Alex Frayne’s Theatre of Life

With two books due out this year, photographer Alex Frayne is a master of capturing the obscure, weird and wonderful slices of life you won’t see in a brochure or advertising campaign.

Having made the jump from cult filmmaker to acclaimed photographer, Alex Frayne built a fanbase via social media as fans view his work through his commercial Facebook page which he updates regularly to keep his audience engaged. In 2014, Frayne released his first book Adelaide Noir through Wakefield Press. The local publishing house will release his next two volumes of works, Theatre of Life in July and Landscapes later in the year.

“The first book was paying photographic homage to the western suburbs originally,” Frayne says. “The factory lives, the urban decay, the decline of industry and how I felt compelled to recognise that photographically and artistically.”

alex-frayne-man-and-shadow-adelaide-reviewAlex Frayne, Man and Shadow

But, heading out to the inner and outer suburbs to shoot the after-hour relics of human behaviour – the isolated playgrounds, shopping centres and factories – began to bore Frayne.

“I was interested in knowing the people of that world rather than just photographing the artefacts,” he says.

“I’d often be approached by people when shooting at night, I’d be setting up the camera and we’d talk about the work and as time went by I became more interested in their stories.”

alex-frayne-theatre-life-adelaide-review-jonathan-van-der-knaap-2Frayne’s experience working in film built his interest in the personal stories of his subjects (photo: Jonathan van der Knaap)

Take Betty of Taperoo, who looks like she could be a talking head from an early Errol Morris documentary.

“She’s [Betty] loved by everyone in the Lefevre Peninsula and everyone has a story about her and she has stories to share as well. I became more interested in those elements of that landscape – the people.”

Other shots in the book also have a cinematic-bent to them, as some of the portrait subjects look like characters from a black and white Jim Jarmusch indie or appear to inhabit a David Lynch-like cinematic world. The photographs taken for Theatre of Life weren’t confined to Adelaide, Frayne ventured to Japan and Macau to shoot.

“The common thread running through all the portraits in the book are what the French would call ‘tranches de vie’, the slice of life,” he says. “Most of the shots are really street photography; I guess that’s a subgenre of portraiture. I don’t have a studio, I haven’t set up lights for god knows how many years, I tend to like to shoot and run. I like to be in mysterious places not knowing north, south, east or west. The photos look natural; they feel like you are just passing by.”

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Alex Frayne, Away

He has film to thank for his photography career, as scouting locations for his last feature Modern Love allowed him to view the city in a different light.

“I started to actively seek locations with my camera with a view to photographing them later at night or when it’s foggy or when someone’s just walking past.”

It is because of this that he believes his photos (especially his urban landscapes) have a cinematic edge, as in his head, he scripts his photographs like a film shoot.

“If you’re trying to sell the impression of a melancholic industrial landscape, it has to be scripted, there has to be intent behind it, you go there at one in the morning when there are no cars – because cars ruin the shot. There are no people around, so that filmic approach really crossed over heavily. People often use the word cinematic, that it looks like a thriller, a western and will associate them with a genre. That’s my pedigree, so the process of scripting a shot, choreographing a shot, comes from film.”

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Alex Frayne, Man’s World

The 2017 National Portrait Prize finalist says the people he captures are the ones who live in the same areas as those who predominantly buy his work. He believes people from the suburbs have a more sophisticated artistic aesthetic than the people of his world, the arts world.

“I think that comes from popular culture, an emphasis on television and a very acute perception of zeitgeist movements. If there is something happening in Phoenix, Arizona or Minneapolis or Maine, I think it’s the broader community who latches onto things pretty fast and brings it out to Australia. I think it’s those people who have that aesthetic, that acute perception as opposed to the arts industry.”

alex-frayne-hold-adelaide-reviewAlex Frayne, Hold

But people from the arts world do appear in Theatre of Life including filmmaker Sophie Hyde and arts patron and lawyer Michael Abbott.

“Depicted in the book are people I’ve met in the Adelaide Noir landscape and people I really look up to and think have made a big contribution to the arts in Adelaide: Michael Abbott, Sophie Hyde. Also, I find they have interesting faces. I think we shouldn’t overlook the fact that when I’m compelled to photograph someone’s likeness it’s because I want to depict them artistically. I’ve depicted a lot of people and not all of them are in the book. But if I admire someone and I don’t want to photograph them, I won’t. There are a lot of people I admire. A lot of people have asked to be photographed. And I have to very honest and say I’m not interested.”

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Alex Frayne, Royce Wells (iii)

Though Frayne says he will exhibit in a gallery he believes social media allows him to have a 24/7 exhibition that can be viewed by anyone at any time.

“I don’t want to disrespect exhibiting as a form, I think it has to exist but I seem to have found a natural niche using social media because it’s so brilliantly set up for images. It really has nailed presentation very well. The work is popular online, I think it’s led to people outside that arts world seeing the work, buying the work, being interested in the work and being loyal. There are people who have bought 20-plus images and who don’t go to galleries and frock up for opening night. They see the work online and buy it.”

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Alex Frayne, The Bondage Queen of Tokyo

Frayne says being prolific is the key to building his online audience.

“You’ve got to be continually putting work up, that’s the nature of business. If you stop and start you don’t create rhythm and I think creating a rhythm for the presentation of work, unconsciously people appreciate that. And you are giving them what they want, that’s a mainstream concept in the last few years I’ve been acquainted with; this idea that if you are marketing your work to a world outside the opening night arts crowd, you’ve got to do it continually. They’re not travelling in from the western suburbs to gallery openings to be amongst the anointed, they are expecting to see it on their mobile phone.”

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