The following discussion takes place in late summer of 2002,
almost one year before I moved out west. I arrived at the Frazetta estate on Saturday
at ten in the morning. Ellie greeted me at the door and said that Frank was
still asleep. Ellie asked me to take her to the grocery store to buy a few
things for lunch. I was not happy to hop back in the car after just driving 340
miles, but that is the way things go in Frazettaland.
We got back and Ellie treated me by making peppers and eggs, my
favorite. Frank walked into the kitchen bleary-eyed and asked for coffee. He
hopped into the shower while Ellie finished cooking. Frank went into the
studio, grabbed a camera, and fired off a few shots of me happily devouring my
peppers and eggs. After lunch we took a ride to the local camera store. It was
a beautiful day and Frank was in good spirits and very lucid. He spoke well and
his mind was crisp. Later that afternoon we got back to the studio, made some
coffee, and sat down to talk. I threw him a manila envelope that contained some
photography magazines and a few photos. We had a discussion on the phone during
the previous week about our all-time favorite photos. I brought some copies.
"Thanks for bringing these. I'm having a hard time finding
Shutterbug anywhere around here. Yes, this is the photo I mentioned. [Frank
holds the famous Eddy Adams picture of the field execution of a Viet Cong
soldier.] I love this picture because of the power, the intensity. It's real,
it happened. That adds to the power. Life and death. It had an impact. What do
I pick up the other two photos. One is a famous landscape by
Ansel Adams, the other is by William Eggleston. "I can see why you'd like
that photo, Frank. It is something you could have painted or drawn. But it's a
piece of reportage, a shot taken to record an event. That soldier was
responsible for killing Vietnamese soldiers and American soldiers. The
commander told the photographer that he was justified in killing him on the
spot. Is this artful? Is it creative? No, I don't think so. Look at the Ansel
Adams print. This might be his most famous image. Driving along the back roads
in New Mexico he sees the light appearing and stops his van. He sets up a huge
8x10 view camera and guesses the exposure based on the dying daylight. He
visualizes the scene that is appearing and then takes the shot. What he
captured was the process of creation itself...emerging light bringing things
into existence. It's biblical in its impact. That great expanse of black sky,
the crosses in the foreground, make it even more powerful than that execution
photo, in my opinion. Great art contains more than just what the surface
reveals, Frank. Your art certainly does that. There is a deeper
"Yes, I see what you mean. We talked about this before,
haven't we? The fan ends up knowing more than the artist!" He laughs.
"No, no, Frank. There are depths inside you that you are not
consciously aware of. The unconscious, the subconscious...that's the mystery of
art, the mystery of creation. It all flows from you to me in some indescribable
manner. That flow has been going on your whole life. Look at that Eggleston
photo, it illustrates what I'm talking about. It is filled with symbolism of
all sorts. The tricycle represents freedom to a child. It is shot from a lower
perspective. He must have taken the shot while lying on the ground. The trike
is bigger than life for a kid. Look deeper...it's the American dream being
depicted. A house, a car...this is
the future dream for that child. It won't be easy… the skies aren't blue, the grass is
burned out, the trike is rusty and old. Achieving the dream will take a lot of
All that is in the picture? He put all that in the picture when
taking it? Impossible. You're reading into it. I think your explanation is
better than the photo.
Not consciously, Frank. He is a great and sensitive photographer.
He is presenting a vision that has depth. We engage with it in the same way
that people engage with your Conan oils. Remember that discussion we had a few
years back about all the symbolism in those oils? Remember how we talked about
all that vaginal and penis symbolism in the Conan Usurper oil?
It's there, very powerfully there. Can you deny it? But you
weren't conscious of all that when doing it, were you? But it is there. [To clarify what we are talking about
here, I am referring to a time right after Frank moved back from Florida. The
Boca Grande museum closed and all the art was now in the house. Most of it was
casually stored in Frank's studio. It was late summer, brutally hot and humid,
and we sat in the studio talking. No air conditioning, no fans, just raw heat.
Ellie was bringing us strong Irish coffees. We had about 6 each and got
progressively plastered. We took off our shirts and shoes, sat in our shorts
like cavemen, and Frank placed each Conan oil on the easel. We talked about
what was there. Frank spoke about his intentions; I spoke about all the
implicit symbolism and metaphors he was using. We argued and fought about the
tiniest details. What a night. This is one of the few times I did not take
extensive notes, and I never set up a tape recorder. What a loss. We
progressively got drunker and drunker. Everything became progressively blurry
and unfocused. I do recall sleeping on the sofa surrounded by all the Conan
oils. I looked at them, and looked at all of Frank's loaded weapons strewn
about and recall thinking that I was well-protected that night...and I slept a
very deep sleep. The only event that was comparable to this took place after
the grand opening of the third museum. Frank invited me, Nick Meglin, and
Angelo Torres back to his studio for coffee. Everyone was charged up from that
perfect day at the opening. We talked and argued and debated late into the
night about the nature of art, the nature of creativity, the nature of Frank's
art, and the various thoughts about Wally Wood's art, among many others.
Interestingly, everyone (including Frank) concluded that Wood's best art was
the funny stuff he did for Mad. Frank explained that the sci-fi stuff for EC
was good, but had a stiffness about it because Wally refused to animate and
move the spine properly. It was
like the later Foster Prince Valiant work. Frank loved Wood and had the highest
respect for him. He said that Wood was a man's man, and anything Wally said was
heartfelt and authentic. No BS in Wally at all. Frank appreciated that. He
said, "compared to Woody, everyone else is a hypocrite."
Yeh, yeh, I remember. I still have a hard time believing all
that. You did open my mind quite a bit about those things. That's a new world
for me. I never used to intellectualize about my art. I would just do it. See it and paint it. Simple. Now I
think more. It takes energy. It's like all those strange movies you wanted me
to look at. So different. [Over the years I encouraged Frank to
look at Godard, Fellini, Kurosawa, Antonioni, among others.]
Frank...when it comes to photography, you take a very literal
approach. You document events; you preserve memories of family and events, but
you don't approach it like you approach your art. The closest you get to that
level is when you take those photographs of yourself with a self-timer. Some of
them are brilliant. Why did you take so many shots of yourself in those
"Hell, I was a great looking guy. Why not? It was fun. That
early comic stuff was shot by Al and Angelo. They had cameras. We loved the
acting. Good times."
You're a photographic gearhead , Frank. You just like the act of
playing with the camera.
You're right there! Look at all the damn cameras I have. Do I
need so many? Now these digital cameras are here. What's gonna happen? Will
these film bodies become obsolete, a waste of money? Now, at the end of my
life, they invent this. I need more time.
Forget it, Frank, you got tons of money. I think a lot of people
misunderstand your love of the hobby. Don’t you still get upset when people
accuse you of swiping? They still talk about that box of swipes you kept in a
box or cabinet. They say you burned everything to polish a myth. Deceit and
lying...those bastards actually accuse you of a massive cover-up. They said you
were a fraud. They want you dragged down to their level.
Boy, that BS never ends, does it. I had a group of art students
here. They came in a bus from New York. I went to the museum. I tried to be
nice and answer questions. You know I have my bad days and don't get across my
thoughts too well. They would not believe that I made this stuff up. They told
me right to my face that it was impossible. What can I do? Paint on the spot.
Haven't enough people seen me do it...time and time again. Ask Al, ask Nick,
ask Angelo, ask Russ, ask anyone who knows me. Wally Wood, Roy, Reed, all those
guys at EC. You know better than anyone. How many times have you seen me make
things up? It all goes back to that book I published. I included that photo I
took of myself for that Clint Eastwood picture. [He refers to the Living Legend
book and the Gauntlet photo study.]
After that everyone thought I used photos for everything. Someone showed
me a photo from one of the girly things I did. A guy showed me one of Al's photos from Squeeze Play.
Remember that story? We used photos back then, yes. Not a lot. Not me. Have you
ever seen Wally Wood's swipe files?
He's got everything, really, everything. What about Al and Roy. Wow! They
have filled file cabinets...many file cabinets. I was always breaking Roy’s
balls about swiping. He always responded the same: “Frank, Picasso said
to steal from the best if you want to get better. That’s what I’m
Look at me. I sit down, do a
drawing, make a comp, then just do it. Yes, I had a box of photos and
clippings. Doesn't everyone? Nice pictures you clip out and save. Everyone does
that, don't they? Don't you? Of course, you do. I had a pile of x-rated photos
in there as well. That's why I burned it. I didn't want the kids to get a hold
of that stuff. What aggravating bullshit that whole thing caused me. I never
denied using some photos, using some reference. I thought all those examples
were well known by now. I guess not. What about the movie posters. Most of that
was drawn from reference photos of the stars sent to me by the studios. That is pretty standard. The people
have to be spot on. No interpretation. You have to recognize the star in the
movie poster or it's a failure.
Even with all the photos there's a hell of a lot of creativity in those
posters. I worked my ass off on those things. That's a lot of work in there, a
lot. And what about people getting all upset when they discover I used a couple
of things in the Destroyer painting. Big deal. I took a shot of Billy's back to
check some lighting. I borrowed something else that Roy showed me...some little
foreground piece. It fit in. Big deal. When I changed the figure of Conan I
made a couple of little comps...you've seen them. I added a little wash and, then,
bang, I just painted it in. Done. Perfect. I used some Foster on Thunda and the
cowboy stories...old news, isn't it? I always changed those swipes, made them
better. Check them out. I used a
couple of shots for ACE covers as well. People run down my whole career because
of a few images? They don't know what the hell they're talking about. I've been
making things up since I was 5 years old. I did use a lot of magazine images
for that girly stuff I did in the sixties. They paid me nothing and I just
knocked that stuff out. I never even wanted the originals back. Why? It wasn't
me. The few things I kept were 100% me. That floating girl drawing. I worked
hard on that to get it right. I did tons of little comps. It was fun. It came
out great and I kept it. It was special to me. I never should have sold it. The
Canaverals...all made up. You saw my little comps for them. Barely nothing.
Little forms, no lighting...that's all I needed. Show me someone else who could
do that. Name something, anything...I can draw it and draw it well. I've always
had that ability. Call it a gift. I got it...had it. None of that had anything
to do with my photography, nothing. Cameras are totally separate. My art has
always been based on me, not swipes. 98% vs 2%. Is that being a fraud?
Another example, I keep hearing that I based the Conan face on
Charles Bronson, or Jack Palance, or a combination of any number of others.
These experts think they know more about me than I do. It's not that easy. No,
no, no way..
The truth is that I had no one directly in mind when I painted
that face. No one at all. I wanted a look, a deep feeling, intimidation, power,
menacing. I kept working it until I felt it, just to get the quality I
wanted. I wasn't looking at
pictures or thinking about faces. I was way beyond that at that point, way
beyond that. I was trying to capture the feeling, the mood. I wanted it
to...what's the word?...radiate? I just can't express it right. Everyone tries
to simplify the process. You can't do it. It's a kind of magic, a kind of gift
that's personal and hidden. You understand me better than anyone. You made me
aware of this mystery. How often have we talked about this over the years. I do
think about it. I did things and I just don’t know how I did them.
Frank, I have always defended you quite vigorously on this
issue. People just don't get how
lazy you are!! [We both have a
good deep laugh]. Look at Al and Roy. They were meticulous in their swiping.
They never denied it. Why should they? I’m not denigrating them. That’s
one approach, and a very common one. It was part of their art process just like it was an
essential part of Norman Rockwell's art approach. Countless photos of
everything, then everything carefully and wonderfully assembled into an idea.
Raymond, Elvgren, hundreds of illustrators...for god sake, that is not the
pathway of Frank Frazetta. You would never have the patience for that
approach...never...not even close. If people really knew you, or saw you work,
then they wouldn't spray all that nonsense all over the place. I always tell people
just to appreciate the gift and the results. I think a lot of artists are just
intimidated by someone like you. They can't do what you do, so they have to
deny that you can really do it. I guess it makes them feel better. Artists are
famous for their insecurities. Using reference is one approach to art and it is
used by most. No problem. You are completely different. That's the source of
That's for sure. Look at Wally and Reed drinking themselves to
death. Roy had a hard time being confident enough to finish a drawing. He
couldn't do it. Swiping and stealing is the easy road. There are a lot of
others. Art is not an easy field. Most that are in it probably shouldn't be.
They can't draw. They fake it with machines. I was one of the lucky ones to
make it the way I did. And I didn't have the easiest time either after I left
Capp. Tough times. That's another thing that bothers me. They keep calling me a
fantasy artist. I can't stand that. Is that all I can do? I can do anything.
I've done everything. Not just fantasy. Nudes, landscapes, portraits, on and on
and on. I am a creative artist. I make it up. I've been doing it all my life.
Didn't I tell people in that documentary that my art and cameras are completely
separate. And you tell me...why in every article do they start out by saying
"Brooklyn-born" Frank Frazetta? Why? What the hell is the fascination
with Brooklyn? They probably have never been there. It was great growing
up...plenty of fields, open spaces. Good memories of playing ball. But, Jesus
Christ, it just turned to sh*t. Thieves, scum, liars, rapists...no class. There
were killers walking the streets. I'm not lying. I couldn't wait to get out of
there. It's no place to live. It's not safe. Everyone trying to get over on
everyone else. And I want myself
to be constantly associated with THAT? That annoys the hell out of me; it
really does. Tell them, will you. No more. If I loved it I would still be
there. No way. They can keep it. I had nothing but problems there. Forget it.
Remember that time we drove there in my Jaguar? I told you then. It hasn't got
any better. Still bad. Tell them to change it to "American-born ".
That's a thousand times better.
Then there are those fans who keep telling me that I use myself a
lot as a model. They see it clearly. They see me painting myself into
everything. Everywhere they look they also see Ellie as the model for all my
women. Do they really think I'm like Boris? What are they looking at? How can
they see me and Ellie in just about everything? Ellie as Cat Girl? Ellie as
Golden Girl? Are they insane, blind, what? Me as Conan? Me as John Carter? What?
Yes, I keep reading that Ellie was your muse. Many writers keep
What do they mean by that?
Well, a muse is someone who is a source of inspiration for an
artist or author. It can refer to a wife, girlfriend, or mistress, or just
about anything. Many artists talk about their muses who deeply influenced their
Well then, I must have about a hundred muses. Ellie as my muse is
crazy talk, nuts. I painted her a few times. So what? I painted the kids too. I
painted my mom, and I painted Christ himself. The one time I really did want to
use her and she said a flat "no". I had an idea to do a follow-up
book to that book of monsters I did for Danzig. It would be in different types
of pencil, all nudes, all using Ellie, and using very different types of really
dramatic lighting. Ellie would have been my life model. She said
"no". She said she was too busy with the business and the kids. I
dropped the whole thing. At that moment I was really motivated, excited about
the idea. Danzig would have published it. Something totally new. What a
letdown. I did have a woman in the museum a while back who came up to me and
said "how does it feel to have a perfect marriage?" Perfect marriage??? She doesn't know me
at all, and she says THAT? Christ, I should have gotten a divorce years ago.
I'd never be in the spot I'm in now. I hate it when strangers talk about my
life. Who the hell has a perfect marriage?
People get that idea based on the pictures in the books showing
you and Ellie. You appear quite happy. They draw a conclusion from that. People
are always quick to jump to conclusions about just about anything.
Of course I was happy then. People don't take pictures of
themselves fighting, do they?
Those were very early pictures. Things changed. I made a big mistake by
not making a move. Everyone would be happier. The kids would have been better
off. I see that now. I was too lazy, too weak, too comfortable. I accept blame.
I did things. A lot of things. I’m not proud of it. You know that. You get used to things. You get used to
anything. Bring me that Golden
Girl off the wall. Look at that picture.
Where do you see Ellie? In the straight hair? The face? The long
legs? The tall body? The large breasts? There's nothing of Ellie in that
figure. Nothing at all. But ...Ellie tells them in the museum that she is the
golden girl, and everyone believes her. Look with your eyes for cripes sake.
That stuff upsets me. What can I do? I don't have the energy. I’m
an old man.
Frank, I remember years ago when we talked about this. You said
that if someone wants to analyze your pictures, then look at Marlon Brando,
Robert Mitchum, William Holden, Victor Mature, Jack Palance, Burt Lancaster and
others for your male form. Look at Marilyn Monroe, Bridget Bardot, Merle
Oberon, Anna May Wong, Elizabeth Taylor , and all those pinup girls from the
late 40's and 50's for your female types. Who did I forget? Betty Page? Mamie
Van Doren? And that girl photographer. Who was that? I forget. Irish McCalla?
Great memory, as always. Yes, absolutely right. What a bombshell
she was! What a face! I could draw
her perfectly right now. All that is what I saw, what I remember, what is mixed
into my mind when I pull up something in my imagination. Look at that
unfinished EC story. [Frank is referring to the Came The Dawn story] Is that me as the main character? Hell
no. It is a mix of all those guys. Everyone says it's me. The girl is purely made
up. I wasn't thinking of anyone in particular. That would have been a great
story. Too bad. Too late now. Hey, I'm an old man, I'm sick, I got tons of
problems. I'm lucky to be alive. I really get discouraged about this stuff. I
expected my fans to have more on the ball. I'm going to stop going to the
museum. It gets too damn depressing.
Forget it, Frank. Don’t get upset about those ignorant few.
got great fans out there. I talk to them all the time. Your impact is there.
You are on a different level. The audience will rise to a higher level in the
future. The quality of your work will keep bringing in people with some brains
and clout. Your legacy is secure. You don't have a damn thing to prove to
anyone. Stop fighting with Ellie over nonsense. It only stresses you out and
nothing comes of it. I told you a thousand times. Get all that negativity out
of your life. Watch baseball, play with the grandkids, and enjoy your cameras.
Do what you enjoy. Screw everything else.
You're right. Ready for another cup of coffee?
[An aside to clarify the photography issue a bit: Frank is the
most fanatical camera shutterbug I have ever met. He loves photography as much
as anything on this planet. However, Frank's priority is with the physical
equipment, not the photograph. Modern photography has given this a name,
namely, he suffers from G.A.S (gear acquisition syndrome). He loves cameras as
an end in itself. For example, when Frank had his first major stroke in 1995, I
went to Stroudsburg immediately. Everyone thought he was ready to die. Ellie
called me in tears and said I needed to come down immediately. Well, one day
after the stroke, Frank began to recover in almost miraculous fashion. His
right hand and arm were numb and his speech was still garbled. He started to
recover from these deficits. The first thing he asked me to do was bring him a
Pentax lens from the house. He wanted a 50mm lens that had a special coating. I
brought it and he fondled it like a rosary during his recovery. He wanted to
look at it, feel it, and appreciate it as an aesthetic object. It gave him
comfort and something to concentrate on. He cherished his camera collection and
prided himself on the quality of his lenses. He loved reading about cameras,
about lenses, and kept up on the values of used cameras. I taught him how to
read MTF charts, so he could better evaluate lens quality. We spent countless
hours talking about resolution, vignetting, and chromatic aberrations. Photography
also got Frank into trouble in his early years. Ellie told a lot of fans,
including me, the famous story of Frank stealing cameras from a local camera
store. He then sold those cameras to a pawnshop in the same neighborhood. Not
smart. He got arrested and called Harvey Kurtzman to bail him out. Harvey asked
Al Williamson to help raise the bail money. Frank used the arrest, among other
things, as a badge of honor. All these "events" are probably the
reason Frank was never drafted for the Korean War. He was a persona non grata.
His enthusiasm for cameras was infectious. He infected everyone
around him with the shutterbug disease. During my last phone call with Frank in
April, 2010 he spent most of the time bemoaning the theft of his camera
collection. I have never heard him so upset. He was in a black mood. I was told
that he was also complaining about this during his very last dinner. There is
no question in my mind that whoever stole Frank's collection hastened him to
his final fatal stroke. He was angry and fixated on this during his last days.
It put him in a very dark place. Such is the passion Frank had for cameras and
photography. A very sad and tragic end. Anyone who ever visited Frank in his
studio knew the pride he took in showing off his cameras.]
(C) 2014 DocDave Winiewicz