In Conversation: Jake Chessum


London born, New York based photographer and filmmaker Jake Chessum’s naturally spontaneous and exuberant approach to photography has led to a long and varied career. His timeless and engaging celebrity portraits have appeared in many prestigious magazines and the range of celebrities he has been commissioned to shoot span the worlds of film, politics, sports and music and includes: Robert De Niro, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Douglas, Mickey Rourke, Hillary Clinton, Coldplay, Kofi Annan, Bill Gates…the list goes on and on. Here he talks to long time friend and UNP founder and curator Grant Scott.

Grant: Let’s start at the very beginning. You and I were studying graphic design at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London in the late Eighties, but you spent all your time taking pictures. How did this come about and what was the attitude towards you from the college?
Jake Chessum: After I completed my foundation course at the Central School of Art and Design, I was pretty sure that I wanted to be a photographer, but having researched a few courses came to the conclusion that they were all about technique and theory.

I knew that wasn’t an aspect of photography I was particularly interested in, so I looked for the nearest alternative. I had been buying photography books and avidly collecting magazines since I was about 16 and was very interested in magazine design so I thought that to study graphic design would be a way to combine my two main interests.

So, I applied to Saint Martin’s School of Art. For the first year or so I followed the course, although pretty unsuccessfully. I was terrible and never finished any projects. The situation was made worse by the presence of some really talented designers on my course, such as Stephen Sorrel (now of FUEL) and Graham Wood (now at Tomato). I remember Graham saying to me I should ditch the typography and concentrate on the photographs – good advice, which I took. So from the second year on I started phasing out the design, and in the third year concentrated solely on taking pictures.

I didn’t actually have a desk and was only ever seen in the darkroom. I was never present at crits or briefings for projects I had no intention of doing. The tutors were not happy, but by the third year had to accept the situation as they would otherwise be unable to explain to the London Institute why I hadn’t been kicked off earlier.

After leaving college you started getting commissions straight away. Who were you working for?
I had shot a few jobs while I was in my third year, and I was commissioned to shoot a portrait for The Face on the day of my degree show. I had to race back from the shoot in Macclesfield to make it to the party. Phil Bicker, then the art director, chose to do a small profile of me as a graduate to watch.

This led to several commissions from newspapers and magazines including Gary Oldman for Arena. It was to be shot as a reportage portrait while he was being interviewed having lunch. The magazine didn’t tell Gary there would be a photographer coming, and when I introduced myself he refused to be photographed. So I explained to him that I had just left art school and that I knew the magazine wanted to put him on the cover and would he please let me shoot him, blah, blah, blah… he agreed. I met him later in a park in Chelsea. No stylist, no grooming, no assistant. I took some shots of him against a piece of white card I pinned up against a wall. They ran it on the cover.

I also shot some street fashion stories for The Independent, Jean Shrimpton for the The Saturday Times Magazine and a few fashion stories for The Guardian. The piece in The Face brought me to the attention of the ad agency Chiat Day and they commissioned me to shoot a campaign for Neutrogena. We subsequently cast Kate Moss in one of her first ad campaigns.

A range of titles that were maybe not so highly thought of also commissioned me. But having come from a background of working for 25 quid a day in Next on Saturdays, suddenly being paid three to four hundred quid a day was an opportunity I couldn’t resist. I would basically accept any assignment I was offered. This completely random career path carried on for a couple of years.

I wish I could take the credit for being bright enough to have realized that mixing the better quality magazines with those that were less highly thought of was seriously compromising my career but it was you who made me aware of that issue. People asked me why I was taking such crappy assignments alongside more prestigious ones. Eventually I started doing a few things under a pseudonym, then one day I backed out of a job that I had already agreed to do. I had made the decision to try to be a ‘good’ photographer as opposed to a ‘jobbing photographer’.

As I had never assisted or worked in a studio, I was coming into the business completely ignorant of everything. I was all over the place: I had never written an invoice or billed anything. I used to send in entire shoots rather than do an edit to indicate my favourite images. So it took working out in the ‘field’ for a couple of years to work out that the most important thing was that you have to have some kind of continuous thread throughout your work, be it a vision or a style. And by that I mean you have to be yourself. Take assignments that you are able to do in your way, and do not compromise… too much.

Your work seems to be an extension of your personality, very laid-back and easy-going. Are you aware of that? And if so, has that always been the case? I’m not sure that I really am that laid-back or easy-going! What I have realized is that my approach to a shoot is really to form a little relationship with the person I’m photographing. When you meet somebody for a shoot, and it usually is the first time you’ve met, you have a very short time in which to assess the best way to get out of them what you need to make the best photographs.

I’m lucky because I have a really diverse set of clients and rarely shoot the same type of thing from one day to the next, so I don’t really have a formulaic approach to my subjects. It’s kind of organic and based upon experience, but to shoot a successful picture the subject has to trust you.

I was once commissioned to shoot an actress, who had had huge success and then kind of disappeared. She was on a comeback and there was a lot of pressure on her. I chatted to her, we got ready and then I shot a few polaroids… they were horrendous, she saw them. I could see the fear in her eyes. I had lost her trust, and there was no way back. I learned a big lesson: don’t show anything unless you are confident they will like it and always overexpose the first images you show!

Whether they are an actor, a director, a model or somebody who is not used to being photographed at all, they are putting themselves on the line and are very vulnerable when they step in front of the camera. I believe it is my job to do my utmost, not to flatter them per se, but to represent them in a manner in which they might like to be seen. It’s a collaboration.

It’s only in the last few years that I have actually crystallized that in my head, but having done so has made me much more confident when going into any situation. I suppose it was always there to an extent.

Almost like a film director you seem to be able to spot a graphic moment within a movement or situation and capture it. Has film been an influence on your work?
Not in a literal way. I think I have always tried not to be too directly influenced by anything. I have studied a lot of photography and film history.

You had a successful career in London, but I think it is fair to say that you never made it into the major league here, not in the way you have done in New York. Why do you think that is?
Tricky one. I worked in London for about four years before I made my first trip to the US, to shoot Ice Cube in south central Los Angeles for The Face. I then started travelling there pretty regularly, to both LA and NYC. I started doing some appointments, and picking up the odd assignment, mainly in London for US magazines, but my break was when Matt Berman hired me to shoot for John Kennedy Jr’s new magazine, George, in the autumn of 1995.

Matt was the creative director and had basically sat down with his photo director Bridget Cox, and gone through every magazine in the UK and picked out all the photographers in London that he wanted to work with. He flew me out to New York and we hung out and chatted a lot in his office. I then shot a couple of stories for their first issue. It was a really exciting opportunity and led to me spending a lot of time in the States, shooting amazingly diverse and interesting assignments all over the country: I went from Colorado to North Dakota, to DC to Vegas, shooting everybody from Kofi Annan to Newt Gingrich, to stories about car dealers who were also politicians… incredible.

In 1997 I started shooting for The New York Times Magazine. My first assignment was to shoot a cover story on Tom Hanks and Ben Affleck. I was away from home more and more and in 1998 I think I was in America for about four months. It was then that my wife and I decided it was now or never and we headed out to New York. That was in April 1999, and we’ve been here ever since.

In London I think the editorial market narrowed to a limited number of titles that I could really shoot for and advertising is really focused on cars, beauty and fashion, as well as still life. None of which I really do. There are more outlets for my work over here [in the US]: monthlies and weeklies, news and entertainment, and my main subject matter is celebrities, most of whom live here.

Being a foreigner also helped. I think when I moved here there were quite a lot of English photographers moving over and I really believe we came with a different attitude. It wasn’t conscious, it just was natural. We hadn’t grown up here and culturally we just struck a chord, or had an attitude that editors responded to.But I think that the main thing was experience, and the confidence that comes with it.

Tell me about working in New York in comparison to London.
There are so many more sunny days. Even when it’s freezing, it’s usually sunny. It makes you feel better. One photo editor in LA told me how much she loves working with English photographers, because the light or the weather never freaks them out. In London, if it wasn’t raining, it was cloudy; you get used to shooting at 1/8sec which is rarely the case over here. But I really haven’t worked in London for 10 years or so now.

When talking about your work you often say ‘we’, do you see your work very much as a collaborative effort?
Any shoot is a collaborative effort. From the contributions of the team on set to the post production, I regularly seek the input and opinions of others. But ultimately it is down to me to push the button, get the picture and submit the work to the client.

It used to make me anxious that the contributions of others undermined my claim to authorship of the pictures, but that was insecurity and lack of self-confidence. Also a team can be like a security blanket. So sometimes I am pleased to have an assignment where it is just a camera and me, and I still get the picture. It proves to me that I can do it alone. If somebody has a good idea, I will be only too happy to use it!

So where do you see your work taking you in the future?
I am still excited about every assignment. I’m always looking forward to the next job.

You work with a lot of musicians, actors and celebrities. How do you approach these shoots?
There really is no set approach, because the assignments are never the same from one day to the next. But there are a few constants. I’ll read up a bit on wikipedia if I don’t already know who the person is and google image search them. I am always excited to meet people from any walk of life as pretty much everybody has an interesting story and I love the challenge of getting the picture.

There are shoots of course where I am particularly thrilled: when I was commissioned to shoot Mickey Rourke last year, when the phone call came in I was literally jumping around the studio with excitement. It is a thrill to meet somebody whose work you admire or who has somehow had an influence on your life or work. I’ve shot David Bowie a couple of times, David Bailey. When I was in my teens The Smiths were my absolute favourite band and I got to shoot Johnny Marr.

I’ve always been a collector, and since almost the very beginning have asked people I shoot to sign something…just a Polaroid sometimes, but often a poster of a movie they’ve been in or directed or a record. The act of being photographed is a weird and unnatural experience, especially if the subject doesn’t do it as part of their professional life: I once photographed a young lady who told me an amazingly personal and moving story during the shoot about her life.

After she had finished I said, “You must get tired of telling that story”. She replied that she had only ever told four people…I was honoured that she’d told me but also amazed at the kind of false intimacy that the shoot had engendered, and the power (for want of a better word) that I had.

So on a shoot I try to establish some kind of connection, whether it’s from knowing about the person, their career, being interested in them professionally, establishing a connection personally…whatever. I can’t say that I am 100% successful at this, and even if you don’t connect you can still get a great image, but it definitely helps if you do connect as then everybody relaxes a bit, time constraints get relaxed too, and you’re in with a chance!

I feel that the shoot for me is kind of a performance…by me as much as whomever I’m shooting…But I think I really come at a shoot as low key and genuine as I can be. I try to let people be themselves; I try to just be myself. I don’t consider myself to be arrogant, I don’t act like a big shot…all I am thinking is how can I make this better, how can I look harder to get a better picture, what am I missing. I mentioned “tunnel vision” before, and it’s true.

Many times I simply cannot remember the conversation or some salient moment in the shoot because whatever I was saying was so transient in order to get a picture…I probably wasn’t listening to the conversation I was initiating!

I can imagine that you’re a ball of energy when you’re shooting.
The build up to a shoot is usually a stressful time for me. I go through a real range of emotions and as the shoot approaches I am usually really quiet. I pace up and down a lot.

As soon as we start shooting, and we have a good frame on the monitor or a good Polaroid (yes…I still shoot a lot of film) and it’s going ok, all of that falls away. It’s like tunnel vision. Sometimes people ask who was there or what was going on and I really don’t remember because I was only focussed on what was going on through the lens.

I try to maintain a constant stream of encouragement and patter. I would die of embarrassment if some of the things I have said while trying to get a picture were played back to me. But all that matters is coming away with the image.

I shot a long running project for New York Magazine called The Look Book where we would set up a studio with a white background on the street in various locations on the streets of NYC and pick out passers-by who looked interesting and ask if we could take their picture for a double page in the magazine. Persuading people to stop and pose on our portable studio in the middle of New York, when that morning they had left home just to go about their business really honed my skills of persuasion and encouragement.

When I am working I usually have 2 or 3 different cameras, I am running around. I try not to use a tripod unless I have to, a shoot can be a physically and emotionally exhausting experience

Is it confidence and experience that allows things to just happen?
Yes I think it is. Although with even the most unplanned looking shoots there is a lot of planning. Wardrobe, hair, make up, location, props…yet even then (or maybe it’s because) the best picture will often come from a random and unplanned moment. At times like that the planning becomes a retrospective safety net. On editorial shoots I have had a prop stylist pull hundreds of props, and in the end used none…but if we hadn’t had them there…maybe nothing would have happened.

When I shot Coldplay, we pulled a load of disco balls for them to pose with, but at the shoot Chris Martin got into one of the boxes that they had been delivered in. So the shot ended up being Coldplay jumping in cardboard boxes (with disco balls in the background).

I think allowing the random to happen is really important. To be too proscribed, and to not allow spontaneity or your subconscious to take over is a huge mistake in a medium where the moment of creation can be as little as 1/1000th of a second. Consequently I end up shooting a lot of images. Which means a lot of editing.

Do you get to choose the locations and do you have a regular team of stylists, make-up artists, hairdressers etc that you work with?
I try to work with a team of people that I know well, and who also know the way that I work, the things that I like or am interested in. It helps to be able to trust their taste on the elements that are their specialities. Also you need people whose personalities are right for the situation, who know when to make small talk, when to keep quiet, when to help out with a joke.

Tell me about Rubbish.
Rubbish is my second book. The first was The Look Book, which was published in 2007 by Melcher Media, and was a compilation of images taken from the column of that name that I had been shooting for New York magazine for about 4 years. Rubbish came about as a result of a conversation I had with the photographer Christopher Griffith.

He had published a couple of books with powerhouse and wanted to take control of the process more, so conceived of the idea with his girlfriend Rebecca, to set up a collective. I had been toying with the idea of publishing a book of my personal work for a while, but hadn’t had the impetus to actually do it. He asked me to join him and Christian Weber in publishing our own titles. So we set up Auditorium Editions in order to do this.

As I mentioned  I have been collecting books for years, and when I moved to New York in 1999 I discovered, kind of late, the work of William Eggleston and Harry Callahan. I had always shot pictures of places I travelled to, but those two really inspired me to document every trip I made…the surroundings, the hotel…whatever I came across. So I had a vast archive of images.

When I started sifting through the work I saw that I had a load of pictures of rubbish. The initial edit was around 200, which was whittled down to the 26 in the book. There was no real manifesto or statement beyond the graphic strength of the composition, and the beauty of the discarded material through its colour.

And, finally, what would be your advice for a photographer trying to get commissioned today?
Don’t try to take pictures that you think are going to get you a job. Take pictures that you want to look at, and can talk about enthusiastically. There’s no point in trying to emulate the work of other photographers. A good photo editor will see straight through it. It is a cut-throat business with a ludicrous amount of competition.

Be enthusiastic. Always.

© Grant Scott 2016

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