People, Portraits and Problem-Solving
A conversation on collaboration with Jake Chessum
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 including GQ, Men’s Journal, New York Magazine, Glamour, Paper, Entertainment Weekly, The New York Time Magazine and Esquire. 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, Vince Vaughn, Chris Rock, Jennifer Connelly, 50 Cent, Hillary Clinton, Shaun White, Alec Baldwin, Reggie Bush, Spike Lee, Coldplay, Kofi Annan, Sir Ian McKellen, Bill Gates, the list goes on and on.
What elements make a portrait great?
That is a big question. There are so many factors, and so many different types of portrait that I can’t possibly answer that in an absolute way. Meanings change over time. Your relationship with the person—whether a relative, or a person you admire, or dislike. Avedon said “no portrait is the truth, it is just an opinion.”
For a portrait specifically: (1) The passage of time. (2) A graphic element that has nothing to do with the face, setting, or subject. Something to pull you in. (3) Some kind of connection—a dynamic, or compelling element that makes you look. (4) A connection to some kind of human truth—whether joy, sadness, or whatever. (5) Context. The image’s place in history. Context is everything. Look at a photo from the Farm Securities Administration of a poor farmer. That conveys more than a celebrity photo, and that’s great.
“A photo takes a fraction of a second to create. It’s whatever is in the person’s mind at that time, it’s a flash of light on a living being.”
The crazy thing is that a photo—whether the setup takes hours, whether you travel to do it, whatever the circumstances—takes a fraction of a second to create. The moment happens and then it’s past. Sure it’s followed by other moments, but they aren’t the same. Even shooting multiple frames per second, you can still pick out the frame that’s the best. A lot can happen in the printing and processing, the retouching. But the moment of creation is 1/250th of a second. It’s whatever is in that person’s mind at the time, it’s a flash of light on a living being. And yet we expect so much of it! We read into it, we analyze it, we looking for something real! That’s nuts.
What makes for a good collaboration? Is there anything in particular that you look for? Conversely, are there any warning signs that cause you to steer clear of projects?
By default or definition I think pretty much every project I am involved in comes down to people and relationships. As far as warning signs, I think if it’s not clear exactly what the client wants, even after spending time talking and reviewing a brief, then there’s likely to be a problem down the line. A problem solving photo is usually not so much fun, it’s a challenge. I think having some sort of belief in the project is key. And a good relationship with the AD, that’s pretty key. Trusting each other and respecting each other’s contribution and talent.
How has your attitude towards collaboration evolved over the course of your career?
I think in all the years I’ve been doing this, my own confidence in what I’m good at has helped to make me feel more of a partner in projects, more able to voice my opinion and feel that it’s valid and worth contributing.
How clear an idea do you have of what you’re after when you start a project? Do you have a defined idea of what you’d like the outcome to look like, or does that come into being through the process of making the work?
I think that in general—and many people have said this—you go in with a definite plan and have to be prepared to dump it and start from scratch. When dealing with people you have to factor in their personalities and the fact that it’s their image that will be used. I’m merely the conduit, if you will, my fundamental aim is always to make people look great. Obviously it’s my opinion of what it is that’s attractive or compelling about them, but my opinion is all I’ve got.
“I want to surprise myself. I want to come up with some images that are unexpected.”
I’ve always tried to have the mantra that I want to surprise myself, that I want to come up with at least some images that were or are unexpected. I think it’s the most dangerous thing to have a sketch or an idea and to only come home with that. Do it, sure, but you are discounting the collaboration with the subject. They might have a better idea than you, or your assistant might. Listen. Don’t think that just because you push the button, you’re going to have the best idea! Chances are you might, that’s why you have a portfolio full of great stuff. But why not take a chance on getting something better?
Don’t take the same photo over and over. Respond to the environment you find yourself in. If you only ever set up a white background, that’s all you’ll ever get. Take multiple formats, take film and digital, take a point and shoot. Unless it’s an ad brief telling you exactly what they want—then do what’s in the comp! But try to make it your own somehow.
I think it is always a case of working with the person I’m shooting, not against them. That requires them to trust me. That trust is achieved through being myself. I don’t bring an ego or attitude to the shoot. I’m quite understated and try to establish rapport based on the first impressions—it’s kind of like an improvisation, but sincere.
Sitting for a portrait can put people in a vulnerable space, how do you build trust and establish a rapport with your subjects?
It’s very intimidating. Personally, I hate being photographed so I get where people are coming from. I inadvertently found that just chatting to people and showing an interest in them is key for me. I don’t come in and try to make a big scene and a big deal about a shoot. I really just chat to them and see where it goes. Obviously some people don’t want to reveal anything personal, and some do—it runs the gamut. But I let them take the lead on how much they want to chat.
With celebrities or important people I try not to be star struck. I try to be suitably deferential, but still disarmingly normal. I don’t do an over the top “make love to the camera” patter. I behave the same for everybody, at least I hope so.
The Rdio work and SoftBank work we’ve done together features subjects from very different walks of life. Did you find that different strategies were necessary to bring out the best in the two groups, or is your approach consistent?
The approach is somewhat consistent. It may sound trite, but we’re all human. The shoots had different requirements. Rdio was super graphic, lots of movement. SoftBank’s aim was to promote a sense of solidity, confidence. The uniting factor of all of these shoots is to give the subject confidence, to keep up a constant stream of encouragement and direction. This keeps the subject on their toes and interested in what we’re doing. I try my hardest not to get bogged down in overworking one pose, or trying to perfect a hand position or whatever. Since the advent of digital, where shooting one frame or 1000 costs the same I find that shooting fast really pays dividends in catching spontaneous and “off” moments. It really helps to capture such a range and so much life. It was almost a rebirth for me.
Both shoots featured a lot of big personalities. Are there any stories from the shoots that stick with you? Did anything surprise you?
Sheesh, didn’t I sign a non-disclosure? I think people who are used to being photographed and are in the public eye often are nervous to speak too freely as their words could come back to haunt them. I always make it clear that I am not a journalist, that what happens on set, stays on set. I try to be as honest and open with them as they are with me. If they ask me a personal question, I’ll answer.
“My number one aim is to just be human, to chat to them about their kids, their fears, everyday stuff. The bigger the star, the smaller the talk.”
A lot of very important business people are surrounded by very loyal employees, and the hierarchy in those businesses is very clear and important. Employees wouldn’t dare ask the CEO about what they got their spouse for Valentines Day, or where they went on holiday. I’m not bound by those restrictions so much—and it often makes the assistants and PAs nervous when I start talking—so my number one aim is to just be human, to chat to them about their kids, their fears, everyday stuff. I shot DeNiro once, and I realized it was ridiculous to tell him “oh you’re so great, you’re my favorite actor,” or “tell me about Raging Bull” He’s heard it all before, he doesn’t need to hear it from me. It occurred to me that the bigger the star, the smaller the talk. Even the most successful people have kids, worries about everyday crap. Talk about that. Although, when I photographed Oprah I was so in awe I asked her a bunch of stupid questions, one of which was “What’s the biggest check you’ve ever written?” (private jet: $8m).
On projects like these it seems like there are two collaborations going on: one between you and the entity commissioning the work, and then another between you and the people sitting for photographs. How do you navigate those two things simultaneously?
That is a very astute question, and one that has multiple answers. Being a photographer is a bit of a juggling act. Supposedly everybody is there for a common goal, so should be on the same page.
Once I had a sport client with world famous athletes as talent. We had to get a particular expression from this athlete who was presumably being paid a fortune. I explained the concept to him. He had to yell. He said “that’s what you want. I don’t want that.” He had signed off on the ad, was being paid, and still didn’t want to do it. We were both on the same side, and he didn’t want to do it. In the end he did it. Once. One frame. Thank god I got it in focus!
But on the whole everybody is pulling for the same result whether editorial or ad. I want the subject to look great, they want to look great.
But, yeah, being the conduit is like performing a simultaneous translation. You are interpreting the brief from words and sketches into a moment that is being captured. It’s a skill that transcends technical knowledge and ability. I am definitely part psychologist. In fact people have sometimes compared a session with me to a therapy session.
You’ve made so much great work, with so many people, is there anyone or anything in particular you’d still like to photograph or any organizations you’d like to work with?
Oh jeez, there are so many people I’d like to shoot, and I can never think who. I think when somebody passes away and I never met them I am upset that I’ll never get the chance.
“People are very vulnerable in front of the camera. I’m honoured to have the chance to talk to them and capture something about them for posterity.”
But truthfully, every new assignment is great. I recently photographed a load of my neighbors who have lived on my block since the 40s. Their stories were so touching and interesting and unique. That’s something that took me ages to realize, and really crystallized when I was shooting the Look Book for NY Mag week after week. Scratch the surface and there’s usually a great story. Walk down the street and you’re passing people with a lifetime of experience, it’s overwhelming. I photographed this financial dude in his 60s a couple of years ago and when he walked on set, in a handmade suit, he made a throwaway comment about this reminding him of his childhood. I said what do you mean? He replied that he had been an extra in movies when he was a small boy. “Oh yeah, what movies?” “Well…The Godfather, Godfather 2, Dog Day Afternoon…” he was basically the John Cazale of extras. Who would have guessed? Then I had a young Chinese girl who had never been photographed for a magazine tell me about her journey from China as a child and how she had been left behind by her family as they couldn’t get a visa. She told me that the first time she ever met her father was at age three at the baggage carousel at JFK. It was so moving. I said “you must get so sick of telling that story”. She replied: “I’ve only ever told three people before.” I’m trying not to cry just thinking about it now. People are very vulnerable in front of a camera, I’m honored to have the chance to talk to them and capture something about them for posterity.
If you could go back in time to when you were just starting out and give yourself one piece of advice what would it be?
Just one? Ouch. Don’t spend time worrying whether or not you’re good—more self belief! But that would require a personality change! From a practical standpoint: remember it’s a business. Make every dollar count.
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