The Road Less Traveled
The french have a word that aptly sums up Owen Frankens career: imprvisible (literally, unforeseeable). To many, unforeseeability might be a source of anxiety. To Owen Franken 68, its freedom.
It is not surprising then that Franken enjoys an unusual profession for an MIT grad: photojournalism. Frankens career has taken him to 103 countries, allowing him to taste the best (and sometimes the worst) of what the world has to offer. Ive always relished freedom and never worried about financial security, Franken says from his home in Paris, where he juggles his roles as a food and travel photographer, a husband and father of two, a gourmet chef, and the older brother of comedian and political satirist Al Franken.
Frankens road less traveled was nearly a different one. For his senior thesis at MIT, he assisted a grad student studying the circular polarization of 53.6 degrees KeV x-rays from Virgo A, which didnt appeal to his creative side. Adding to Frankens doubts were a series of job interviews in which it became clear that much of the work of physicists in 1968 was related to war research.
As a kid, Franken picked up photography from his father and fell in love with it. He did the photography for his high-school yearbook and continued his avocation at MIT, shooting pictures for the MIT News Office and Technology Review. He was also photo editor for Technique. His first paid assignment was photographing sculptor Alexander Calder constructing the Great Sail on the MIT campus. He particularly remembers the advice of his psychology professor, John Graves, who said, Dont do what you think you should do. Do what you want to do.
That chance soon came. Franken volunteered for Eugene McCarthys presidential campaign and, naturally, took a lot of photographs. Those pictures caught the eye of McCarthys press secretary, Seymour Hersh, who asked Franken to document the campaign. The assignment became Frankens new senior thesis.
I loved observing the world and photographing it, says Franken. He decided against graduate school and hit the road as a professional photographer. Four years later, his brother graduated cum laude from Harvard and immediately headed to L.A. to try his hand at stand-up comedy. One can only imagine the parental handwringing back home.
But the unforeseeable has a way of working out. Al joined Saturday Night Live and went on to a successful career as a political satirist. Owens photos have appeared on the covers and pages of Time, Newsweek, Forbes, BusinessWeek, the New York Times, and National Geographic, as well as Saveur, Gourmet, Bon Apptit, Food and Wine, and Travel and Leisure. He has photographed presidents from Nixon to Clinton, covered wars and Woodstock, illustrated Chinese economic reform and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Some of Frankens photographs have become iconic: Nixon giving his signature victory salute as he boards a helicopter on the White House lawn moments after his resignation, a young Chinese man standing on the Great Wall smiling broadly and holding a Coca-Cola.
Franken left news photography after covering the overthrow of Ceaucescu in Romania. I remember driving film to the Belgrade airport in a rented VW that had all its windows blown out by sniper fire. It was then that he realized there were probably safer subjects to photograph.
He traveled to Paris in 1988 and stayed for the oysters. He began to focus his photography on the food and travel industries. He would soon meet his Dutch wife, Annemiek, and now wife and kids often accompany him on exotic assignments around the world.
Photographing food as a deeply human experience is Frankens art form today. He has completed two illustrated books, Escape to Provence and Escape to the Riviera, and hopes to do a book on Asian street foods.
This year, because of Als show on Air America [airamericaradio.com], everybody has been asking me for photographs, says Franken, who accompanied Al last Christmas on a USO tour of the Middle East and was hired to photograph it. He plans to accompany his brother again this year.
Asked about sibling rivalry, Owen laughs and points to the Harvard-MIT connection. I tease him that there are more Harvard comedians than MIT photographers. Franken playfully uses the French term recompense to describe his brothers Harvard experience. The fact that you are able to get into Harvard means the hard work is over, which is certainly not the case at MIT. MIT makes you prove youre worthy of getting there
and staying there.
It has been interesting having my brother as my brother, Franken continues. During a live conversation in August on Air America, the two got emotional talking about the current war. I told him, I really love you for what youre doing.
Whats next for Owen Franken? He would like to be with his brother for the November election. After that, hes open to all possibilitieswhich is just the way he likes it. Dave Enders