With an eye for capturing the little moments and the big personalities, photographer Frank Mullen became synonymous with Atlanta’s music scene.
Stickers of his color-saturated photos of Athens duo Jucifer dotted nearly every surface of Little Five Points during the release blitz of the band’s 1999 debut, Calling All Cars on the Vegas Strip. His promo shots of indie songstress Shannon Wright and such hip-hop superstars as Big Boi and Ludacris still haunt with his use of stark colors, shadows and natural distortion. At concerts, he quickly earned a reputation as the man in the photo pit who could do no wrong.
Unsurprisingly, he went about his final days as though nothing were wrong. But on the evening of May 9, he died after a quiet, 19-month-long battle with cancer. Diagnosed with adenocarcinoma, doctors didn’t know where the cancer started in his body. Few even knew that Mullen was sick. The stocking cap that he wore on his head to conceal his hair loss from chemotherapy treatments hadn’t seemed out of place. Even in his prime, he’d concealed his lanky frame under oversized T-shirts and cargo shorts.
“It was important to Frank to tell his closest friends, but he didn’t want gossip to spread,” explains his wife, Vanessa. “He thought, ‘If people don’t know that I’m sick, I can keep working.’"
So Mullen continued chronicling antics on Atlanta stages and working as a graphic designer with Methane Studios until three days before he died. His business-as-usual demeanor made his passing come as a shock, even to those who were closest to him. “Frank had me thinking that he could almost beat this thing,” says his friend and longtime cohort, photographer Rick Diamond. “He had me convinced that he was all right.”
In the end, Mullen died the same way he approached photography and life — without losing his cool.
Back in 1982, Mullen joined the Gainesville, Fla., hardcore band Roach Motel with his friend Jeff Hodapp while they were in college at the University of Florida. Hodapp played guitar and Mullen played drums. With their beer-soaked antics and such punk rock anthems as “I Hate the Sunshine State,” “My Dog Is into Anarchy” and “Brooke Shields Must Die,” the band garnered a regional following. They even played shows with the likes of Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat. But after a couple of spastic years, the band called it quits in ’84.
“It was the sloppiest, noisiest thing we had ever heard,” Hodapp recalls. “He was taking pictures back then, but I don’t think he knew that he wanted to make a living doing it. He was in business school, just like me. He was great to be in a band with because he was a very calming person in a sea of wackos.”
The two years of onstage experience with Roach Motel made Mullen a natural at working with his subjects and predicting their movements on stage. It enabled him to capture honest, dazzling moments.
Atlanta Rollergirls co-founder Sara Riney recalls the portrait work he did for them. "He was really good about drawing out the most natural poses, and if you started looking too fake he would say 'Shake it off, do it again,'” she says. “It would look so much better than if you had been making a mean face or just trying too hard. A lot of times, when you join a team and are posing for a photo you feel like a deer in the headlights, but Frank was good about making us all feel very comfortable."
Professional photographer Diamond was known as one of Mullen’s early mentors, though Diamond shudders at the notion. “If anything, Frank was a mentor to me,” he says. “Every time a new Nikon came out we might get it on the same day, but he was the one who could put it into terms that I understood. At 2 in the morning I could call Frank and say, ‘I can’t get this to work,’ and he could fix it. I picked up a lot more from him than he ever learned from me.”
In 1992, Mullen's images of such acts as Iggy Pop, the Flaming Lips and the White Stripes began gracing the pages of Rolling Stone, People, Mojo, Spin, the Wall Street Journal, Modern Drummer and more.
By the time Frank’s eventual wife, Vanessa Mullen, met him in 1995, his time was split between music photography and his day job as a corporate trainer for Apple. "I was living in Cabbagetown, and my neighbors Mike and Nancy kept telling me that I was the female equivalent of this guy who was into the same morbid things that I was into," she says. "He sounded cool, but when I met him I was not impressed. I even wondered if he really was the same guy who had played drums for Roach Motel. When we met, Frank had been in the corporate world for a while, and he was taking on the look.”
At the time, Mullen was married and living out of state. But by the fall of ’96, he was divorced and back in Atlanta — and did a better job impressing Vanessa that time around. “I always tell people that we fell in love over music, sideshow banners, scary clowns, taxidermy and serial killers,” she says. “He had me from the moment he told me that he was pen pals with John Wayne Gacy. I thought that was the coolest.”
After returning to Atlanta, Mullen shed the corporate look. He often recalled going to an in-store performance by the band Garbage and being repeatedly asked for autographs because of his resemblance to producer Butch Vig.
Mullen’s level-headed demeanor never dissipated. When then-novice photographer Perry Julien met him at Music Midtown in 2004, Mullen’s calming persona impressed him. “My new camera was experiencing some major technical difficulties,” Julien says. “While hanging in the VIP area, a photographer who could have easily passed for a rock star walked by me carrying two Nikons around his neck. I figured, this guy must know a bit about digital cameras. So in the midst of him trying to get the shots he needed, I asked him if he could help me figure out why my camera no longer wanted to take photographs. Anybody else would have kept walking, but Frank sat down with me and after checking out my camera said it looked like it had a bad circuit board and should be sent back for repairs.”
His down-to-earth approach, both personally and professionally, left as much of an impression on people as his photographs.
“Frank was never competitive in the photo pit, and whenever he was around, shooting was a lot more fun,” Julien says. “He will always be an inspiration to me and for anyone who was fortunate enough to know him.”
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