It was a sunny and warm day in the summer of 1994.
Ellie was in Florida. Frank wanted to get out of the house so he could get some exercise. We decided to take our cameras and go tour the estate on a mini photo safari. We walked up the mountain, into the woods, and around the entire perimeter of the land. He showed me the streams and the waterfalls and the neighboring properties. He was thinking of adding more land. Frank told me the stories of George Lucas and Clint Eastwood visiting the land and being thoroughly enchanted and impressed with Frazetta's kingdom.They both decided that's precisely what they wanted as well. They returned to California and bought up huge chunks of real estate. Lucas established the Skywalker Ranch and Clint had his property in Carmel.
We returned to the house and Frank walked up the front path. I told him to stop and turn around. He was standing in the archway. I walked up and moved a little flower from the front step to the left side. I told Frank to move forward so he'd be in the sunlight. I set the camera to bracket 3 shots (i.e. underexposure, overexposure, and a midrange exposure). I took the shot. I knew it was going to be a good capture.
"I think this will be a nice one, Frank. The light was perfect and your pose was just right." Frank said: "With that camera you shouldn't ever take a bad picture. That's a great camera and a beautiful lens."
"You like this camera, eh?"
"I love it. With that camera around your neck, people will notice it."
"OK, I'll trade it to you, Frank. And I'll toss-in all the other Zeiss lenses."
"What do you want for it?"
"How about doing me a nice pencil drawing. That'll be easy for you."
"What kind of drawing?"
"How about a self-portrait, Frank? You know how much I love that oil portrait you did of yourself. I've been telling you to paint another one for years, but you won't."
"You mean that you'd rather have that instead of a girl?"
"Yes. I think a nice self-portrait would be great. I've got plenty of other Frazetta girls."
"Well, I'm flattered."
That whole exchange only lasted a minute or two, then we walked into the house. Frank sat down on the zebra skin sofa and I put the camera in his hands. He got very animated. He held it up, he rolled his eyes, and he made some lip-smacking gestures with his tongue and lips. He had a gigantic smile on his face. He was beaming. He said: "Find me some paper or board, something really smooth. Where did I put that knife?" He was looking for his knife so he could trim the pencils and hone a point. I looked around and there wasn't any decent paper anywhere. We finally found some heavy sheets in his cabinet. He pulled one out and sat down at the drawing table. He got a pencil and looked for a knife or razor blade. We found a knife (a TARZAN collectible knife with images of Tarzan on it) and he started hacking away at the pencil. He said: "OK…put on some coffee Dave. Let me see what I can do." At that moment he simply closed his eyes and started to look up at the ceiling. I watched him intently. He interlaced his fingers on his chest and just kept concentrating for 30 seconds or so. Honestly, it seemed a lot longer, but my mind was exploding. Frazetta was gathering himself internally for creative expression. I have to say it; it was a magical moment.
He lowered his head, picked up the pencil and started to make very broad lines and all this time his pencil never left the paper. His hand flew over the page making long lines, short lines, line after line after line. Then he would stop, smudge a few areas, then look at the pencil's tip. He would carve into the pencil until he had the kind of surfaces he was looking for. In 30-40 minutes he had the entire portrait fleshed-out, but not totally finished: a direct line from inspiration to execution to conception. He sat back, took it off his drawing table and put it up on the easel and sat down on the couch to drink some coffee. He looked at it from a distance, shaking his head in an up-and-down "yes" motion. He was pleased.
I said: "Wow, Frank, what a show. It looks a lot like your 1962 portrait. Right from your imagination. You didn't even look into the mirror. I thought for sure that you'd take a few glances at yourself."
Frank replied: "Why? I shave in the mirror every day. I know what I look like. This is pretty easy. I thought about the oil portrait, but it has mistakes. I'm drawing this as I see myself. There is a lot of that portrait in this. It's me after all. When I think of myself now, this is the image that I see…in my prime. It needs a few erasures and a bit more work. It has a few holes. I need to refine the hair, make it softer. It's a good start. You can't show this to Ellie or let it get out. I don't want any trouble."
I quickly reassured him that this, again, would be another one of our secrets.
I stayed on the sofa that night and wrote some notes. I kept walking into the studio and looked at the portrait. Frank spent a little more time with it, refining the hair and adding some background strokes. The piece is exquisite; Frank's personality radiates from every line. He added a bold signature, dated it, and inscribed the piece to me.
In the morning we had some coffee and doughnuts. I had to leave. We went to the studio and Frank picked up the portrait. He put it down and picked up a pencil. He made an erasure around the eye. He started drawing. I quickly shot a photo. I asked: "What are you doing Frank? It looked great to me." He immediately replied: "I'm making it PERFECT. I saw a little flaw by the eye. There was a little bit of distortion. I just saw it. Now it's right. Thanks for the camera, Dave."
"It was a pleasure, Frank. Thanks for everything. I'll give you a call when I get back. I want to get those negatives developed. I pulled the roll of film out of the camera and laid it on the table."
Frank walked over to the table, picked-up his new CONTAX Titanium camera and put it around his neck. He was a happy man.
I was pretty happy, too.
The CONTAX shots turned out very well indeed. I worked on the photo a bit and showed Frank the result on my next trip. He was very pleased. He agreed to sign ten copies of the photo for me. I had printed up the copies ahead of time. I was optimistic; I knew he would like it. I also brought a precision German rapidiograph with archival ink. I didn't want him to spill ink or coffee over the prints. In Frank's studio, anything is possible. His coffee pot is a dangerous weapon! He'd spill coffee on everything. I only brought eleven copies, with one for Frank's collection. To this day I haven't even looked at the photos since Frank signed them. At some point I'll dig them out and sell them. It's quite a unique item. I had Frank do something like this earlier. He signed 5 copies of a very early shot from 1951. Photography was Frank's greatest personal passion in life. He got the greatest joy from his camera collection.