10 quick questions, 5 professional and 5 random, with people you should know.
While earning a degree in economics at the University of Michigan, Jesse Frohman picked up a camera and never put it down. When he returned home to New York, he had no formal training or experience, but he did have a portfolio of platinum prints, which caught the interest of legendary photographer Irving Penn, who hired Jesse to manage his studio. It was an incomparable apprenticeship. To the techniques and aesthetics he leaned from Penn, Jesse added his own sensibilities of strength, dignity and quiet energy, all of which are evident in his pictures. Jesse has photographed countless celebrities and still lifes. In addition to his work for magazines, advertising, and recording companies, he has been commissioned to create two award-winning photographic books. His work is also in many private collections. Jesse lives and works in New York.
Q. What about this profession attracted you? Did you have a mentor or an apprenticeship?
JF. I don’t think of it as; what is it about the profession that I like. I think about it as what I like about photography. I always got excited to see a new image come up in the developer, in the dark room. That excitement of seeing it come, even though I knew what the image was, seeing it again in that way… I just never got bored with the technique of making pictures. The first time I got really interested in taking pictures was when I took off for school at 19. I took a half a year off and backpacked around Europe. I had a camera and I got interested in taking all sorts of photos with it, not necessarily just of friends, you know. It was probably the first time I looked at photography as a hobby and as a creative outlet. I consider my mentor Irving Penn. It was sort of fate in a way, I didn’t pursue him. I was invited to meet with him because I was working for another photographer in his building. The first time I met him it didn’t work out so well, he thought I was overly ambitious (laughs) which, is not how I would describe myself. In Europe, they are more interested in the apprenticeship type of model of learning a career where Americans just want a job and to make a lot of money. He didn’t like that type. We met again a year later and he asked me to work for him and this time I said no (laughs). I didn’t think I was qualified. I thought he was looking for someone to be his third assistant and he was looking to have someone be his first assistant to run his studio. You know, knowing that he was the greatest photographer perhaps in the history of photography, I was very intimidated to take over his studio. I knew what I knew, but I knew very limited techniques of photography because I worked with a fashion photographer… and Penn was very technical. To make a long story short, we had another meeting and I said yes. So, I took the job. I just jumped in. I mean, you couldn’t have gotten a better or more, wonderful, inspired photographer than he, so that was a great experience.
Q. What do you love about your job and your work? What do you find the most frustrating and/or challenging about the industry?
JF. I love when I actually take the picture, whether for a commercial job or an editorial job or personal work. I still love creating the picture. and I love to travel when that happens. There is a certain rhythm that comes from getting the picture. There is a sort of satisfaction that comes. It’s hard to describe the moment, you often know when to stop, or at least I do. Sometimes on a difficult shoot you know when you got the best you are going to get and there is going to be diminishing returns the more you try to work it. Sometimes on a great shoot you just feel this exhilaration, you know. It’s just like something magical happens and all the pieces come together in a picture. Sometimes the light is just right and leaves are blowing just right or you are doing a portrait and they grab their collar and look a certain way over their shoulder… you recognize it and the sitter recognizes what they are giving you and something at that moment happens. A lot of photographers talk about “the moment,” that moment happens in that time space and it won’t happen again. That is another thing that’s special about photography, you are really freezing a moment that you can’t create easily and you probably can’t recreate.
Q. Best advice,personal or professional, you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you give to anyone aspiring to have your career?
JF. My most memorable advice was when I was leaving Irving Penn to go out on my own and he told me, “Now go out and be poor.” (laughs) And I thought that was the most interesting advice I could image getting because I was already poor! I know what he was saying, he was saying go out and work on your work, not work on making money.
Q. When did you first consider yourself and adult?
JF. (Laughs) When I had to pay my rent. I had to make sure I came home with a little money every month, kids don’t have to do that.
Q. What/who has been your biggest influence?
JF. I certainly have had a lot of influence by my mentor Irving Penn, who I worked for. In terms of photography, he is by far the biggest influence. I have always had other influences, just as an artist. I actually look at art for energy. When I feel like I get stuck or muddled down and I’m too controlled in my work, I like to look at other work to free me up. To look at things upside down and inside out to get some different perspectives, to shake things up a bit. Really anything can be an inspiration to me. It can be a billboard, it can be a painting in a museum. It can be quite random. Sometimes, I can see a newspaper on a table upside down and it will be something about the graphics, so even though it doesn’t directly influence my work it does inspire me to do better work.
Q. How did you meet your best friend?
JF. I was shooting in LA, Ice Cube and Ice-T, when they were rappers and not actors, and he was still an assistant working for another photographer so, we were in the same studio and we were just chatting. Turned out that I was a New Yorker and he was a New Yorker displaced in LA. We had almost identical lives even though he grew up in New York and I grew up on Long Island, but in many other ways, in terms of background and family and that kind of stuff, we had very similar outlooks and tastes. We knew we were going to be really good friends. People think and even photographers think that you can’t be friends with other photographers because there is that competition factor. Some of my very best friends are photographers, actually a lot of my friends are photographers. It never really worked that way for me, even though I understand that competitive aspect. It never bothered me, actually I liked it, to be able to talk about the business and also just to talk about the work.
Q. Piece of art (physical, image, architecture, music…anything) that physically moved you. What was it? Your reaction? Were you surprised?
JF. I was really excited the first time I saw a Frances Bacon painting. I remember exactly when it was and where I was and it was amazing. The energy he brought to his paintings with the beautiful colors, the sometimes very aggressive almost hostile energy with the beautiful color combinations. That was very exciting to me. It amazed me that someone could bring that to painting. Those color combinations. That’s what made me want to be a visual artist. It was very inspiring. That was the first time I had seen his work in person, in NY in the 80’s. The scale in person was amazing.
Q. Has social media helped or hurt our society?
JF. It’s a nice easy way to check up on what your friends are up to, so there are a lot of good things in that way, but you find that so many people are so detached. I’m not talking about the random individual. Everyone is walking around looking down at their phones. Everyone is living these virtual lives, even I can be guilty of that. It’s great because it really enables you to learn things and share things in a way we couldn’t have even imagined ten years ago. It’s really changed everything. But it doesn’t make us happier. People are constantly looking for new things all the time and what they are really looking for, I don’t think they will find there.
Q. What is the oldest technology device you own? Do you still use it?
JF. Polaroid cameras from the 60’s. At one time, I collected them. I’ve had a lot of them, given a lot of them away. I actually got a couple of them working once, but now I just keep them on my shelf. I have a VHS too and I was trying to get it working, but I couldn’t get it to work. I’m not one of those romantics when it comes to equipment, I’d rather get rid of everything and have one little device to play music and videos and everything. I happen to have some of this old stuff and I wanted to see what was on these videos before I decided if I wanted to have them transferred.