By Kris Kitto - 11/05/09 12:08 AM EST
It’s a headless shot featuring a stomach, a small swimsuit top, and a hand lazily holding a lit cigarette.
Evidently, humor runs in the family, although Owen never made a career of it like his younger brother, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.).
Instead, he picked up photography, a profession that has taken him to roughly 100 countries, fostered relationships with people ranging from George H.W. Bush to renowned French chef Pierre Gagnaire and given him a front row seat on such historic events as the falling of the Berlin Wall and Richard Nixon’s resignation.
This week marks a milestone of his own. For the first time in his 40-year career, Owen will display his work in a gallery exhibition to benefit the local nonprofit ARCH Development Corp. And the event will reunite two brothers whose lives, Owen admits, are wildly different but who began their attention-getting collaborations much earlier.
His show, “Owen Franken: A Photography Retrospective,” opens Friday with a reception and silent auction hosted by his brother and sister-in-law, Franni.
Owen will also be on hand Friday before heading back to his Paris home to continue his professional mission of “photographing the world.”
Owen’s photos, like the one of Charlotte (who is the older sister of Owen’s son’s best friend), all have elaborate stories to them. There was the time, for instance, he went to Algeria with Gagnaire, who Owen says likes to walk deserts to escape the pressures of the restaurant industry.
“We were walking down to the Niger River together to get in a little canoe ourselves to tour around on the river, and this — ” He points to a shadowy photo of rickety boats sharing the still water with a clump of people washing nearby.
A photo of Bush standing in a New Hampshire living room during the 1980 Republican presidential primary spurs Owen to reminisce about his interactions with the then-aspiring president.
“I liked him, actually,” says Owen, who, in later conversation, makes it clear that he’s a Democrat. Owen was shooting the 1980 presidential race for a photo agency and got to know Bush on the campaign trail.
“We had a bet going about how Nicaragua would go,” he says.
Owen and his brother are cut from the same cloth in myriad ways. Not only do they look alike — the older Owen, who glosses over his age by saying, “I’m 60-hrmfhrmf,” is slightly taller and thinner — they also had politics and humor in common as kids.
Owen tells a story of himself and his brother, roughly at ages 16 and 11, writing and performing something called “The Ku Klux Klan Marching Song” for a homemade play they put together.
“We did it to ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,’ ” Owen says, referring to the famous Mary Poppins song.
He proceeds to sing the chorus, which is, “When you put your white sheet on, this is what you’ll say: We’re super-patriotic anti-Catholic Segregaysh-ists.”
As a college student — Owen studied physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — he gave a speech critical of the Vietnam War in front of his peers. He then joined the Democratic presidential campaign of his home-state senator, Eugene McCarthy.
He had been a recreational photographer throughout this time, but McCarthy’s campaign was his breakout moment. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh was serving as McCarthy’s press secretary, and he saw some of Owen’s photos. Hersh asked him to become one of the campaign’s official photographers.
Owen’s world opened from there. His first day on the White House beat for a photo agency was Richard Nixon’s last, but he arrived in time to get the famous shot of the president holding his hands in peace signs as he boarded the helicopter for the last time.
Owen’s history-laden photos rack up from there: Germans celebrating New Year’s Eve 1989 on top of the fallen Berlin Wall, a smiling President Ronald Reagan celebrating his 70th birthday, a bumblebee-outfitted John Belushi ice skating in a “Saturday Night Live” skit and his brother touring in Iraq with the USO, to name a few.
As for his own family’s history-making, Owen has stayed involved from a distance. He participates in Democrats Abroad (“Most of the Democrats in France are to my left, so I keep them under control: ‘No, we don’t need to have foreigners promoting the platform that we should get rid of the military’ ”) but had no formal role in his brother’s Senate campaign. He couldn’t make it to Sen. Franken’s swearing-in, either, because his son graduated from high school the same day.
Owen says he and his brother talk regularly, but he understands the demands and responsibilities of the senator’s schedule.
He does, however, hope his brother can convince some of his colleagues to attend Friday’s reception.
“I’m just hoping Olympia Snowe comes,” he says, joking that he’d turn on some of his learned French charm to lock in the Maine Republican senator’s support for healthcare reform.
His 21 years in Paris have also made clear to him his views on America’s healthcare system. In France, “We’re in a society,” he says. “Everybody’s covered — nobody has nothing — and you don’t go bankrupt because of healthcare.”
Owen’s brother doesn’t speak so freely these days, but the senator did manage to express his admiration for Owen through his spokeswoman.
“My brother … was always brilliant with a camera — even making a living as a teenager taking photos of the neighborhood kids and selling the prints to their parents,” Sen. Franken said. “Helping him print those photos in his darkroom in the basement was one of my great memories. In fact, while I was campaigning, a woman in Golden Valley [Minn.] showed me a photo that Owen had taken of her when she was 6 that she keeps to this day.
Owen’s next project is yet to be determined. He’s thinking about working with some chefs — he likes food and wine photography — to take photos of menu ingredients, but he hasn’t started that. In the meantime, he is savoring his long-awaited art-gallery debut.
“It’s just a lot about pictures of people,” he says as he takes a look around the gallery. The show, he feels, captures what photography has taught him: “The world is a great place, and it’s an interesting place.”
Owen Franken: A Photography Retrospective
Silent auction, reception and preview hosted by Sen. Al Franken and his wife, Franni.
Friday, Nov. 6, 7:30 p.m.
2204 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE
Tickets, which cost $25, can be purchased by contacting Beth Ferraro at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-365-8392.