Water must run through Jon Frank’s veins. The Surfcoast artist photographer creates his work immersed in the ocean, shooting his distinctively individual view of the world under the waves or just above the water’s surface. Although he is best known for his magazine surfing photography, Frank’s lifelong obsession with the sea has seen him make images that go beyond the traditional surf image and into the realm of the poetic. Some of these works are now being exhibited at Geelong Gallery in Seascapes, which features large format photographs of evocative ocean imagery along with candid portraits.
Frank says the sea has always been his muse. “I would experience these really amazing moments in the water and need to record what I was seeing out there to show people, or just for my own benefit. Once you are in the water, it is like going through a portal. You are in a completely different space. It’s elemental,” he says.
Jon Frank, Untitled (Seascape #1) 2010, archival pigment print on fibre rag. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.
Frank’s dramatically dark seascapes depict seething seas and stormy skies. Some images, taken in the midst of the heaving swell, show mountainous waves which threaten to engulf the viewer. In a style reminiscent of Bill Henson, Frank has underexposed the image to induce broody blacks and ambiguous shadows which persuade us to look beyond what is readily apparent. In other images, shot from a distance, the play of light on the water creates an uncanny glow, again provoking a sense of unease. We detect undercurrents of the sublime, marvelling at the awesome power of nature and the insignificance of humanity in the face of it.
“At present, perhaps he carries the stigma of being a surfing photographer, but he’s so much more than that,” writes artist and film director, Mick Sowry, in the June issue of Surfing World which lists Frank as one of the 50 most intriguing people in surfing. “Some of the stuff he does, the seascapes, the people – it’s dark, like chiaroscuro. It’s Caravaggio-esque. He stops his shots down so that they’re dark enough that you get the sense of the thing rather than the actuality.”
In contrast to these painterly seascapes, Frank’s portraits of bathers at Geelong’s Eastern Beach, during a record breaking heat wave, are presented in crisp detail, brightly lit by the midday sun. In the grand 150-year-old tradition of street photography, Frank has captured fleeting moments with deft precision, taking the seemingly mundane and turning it into something unique.
“One of the great joys of having a camera is to shoot street photography – real people in a real environment which is what these portraits are,” Frank says. “Have you been to Eastern Beach on a hot day? It is like going to the circus. The number of people from different backgrounds, nationalities and ages is incredible.”
Jon Frank, Untitled (Eastern Beach, Geelong #2) 2012, archival pigment print on fibre rag. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.
After two decades working in photography and cinematography, Frank has developed a finely honed sense of timing and framing. Frank not only isolates serene moments from the carnival atmosphere around the beach, but also portrays his subjects with grace and tenderness. None of the portraits are posed, Frank didn’t even speak to his subjects, yet the bathers have been captured in classical stances that we might recognise from art history. These people are not the models we find in advertising, fulfilling some commercial ideal of beauty, but rather everyday people whose beauty is embodied in graceful gestures.
In one portrait a teenage girl is poised to descend the ladder to the water. She stands like a Venusian statue from ancient Greece, as though she has been chiselled from her surrounds, her ivory skin as smooth as marble. In another image a young man emerges from the sea, water dripping from his ebony skin as he gazes to the heavens as if aspiring to greater heights. He is, in that moment, heroic.
“The portraits, all shot on medium format film, expose in tremendous clarity our secret vulnerabilities,” Frank says. “They reflect on how lonely our journey through this solitary world can feel [even] when surrounded by crowds of people. When compared to the grand indifference of nature, our lives seem so fleeting and fragile.”
It is surprising how filmic this series of portraits feel. We can imagine the seagulls squawking, water splashing, children squealing, the sounds carried off by the wind, but if we pause long enough, gradually we can feel the silence, as if the movie stops for a moment and we enter the bathers’ private world.
Jon Frank, Untitled (Eastern Beach, Geelong #1) 2012, archival pigment print on fibre rag. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.
Although the portraits and seascapes are different in subject and style, what they have in common is a sense of the transience of life – that this too shall pass and is all the more poignant because of it. Whether Frank’s focus is on the majesty of the ocean or the beauty of candid moments, like all good art, his photographs transcend the scene, and we gain a sense of something much greater than ourselves.
“When I go to an art gallery I want to be stirred and I hope when people come to this exhibition they will feel something,” Frank says. “People need to be inspired. Life will do everything it can to suck that out of us, but art can help us remember how special it all is, how lucky we are just to be here.”