Jon Frank’s family immigrated from England to Cronulla at the age of 10. He has since dedicated his life to capturing humanity and nature through the lens. Jon’s work documents those splendid moments that reinforce the old adage – what unites us is always stronger than what divides us.
I’ve been privy to Jon Frank’s wonderful surf photography for years. His ability to see things a little differently always appealed to me. But it wasn’t until I picked up a special photo issue (Issue #404) of Surfing World that I realised the man could write too. Jon’s ode to the Australian summer perfectly articulated the way I feel about Australia, summer and the ocean. I found myself saying “YES” out loud over and over, interspersed with laughs.
Jon’s ability to capture the feeling of a time and place has seen him build a diverse career across multiple visual mediums. Jon began his career “learning how to photograph a glass bottle on 4×5” film before transitioning into filmmaking with the seminal surf film Litmus in 1995; his career has since combined ventures in both still and moving pictures. In light of his packed schedule and recent world events, it took us a while and a fair few emails back and forth between Barcelona & Australia before we finally nailed it down. As Jon conceded in his last email, “maybe lockdown is good for something after all!”
Read on for Mr Frank’s candid thoughts on surf photography, Indigenous Australia and his recent photographic endeavours that have taken him across this vast country.
Tom: Do you remember the first time you picked up a camera?
Jon: My eldest brother lent me his Pentax ME Super for an assignment I had for a film and television course I was enrolled in at North Sydney TAFE. Circa 1989.
Tom: You’ve had a fairly diverse career within photography; incorporating still photography, videography and publishing. Do you think it’s been out of curiosity or necessity that you’ve dappled in so many different creative outlets?
Jon: I actually think I’ve been consistently single-minded throughout. Definitely not a renaissance man. I had it in my head, that to become highly proficient at one discipline required eschewing all others. So, besides Litmus, which just seemed like a bit of an experiment, the reason I started in video & film was to supplement my income from stills work. It worked well for a couple of decades, and I’m grateful for that. I do enjoy the moving image, the ability to pair music with pictures can be revelatory. Music and photography are very similar, all mathematics and pattern and harmony. The pictures that sing transcend the medium.
“Somehow as youth we just knew the ocean was an important place to be.”
Tom: What’s your favourite thing about surf photography?
Jon: The ocean. Just being in it is enough. There was no thinking or depth of understanding but somehow as youth we just knew the ocean was an important place to be. We were drawn to it with elemental childlike wonder. Lately I’ve been making decisions that take me away from it, to explore what else the world has to offer, because I’ve been so consumed by the sea all these years. I’ve recently realised that through blind luck we stumbled onto the rarest of experiences. I am now facing another surf-less stretch, which is fine, it’s my choice, and I’m not the type of surfer who froths around thinking about surf, surf, surf 24/7. But there is nothing else in this world, that even comes close to what being a surfer, what being in the ocean can give you.
Tom: Your website tells me you spent the last year working in a remote community in Central Australia. How did you end up there?
Jon: I had a desire to learn some truth of the country I have called home for 38 years. The Australian history I was taught in high school in the 1980’s was a one-sided spin spat out of the invaders PR handbook, Genocide for Dummies. I’ve harboured a distrust of so called ‘historians’ ever since. Australia as a nation is riddled with shame. We almost got away with ignoring it because we are larrikins at our core and that is a very endearing quality.
Tom: What was the most important thing you learnt while living in that community?
Jon: How little I know.
Tom: Any Indigenous Australian photographers who’ve caught your eye with their work?
Jon: I love Ricky Maynard’s black and white pictures of mutton birding in Bass Strait.
Tom: What advice would you give to photographers at the early stages of trying to make a career?
Jon: It would be reckless for me to start dishing out career advice. I’m an awful salesman, and success comes mostly to confident extroverts. The cream will usually rise to the top, but turds float too you know.
“The pictures that sing transcend the medium.”
Tom: You have released two books of your photographs during recent years. Can you tell us about them?
Jon: In 2017 I started an independent publishing company, but as usual was working out of my garage. In a rare smart move, I enlisted the formidable design skills of Stuart Geddes. Our first book Broken, won multiple Australian design awards. Our next book On Bones was released in 2018. Surprisingly, a book of black and white photographs interspersed with extracts from a 1000 line poem about the end of the millennium hasn’t been flying off the shelves. I’m proud of the pictures though, and the book they became.
“Currently I am trying to make sense of the work, and how best to get it out into the world.”
Tom: Are you working on anything new?
Jon: I’ve been working for eight years on a major series, working title Australians. Photographed in every Australian state and territory, this series has cost me more financially and emotionally, than any other project I’ve worked on. I chose to shoot exclusively on large format (8×10” & 4×5”), medium format and 35mm colour and black & white film. I develop the mono negs and do all the film scanning myself which is incredibly time consuming. I’ve officially finished shooting, so currently I am trying to make sense of the work, and how best to get it out into the world so I can move on with my life!