very urban. Should have a street nearby. I mean, really.
Why did you choose Street Photography and not another form of photography or stamp collecting? I will speak of photography in general. Street is just one aspect. -Photography picked me and I accepted it. I didn’t fight against it. My learning experience got me to a point where I am comfortable to be able to control every detail or shoot the street with just a camera and what you choose to point it at.
Street photography is the most honest thing you can do. It’s illusion free. I live that life. It’s right there.
What motivates you to photograph the streets? I like watching people. People fascinate me. The wonderful exciting and boring things they do every day never ceases to amaze me. It’s about what people don’t notice.
Is Street Photography an obsession? When I was young I practiced every day- it was love. Now it’s like a love, I don’t have to take a picture every day. But I’m ready all the time.
Are you a lone shooter or do you like shooting with friends or a group? If I go out with friends to shoot, then only friends who are interested in photography. It’s like hunting in a group- someone wants to get something you share the goal. You don’t scare away the prey. No 2 people see the same. Very often you don’t even notice what the other sees.
Are you an invisible or visible photographer? Don’t date anyone crazier than you are. You can apply this to shooting the streets. The clothes you wear shouldn’t stand out or be brighter. I try to look like the people I want to shoot. I am often approached by people speaking in their language because they think I am from there. You need to know where you’re not going and not where you’re going. You should listen to them when they say an area is not safe.
Favorite street photography city: New York or San Francisco in USA; Amsterdam; Paris Barcelona; Florence; etc..
What inspires your photography? The light.
Is there a philosophy, concept or aesthetic behind your compositions that you apply to your photos? I learned photography by getting consistent exposure. Consistency is everything. I believe in not having anything in a picture that is a highlight that is so blown out that takes your eye away from it. Make sure there are small details. You should not be able to tell a digital or film shot.
Don’t rely on post processing software where you should have done in-camera. Stop relying on luck and learn what you’re doing. All happy mistakes aren’t happy. I also don’t show everything I shoot. Any print that has HCB’s name on it is because it passed a tough editing process. Something about those images that touches you, which you cannot explain. You just like it.
Another thing. I always allow for spontaneity. Perfection is not perfect. It doesn’t allow for spontaneity. I always travel with my espresso cup and take pictures of it everywhere. The bump of the table by a waiter pushed the cup off center and it made it a better photograph. It’s how it is in life.
Finally, I always try to center myself. I look for balance in a world that spins around me.
How do you compose a shot? I’ll see something and if it makes me stop, I’ll pull my camera out without considering it and I’ll shoot it. It might be because I like the way the light falls. Most importantly, I decide later if I still like it. I never say I wish I took that picture.
What do you look for in a good photograph by others? It stops me. It goes wow and look at that! I don’t wonder why it’s a great shot. I don’t know who took it. It’s not about them getting lucky. It’s that they knew what they were doing. Definiton of expertise: You’re consistently lucky way too often.
How do you go about shooting a street photograph? I look for the light. It’s more about light quality on the subject than what it is about. Sometimes it’s an odd situation and it happens to be a visual definition of an odd situation. Hopefully you are fast enough to get it.
I love photography and take pictures of everything. The best pictures come from when people forget you have the camera. Stop being obnoxious, they’ll get use to you and pretty soon people go back to being themselves. HCB use to wait in some areas in a city and study how people behave. Then he works it until they behave that certain way. If people are aware of the camera the shots are not the same.
How do you choose your shots when you edit? What tells you that the shot is good? I get the same feeling when I saw it before I took it. I see it gets stronger when I convert it to B & W. I see in B & W first. I learned color in analogue, so I understand temperature, etc.. I know my color.
Photography is telling a story. People tell me I am a very good editor. I learnt to not show too much. It’s about enough and in little bits. I like smaller presentations. Not big books that are grand extravaganzas. With small books you can look at them and hold it in your hand. You look at small e-books faster and more often than large books. The plan is to get it done and make it available for people to see it.
What’s the biggest mistake that all photography students make? How can they correct it? (Frank added this question.) They cut corners- they are usually happy with the pictures they have taken right away. Some don’t take the time to know their camera and they fumble their way. To correct it- take the time to shoot a lot of pictures. For example, my shot of the skateboarder: I shot the same spot and got several types of light. You need to put in the time.
You want to take pictures that others are not taking. Think outside what others are taking. Shoot what others are not shooting. Go back in time and look at photography examples and not just from peers. Go back and find out the origins of photography. The digital world is here and not going anywhere. It’s the same argument painters had of cameras. Oscar Barnack made a camera with movie film – it was never done before. That was the beginning of the compact 35mm camera. Ever since then, cameras kept getting smaller Kodak came out with the easiest camera in the world- a camera with film already in it. After you shot your pictures, you took it back to the drugstore for processessing. That was the, Instamatic. Then came the Aps camera- with cassette loaded film. Now we have Apps for iPad and iPhones. It’s all because someone was thinking to go where others have not gone before. That’s how you have to approach your photography.
Best 3 tips for shooting the streets: Don’t take too much equipment. Don’t take every lens you own. Take one body and lens; get comfy; dress like everyone else; blend in. Go to a place and sit still and watch.
Best single advice on how to improve your work: If you’re not shooting film, you need to look at analogue print pictures at a gallery or at a photo store or wherever you can see real prints. Then try to understand how they look. Because a lot of work I see in lots of websites look too perfect but their highlights are blown out with no information. If you expose correctly – there should be detail. God is in the details.
Best single advice on how to edit your work: Photography is about story telling. Editing is how you tell the story. If you can’t figure out what the story is in the photograph(s) then make one up. Doesn’t matter, because it’s all about a story.
I think you can start by looking at a series. You may show 10 of a series but you shot several hundred pictures to get there. The best picture wins. You place 10 images in the monitor at a time. You mark up the one that captures your eye. You build your images by placing them against each other. They either stand on their own or if they work in a series, the image should compliment the one before or the one after it. They all have to fit together. Don’t cancel out a picture until you’re finished with the series. Just in case.
On the other hand, I can’t say any photograph is a bad picture. Technically I can tear anything apart- it depends on your expertise.
Best single advice for someone who wants to get into street photography: Get a camera and go outside and find a place where things are happening all around you. Find a place where there are lots of people. Keep your eyes open. Don’t look at the back of your camera. You’ll miss the picture. And don’t delete or throw your photos away period. Look at them later.
What’s the best moment in your street photography career? Being able to carry a camera and take a picture of something.
What’s the worst moment in your street photography career? When I can’t.
What projects are you working on? I’ve been working on my book projects for 20 years. But with today’s technology, I have complete control of it for the first time. I have a large appreciation in layout design and typography; writing with fountain pens; the shape of type can affect how you see something. You can adjust ink levels on the type. The letters are not pure black and have grey percentage options. For instance, my book THE CUP: The title is 18% grey and 50% black ink. I was able to adjust the space between the letters. I just love that I can do all this by myself and not have to rely on others. So realizing my books is what I am working on.
Where do you want to be in 5 years with regard to street photography? Where ever my feet are and as long as I am happy. It’s not where you are physically – it’s where you are mentally. Keep yourself balanced and no matter where you are, you will be fine.
Are there exhibitions planned in the future? Don’t talk about things you can’t make happen.
Leica Liker thanks Frank for sharing his experience and inspirational advice with us. We look forward to checking in on him in the future.
Frank has several books out. You can buy them from BLURB.com:
You can check out Frank’s gear in “Liker Bags’n Gear” here.
This is Frank’s self portrait.