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Meet Photographer Jake Chessum

Amy Winehouse, 2004 by Jake Chessum

Last year we were delighted to welcome acclaimed music photographer Jake Chessum to our archive. Jake's wonderful print collection includes candid images of Amy Winehouse, David Bowie, and JAY-Z. We decided to catch up with Jake to find out more about his work, inspiration, and plans for the future.

When did you start taking photos and decided that you wanted to make a career of it? When I was a kid my dad would always take a lot of photographs of our family and bring home contact sheets and images printed up on fiber paper, so photography was always around. I was obsessed with magazines too, and I clearly remember seeing a couple of photo exhibits when I was 16 or 17 and going home and telling my mum I wanted to be a photographer. It was then that I started taking pictures of friends.

When I was at Art School one of my tutors said to me “it’s very difficult to actually say what makes a photograph good, but you know; you can do it”. That stuck with me and it was around then that I thought that perhaps it was possible. I was 19 then.

What was the first band you ever photographed? Sheesh…I am trying to remember some early ones. Two of my first shoots were with Joe Zawinul and Gang Starr, and I had a few moments with LL Cool J when he was just 21. Joe Zawinul told me that I should work fast “like those Japanese photographers”. When Guru sadly passed I posted my shot of Gang Starr and DJ Premier got in touch with me. I love Instagram for that as he had never seen the photo.

I wasn’t a “music photographer” per se, so I was shooting a lot of actors, politicians, writers, corporate stuff, advertising…a real mix. Since then I have been lucky to photograph quite a lot of bands, but looking back I wish I’d shot more.

 

David Bowie, 1995 by Jake Chessum

Which artist did you most enjoy working with & why? Bowie…what can I say? My friend asked me “how can you even be in the same room with him?” It’s true…it was quite something, but an opportunity I would have practically killed for. Along with John Cooper Clarke and The Smiths he was one of the first gigs I ever saw. But listening to Low, Heroes, Ziggy Stardust had defined my teen years. When I was 16 I remember looking at the program of The Serious Moonlight Tour and thinking I wonder if I’ll ever meet him. So it was a big deal.

He wasn’t promoting any album at the time so I got “civilian” Bowie in mufti…he wasn’t being a character or dressing up. I think that’s what makes the portraits I took quite nice…they are so simple. A few months later I think he was promoting Earthling and dyed his hair orange and had a load of eye makeup on which would have been a very different session.

How would you describe your work? Do you have a particular style? My photos are quite spontaneous looking, generally not overly posed, yet graphically composed. I think I am quite collaborative with the person I am shooting. It’s like an improvisation when you meet and start to shoot. I like things to be quite spontaneous and to see what happens. I have never been into set building or huge lighting set ups…so my style is quite loose. I try to go with a plan, but not a finished shot in mind. There’s nothing worse than knowing exactly what you are going to come away with before you have even arrived, it disallows any surprises. I always hope that I got something “unexpected”. 

 

Thom Yorke, Radiohead, 2006 by Jake Chessum

Who or what inspires you? I am inspired my so many different things…other photos, music, art. I like looking at photographs by the Masters…but find it a bit dangerous to look too much before shooting as I am subconsciously trying to mimic what I just looked at! Also, this may sound weird but I am inspired by getting the image, by knowing that I am going into a situation that will allow me to make something happen and come away with a new image.

What makes a great music photo? I think photographs of musicians and bands are so intertwined with their music…there are many great photographs of musicians, but because I don’t love the music as much the photos don’t mean as much to me. So perhaps the greatness is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. I think there’s nostalgia in there too. The photo takes you back to when that music was important to you, to a specific time in your life and the photo becomes part of that. 

 

David Bowie & Mick Ronson, 1973 by Mick Rock

Which is your favourite photo on Rockarchive.com? So many choices, but I am going to have to go with Mick Rock’s shot of Bowie and Mick Ronson on the train. For so many reasons. Dressed to the nines on a British Rail train to Aberdeen, the hair, the suits…eating British Rail food…it’s difficult to imagine anybody getting anything close to this today. it’s just such a moment, and then the added bonus of the way they are looking at each other. Mick Rock had such amazing access, and I am guessing that there isn’t so much control over what you could and couldn’t shoot. Plus I just love Bowie’s music from that era.

Has the industry changed and do you have any advice for an aspiring rock photographer? The industry has changed so dramatically it’s very difficult to even summarise what has happened! I think it’s a mistake to get too nostalgic and wish it was like the old days! That whole thing has gone, so we have to embrace going forward. However, the basic advice I would give remains pretty constant: Be enthusiastic. Show what you are interested in by committing to photographing it. Throw yourself into the medium…live and breathe making images. Find a band or bands you like who are starting out, and photograph them…follow them around if you can. Shoot live shows, portraits. Shoot friends and family, shoot everybody who comes over to your apartment…just generate as much new work as you can. Take as many photos as you can in many different situations…try not to turn opportunities down.

It’s harder to make money now, and everybody has to make a living, but try not to see the money as the most important part (although at the same time there’s always a risk of getting ripped off, so…) Also don’t limit yourself to one type of subject…I think the best photographers were always into everything…street photography, portraits, landscapes, but maybe don’t compartmentalise/categorize subjects: Just think of it as making images…taking what’s out there and making it into a photo.

The advantage photographers have now is there are so many ways of making photos…phones, digital cameras, film is still going strong. Use anything and everything to take pictures. And put them out there on instagram! Also…never throw anything out. In 20 years, that band you shot at a small venue in Bushwick might be huge and you’ll be able to sell prints to fans just like you!

 

Amy Winehouse, 2004 by Jake Chessum

What are your career plans for the future? I am feeling very positive! I still love taking photographs. I am working on a book of photos from my shoot with Amy Winehouse back in 2004. I am also shooting a long term project around the area where I live in Brooklyn that is undergoing a huge change. I really love all those instagram accounts that show “before and after” shots of neighborhoods, and also the Berenice Abbott book Changing New York which was originally shot in the 1930s. A photographer in the late 90s, using the same cameras took photos from the same spots and the changes were astonishing. That inspired me. I am still shooting as much editorial as I can, and have recently started shooting key art for HBO and Apple TV, so that is an exciting development.

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