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 you think?"
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 involvement."
"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 effort."
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 years?"
"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 doing…getting better”. 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 your power.
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 saying that.
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 work.
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. You’ve 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