Jake Chessum Interview

- - Photographers

Jake Chessum is a photographer you will find near the top of all photo editor lists and that’s why I’m so excited he will be joining me Fri, Oct 26, 2012 from 1:30 PM to 3:30 PM for a panel discussion on “Making a Career in Editorial Photography” at the Photo Plus Expo in NYC. I had the opportunity recently to sit down with him at his studio and discuss his career.

APE: Let’s start at the beginning. When did you first get interested in photography?

Jake Chessum: I was 17 years old and I went to see an exhibition by the British photographer John French. I clearly remember going home and saying to my mum, “I want to a photographer.” I had been taking my own pictures for about a year before that, but this was the first time I clearly remember deciding on a career.

But before that, my dad worked for this company that would hire photographers and he used to work with this guy, Chris Morris. This guy always seemed glamorous. He had a sports car and he lived in Holland Park, which is super fancy West London.

Because of this my dad had access to photography. He’d always had an old Pentax 35mm camera when we went on family holidays, and he would shoot black and white and come home with enlarged 16 by 20 contact sheets and massive fiber based prints of all our holiday snaps and our personal photos. This was from when I was about 6 or 7 years old onwards.

APE: You’re kidding. He would make enlarged contact sheets? Why would he do that?

Jake: He enjoyed taking pictures, and because he could. He worked for Wates, which was a home building company and they had a photography budget to shoot an internal magazine, and pictures of the new developments.

APE: So, he’d take in the vacation film as well?

Jake: They were really good photographs. And it was mostly black and white. That’s what probably sparked it. I liked to see prints and see photography.

At the time I was at an all boys private school in Croydon where art wasn’t considered a career path, but when I was 16 I moved to another school where art education was taken more seriously. There were a couple of art teachers there who were really enthusiastic and really encouraging and made it seem like it was a real proposition to make a career out of it. They’d been to art school in Central London.

APE: So, you decided to go to art school in London?

Jake: There was an art school in our town but it was rubbish so we all realized that we didn’t want to go there, so had to put a terrible portfolio in or concoct an excuse why you had to go to one of the London art schools.

APE: How does that work? I don’t understand. Do you automatically get to go to school?

Jake: No your portfolio had to be accepted.

APE: So you would give the local school a crap portfolio?

Jake: That is what the smart people did but I went by the rules. I put in a good portfolio and got in but then I wrote to the local council and explained that they didn’t have a good textile department and I wanted to be a textile designer and this school was not going to give me the opportunities. Miraculously they believed me, as it was a lie. So I was able to attend The Central School of Art and Design (now Central St. Martins) for my Foundation Course.

APE: Did you know that you had a talent for photography? Was it evident then?

Jake: I guess. A decent part of my portfolio was photography. I did this project where I went day and night taking photographs on Chelsea Bridge, and I showed this work to my tutor and she told me, it’s very difficult to define what makes a good photograph, but you know what it is, you can do it. And I thought wow, really? [laughs]

That was ’86 and I remember I started buying The Face and Vogue when I was 16, because I was really into magazine design. So, when it came to choosing a degree, I’d looked at photography courses, but they were all kind of ridiculous, because to make it a valid educational qualification, they had to give it this kind of bogus scientific basis or some kind of quantifiable, gradable quality.

It was all based on technique and technical stuff, and I knew I wasn’t particularly interested in that side of it. I was more interested in the images, making the images. I didn’t really care to be graded on black-and-white printing or that aspect of it. So, I thought the next best thing was the graphic design course at St. Martin’s which had a photography unit, so that’s what I went for.

APE: So, you went into graphic design.

Jake: Yes, I did a graphic design degree kind of knowing that I wanted to do photography. But the great thing about St. Martin’s at that time was it was kind of a free-for-all, do you know what I mean? After the first year I was really unhappy because I was following the course, trying to do the projects and failing miserably. But by the second year a couple of friends and I worked out that if we just went down to the basement darkroom and printed, no one would bother us.

APE: [laughs]

Jake: I mean, it was very vague. They would set a project, and you would either do it or not, and I decided not to [laughs].

APE: But, if you didn’t do the project didn’t you fail?

Jake: You didn’t really get into trouble. I don’t know how I didn’t get into trouble, really. But everything was judged on the end of year show, and I always had a lot of work to show. At my second year show I put up photographs and some type designs. One of my fellow students, Graham Wood (now of Tomato) told me he thought I should ditch the typography and stick to photography. Good advice.

But it was definitely laissez-faire. And I remember people thought that I didn’t do any work all year, but it was because they never saw me because I was in the darkroom all year. I was just standing in the darkroom after taking pictures of whatever on the street, or portraits. I cast a few people in the school that I’d seen around just to try and just get together a portfolio. I also did tests with models as St. Martin’s was in Covent Garden where all the model agencies were.

APE: So school gave you an opportunity to just take pictures?

Jake: It was an amazing time. Now I’ll get calls from people once in awhile saying “What should I do, Should I stay in college or should I get a job?” It’s difficult to advise them to do what I did, because college was free then. I left college in London with a debt of 800 pounds. It’s nothing. So for me…

APE: And three years of taking pictures…

Jake: Yeah, three years of freedom and it was free. It was paid for by the government.

APE: Amazing. That still happens?

Jake: No, now I think you have to pay 9,000 pounds a year. But even that’s nothing compared to here in America.

APE: Do they produce a lot of photographers, is your country just swarming with photographers?

Jake: No, no, and again, it was so long ago, this is 1990 and there were a lot of magazines, like the Face, Arena, ID and Blitz. They had no budget and they attracted up and coming people who were willing to work for pictures because they gave you creative freedom.

APE: Right.

Jake: It was a great era. There we so many photographers starting out at that time who are still really successful: Craig McDean, Richard Burbridge, Glen Luchford, David Sims, Juergen Teller, the late Corrine Day. It was an amazing era to be a young photographer shooting in London. It really was a very creative period.

APE: Tell me about your first job?

Jake: I put together a degree show in June of 1990 but I had worked for a few people before that because St. Martin’s was in the center of London and there were a lot of people who had studied there and had good jobs so they would come back and throw a couple of bones to the kids at school.

So I did a few shoots for short-lived magazines. Actually, the day the degree show opened, Phil Bicker gave me my first “real” job for The Face, which was to take a train to Macclesfield, which is a kind of grim, northern town and take a picture of a young rapper. I had to get up there as early as possible, shoot the picture and come back to London for the opening of the degree show. I went on my own with a borrowed Pentax 6×7, a 90mm lens, a 135mm lens, a homemade reflector and a few rolls of tri-x.

And The Face actually wrote a piece about me. They did a double-page spread about six graduates from London art schools and they featured me. Which at the time I was completely blase about. Which is funny because now I’d be super-psyched

APE: So, that was your first job. You graduated from school, got a job and got written up.

Jake: And then I’d go and see people with my portfolio, and I got a few calls from that for jobs. And basically, for the first two years I was green as hell. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know how to run a business, we never had any lessons on running a business, invoicing, nothing.

APE: You just spent all your time in the darkroom.

Jake: Yes, so suddenly you’re like, shit, what do I do? But the amazing thing was, suddenly someone’s saying, oh, can you do this job, it’s 400 pounds a day. That’s still decent money, do you know what I mean?

APE: That was a ton of money for you at the time.

Jake: Then I scored my first ad job off the back of my show, which is bizarre. I got a job for Neutrogena shooting four ads.

APE: Why would they pick somebody who just graduated?

Jake: God bless them, I’ve got no idea. I mean, I think they wanted to use a young photographer. They’d got in a load of books and they got me to do it, and paid me 1500 pounds a day.

APE: Was your work that good back then? If you looked at it now, would you think, OK, there’s some good stuff in there?

Jake: Yes, there are some good pictures. But I didn’t know what I was doing…

APE: As far as running a business…

Jake: Yes, exactly. And running a set, dealing with hair and make up artists, stylists, clients…

APE: You just knew the picture part.

Jake: I’d done a bunch of nudes and portraits of friends, and they were all natural light. But, Jesus. [laughs] I wouldn’t have hired me. I was 23 and green as hell, but I was very enthusiastic.

APE: That was big money.

Jake: Yes, it was 1500 pounds a day for four days at a time when I’d never earned anything. But the funny thing was, they kept saying, we want to do really natural girls, we don’t want these supermodels. So, we did the casting and we cast a 16 year old Kate Moss.

APE: [laughs] No way. That was your first ad job? Kate Moss. Ok, I think there’s some stars aligned for you.

Jake: Yes, maybe.

APE: Something’s going on.

Jake: She was so amazing, she was so charismatic and beautiful. And I remember the casting, because I’d met her like, three or four times. She lived in Croydon where I lived, so I’d bump into her on the train once in a while, although I’m absolutely certain she has no recollection of this. I remember talking to her on the tube platform at Victoria Station one day, I bumped into her and she said, “I’m sick of this, I’m going to give up, I’m getting nowhere,” which is deeply ironic.

So, at the casting, she came in and saw me and said hello and came over and kissed me on the cheek. And the art director’s like, “Who’s that girl, how do you know that girl? She’s amazing, how do you know her?” She was obviously something pretty amazing.

So I did that and I was a living at home so I had no rent to pay and I think in my first year I made 25,000 quid, so for the first year out of college, that’s not bad 20 years ago.

APE: What’s that in US dollars?

Jake: $40,000.00

Another big break was in December of 1990. I got a call from Dylan Jones who was the editor of Arena. He said, “Do you want to shoot Gary Oldman?” I was like “yeah” until I found out it was at a restaurant and it was lunch with Gary Oldman. He would be sitting there eating his lunch being interviewed.

I said, “Oh, all right, yeah, yeah.” It’s tough. At a restaurant. I didn’t know how to use light or anything. I had no system. So I turned up at this job to meet Gary at the restaurant.

I was first there, and when he walked in I introduced myself: “Hey Gary, I’m Jake. I’m here to take your picture.” He said, “What do you mean? They didn’t tell me there was a photographer. I was like, “Oh, OK.” I said, “OK, I totally understand. Can I just tell you something? I just left college three months ago. This is one of my first jobs, and I know that they told me they want to put you on the cover, but they don’t have a cover shoot. Will you do a cover shoot with me?” He said, “Yeah, call me next week. Come to my flat and we’ll do it. I’ll give you half an hour.”

APE: You talked him into it?

Jake: Yeah. I met him in Chelsea. It was a shitty day. I took my friend, not an assistant and we put a piece of white cardboard up on a children’s playground in Chelsea. No groomer, no stylist, shot a head shot of Gary Oldman, and they put it on the cover. [laughs]

APE: Amazing.

Jake: That was a huge deal for me, first of all that I talked him into it, second that he was an actor who I thought was fantastic. I loved “Sid and Nancy” and “Prick Up Your Ears” and it was the cover of Arena. The main magazines I wanted to work for at the time were Face and Arena.

APE: That’s great. You never assisted anyone?

Jake: I did one day with Kevin Davies. He said to me, “Why do you want to do this? You are already shooting.” I remember, I assisted him on a test and I had to go to do a job in the afternoon so I had to leave to shoot Gabriel Byrne [laughs]. But he was cool about it.

APE: One day of assisting your entire career?

Jake: Yeah, that was it. I went to see another photographer who was well known and I remember, I said, can I assist you? He said, “Fuck off, you’re a rival now.” Those are his exact words to me.

APE: [laughs]

Jake: I’d done one job so I didn’t consider myself a rival. I thought he was amazing.

APE: You’ve probably met a lot of assistants and young aspiring photographers who go to school here. It’s completely different.

Jake: I dread to think what it’s like now to try and start. It must be so hard.

APE: Do you feel like back then the industry was tighter?

Jake: London was kind of small. I think there were a group of magazines that were looking at younger photographers and I think the fact that there weren’t that many photo studios and everybody used to shoot at Click Studios meant there was a sort of camaraderie.

I remember hanging out in the office at Click and Glen Luchford was there and he said, “I sent in one print.” and I was like “What do you mean one print?” I would send in the whole shoot. I had no idea that you should send in an edit. I was completely clueless. I thought, “What are you talking about? That’s ridiculous. How arrogant to suppose that you know more than the art director”. But of course he was right.

APE: So you just picked up little pieces here and there. How to run your business and how to do an edit?

Jake: Yeah, it was a very gradual process. I think in those first few years I was very fortunate that I got to shoot a lot of people who were about to become very famous. Quentin Tarantino, Beck, kd lang, Tricky, for example. So I quite quickly had a celebrity book going. Being trusted to shoot big names, and getting publicist approval is a huge hurdle to jump for any new photographer. But there was also a time where I would shoot anything that was offered to me. I was shooting some terrible pictures, and taking terrible commissions. Because first of all, I didn’t know how to say no. I didn’t have a cell phone and there was no email. If they called you and you picked up the phone…

APE: You had to have an excuse if you didn’t want to shoot.

Jake: Yeah, it was really hard to say no, plus the money was good. I was happy to be asked to do stuff. After a couple of years, I had a conversation with somebody at Arena. I think it was one of the fashion editors I worked with on a job. She’s said, “Why are you doing all these shit jobs, because you’re watering down what you’re good at.”

Then I got to know Grant Scott, who was a great mentor to me, and the Art Director at British Elle. I went into see him after I’d been working maybe two years. He said, “You’re at the point now you’ve got to decide. Do you want to be a working photographer or a good photographer? A working photographer does what they’re offered, a good photographer picks and chooses.”

That was a real big moment for me, because I was only 25.

APE: Then you start turning down jobs?

Jake: Literally that week, I had accepted a job shooting some corny feature for a Women’s magazine, about women who have affairs with their personal trainers or something. The guy called me to talk about the shoot and I said, “Look, I can’t do that job for you.” I had to make a decision and not do this shit anymore, and stick to it. So I said no to that. It was the end of 1992. The economy went to shit and literally I didn’t work for six months. [laughs]

APE: Oh my God. Did you freak out?

Jake: Yeah, I was really freaked out.

APE: You were thinking that was horrible advice.

Jake: No, I thought it was good advice but I was still freaking out.

APE: You didn’t know if you could make a career turning down bad jobs.

Jake: Yeah, yeah.

APE: So what happened? Six months, hardly any work?

Jake: I was making like three, four hundred a month.

APE: Still living at home?

Jake: Yeah, I was fortunate to be still living at home, thank God. Gradually it started to pick up again and I found new routes into different clients, being a bit more picky.

Then Lee Swillingham became art director at The Face and he started to call me fairly regularly to shoot portraits.

In late 93 he called and said, “Do you want to go to the worst area of Los Angeles to shoot Ice Cube?” “Yes.” [laughs] I had been to America twice on holiday. Suddenly I was flying to LA to shoot Ice Cube. I went with the writer to South Central and we had a 20-minute shoot with Ice Cube on the street.

APE: How was it?

Jake: It was incredible. I’d never been to L.A. and we sat with him and he kind of started doing the hip-hop gangster poses. And I said, oh no, I don’t really want to do that, can we do something a bit more…And he went, “you mean, a bit more reflective.” I was like, yes, exactly. So, he sat on the curb and he just hung out.

APE: And you made great pictures.

Jake: Yes, they were good pictures, and then about three or four months later they asked me to shoot The Beastie Boys again in L.A., so I went out with a writer and we went to Mike D’s house. And actually, that’s one of the pictures [pointing to a picture on the studio wall] and that’s the print that The Face ran. I think in that period I shot for The Face literally every month for about three years.

APE: You already have your style here. It’s in that picture.

Jake: I guess it’s a kind of very loose, not overly directed. You kind of work with them just to let their personality do the talking. And they were really funny guys. They were into it, just pissing around for an hour or two.

APE: So, you just kind of fell into that style?

Jake: I think, yes.

APE: It just happened, there was nothing planned about it?

Jake: In the beginning I would look at a book of photographs I liked the night before a shoot, going, what am I going to do, what am I going to do? But that didn’t really work on the day, as all my preconceived ideas went out the window. So I just think, not consciously, that I would go in and suss out the location, then meet and chat to who I was shooting and see where it went. But I talk too much and I’d start talking and kind of see what happens; try and get into a situation where something might happen.

APE: You talk too much, that’s part of your style.

Jake: That’s funny you should say that, because my wife just said, oh, you’re doing the interview today, don’t ramble.

APE: [laughs]

Jake: You know, I just talk and talk and talk.

APE: Every single shoot?

Jake: Yes, if they respond. [laughs]

APE: What happens if they don’t?

Jake: It’s harder. I mean, you can work in silence, but it’s easier if they respond or start talking back. But I remember reading a David Bailey quote where he said he maintained a constant stream of encouragement and I think I do try to do that.

APE: I’ve never been on set with you, but now your pictures make a lot more sense now that you say that. Is that nervous energy, the talking?

Jake: When I do a shoot, the hour before the shoot is the worst hour of my life. I don’t want to be there. I want to go home. I’ll do anything to be on the other side of it. So I think it’s partly nervous energy.

Then suddenly you’re confronted with for example Robert De Niro. He’s walking into the room and you?ve got to do something to get the shot. I’ve shot him a couple of times. It’s intimidating.

APE: He’s not a talkative guy?

Jake: He’s not a very talkative guy.

APE: You’re just talking to him the whole time?

Jake: Talking at him. I’m trying to get something out of him. But what I’ve realized with he doesn’t want to hear how great of an actor he is. He knows how fucking good of an actor he is like all these guys. You don’t want to go in there — although it’s difficult sometimes if you’re a fan — and say, “Oh my god. I love you.” But I think the bigger the star, the smaller the talk. Talk about the weather, or what movie you saw last night, or what you’re doing for the holidays.

APE: You’ve done this for a long time but when you started, did you have some things in your head that you knew you were going to talk about? Or do you just read the newspaper and you know what’s going on?

Jake: Sometimes it’s just current affairs. If they talked to the editor or stylist beforehand, you just gauge what they were talking about and what their level of interest is, how talkative they are. Often I ask the PR, “What’s a good thing to talk about? What does he not want to talk about?”

I don’t overly research the people I’m shooting, but obviously I’ll read and find out something.

It’s funny. Since I’ve had kids, I talk endlessly about them. I’m boring. I’m the fucking worst dad bore. I love talking about other people’s kids because it’s a human thing. It’s not about work.

APE: So if they have kids, you’re talking about kids for hours?

Jake: And then if they want to talk about their kids, I love to hear about what their kids do and we can compare notes.

I say, “What have you got?” And they say, “I’ve got two girls.”

“How old are they?”

“13 and 17.”

I’m like, “Oh my god. I’ve got two girls. They’re seven and ten.” And they’re like, “Oh geez. You’re in trouble.”

If they’re willing to be personal, great. If they’re not…

APE: Does that make better pictures or does it matter?

Jake: I don’t think it really matters. I think it makes the session easier. I shot a big job last week for Sony, and I was editing with the client and he said to me that he noticed as the shoot went on, I just wear them down. You just keep going and talking until they drop and give in, which I had never analyzed as a reality.

APE: That always happens? Do you get your best pictures after you’ve worn them down? They don’t happen at the beginning of the shoot? Is that pretty common with you?

Jake: Sometimes at the beginning of the shoot and sometimes it’s five minutes from the end of the shoot. I haven’t really looked at the flow. But sometimes the shoot is only minutes long, so there’s not much time.

APE: That was just something that occurred to you recently?

Jake: It occurred to me that it was a possibility, but I hadn’t really thought about it until this guy said it last week. Maybe it’s true. I don’t know.

APE: We’ve jumped ahead to your style which I really like. I want to talk more about it, but how do you get from London to here?

Jake: I started coming out here to work and then I had two friends who lived in the West Village. They’re from England. They’d gone out to get jobs in New York and so I started coming out and staying with them to do appointments, to try and get work here with varying degrees of success because it was really hard as a foreigner. You come into this new market and you’re all excited. “I’m going to get loads of work.” And of course you go back to London and they forget about you immediately. This was in 1995. It was pre-Internet and pre-email.

I think the big break was when I had been coming and going for a year or two and then Matt Berman and John Kennedy Jr. started “George” magazine. Matt Berman was his creative director. He hired Bridget Cox, who was his photo director and then Matt and Bridget picked up every English magazine. They went through The Face, ID and Arena with a fine toothed comb and picked the photographers from England that they wanted to work with.

APE: Why would they pick only photographers in England?

Jake: I don’t know. It was just a thing. I think they thought it would maybe bring in a sensibility and those magazines were at their peak. They used American photographers as well. Of course there are really good photographers here, but they decided to get a little school of London based photographers they’d fly out to shoot.

APE: They’d fly you into the States?

Jake: It was incredible. Before the magazine launched, Matt called me up and said, “Do you want to come out and shoot for us?” He flew me out. I stayed with friends. In fact, they may have put me in a hotel for the week. I hung out with Matt in his office and we’d shoot the shit, chat about photography, design, art. He’s a great guy.

And then he sent me to Colorado to shoot a senator. I shot some portraits in New York and then I flew back to London. And then he’d fly me out again. I did Kofi Annan. Newt Gingrich with a lion. I did a bunch of people. They did these themed issues. I did like the ten top men in politics or something like that. They’d fly me all over the country and it was a real education.

So suddenly I was getting a ton of shoots here and I was getting a bit more exposure. And gradually over the period from the beginning of 1996 to 1999, I came here more and more until I was here for three or four months a year. I was picking up interesting portraits in London for magazines like W, and I got a great break when Kathy Ryan at The New York Times Magazine hired me to shoot a cover of Tom Hanks and Ben Affleck. I shot a series of covers for them from 1998 onwards. It was starting to get stupid because I was constantly away. I would literally get home, get a phone call and get back on an airplane. It wasn’t making my personal life particularly easy.

My wife and I had been talking about moving to New York so in the middle of 1998 we thought, “Fuck it. We’ll move to New York.” She’s a really talented designer and got a job working for The Gap. We got married on March 27, 1999. We went to Saint Lucia for a week for our honeymoon we flew back on the third of April and on the fourth of April, we moved to New York.

APE: Big life change.

Jake: We literally left everything.

APE: You felt you needed to move to New York to have a successful career?

Jake: I think my experience in being here and then going back and not getting any phone calls was like that Andy Warhol saying, “Success is a job in New York.” And I thought that was where it was at and if I wanted to shoot big names for big clients that is where I needed to be. I wasn’t a fashion photographer. I wasn’t a product photographer or a car photographer and in England that’s a big market. I wasn’t particularly technical and a lot of the advertising imagery in the UK was very precise and that’s not me. I thought there was a lot of personality based stuff for me to shoot here.

And it was financial. My first big job in New York was in the end of 1998. I got a big job for IBM where we shot here, in London and in Tokyo. It was just before we moved. I got that ad job which paid a lot.

APE: So you saw that most of your potential clients were here.

Jake: It was a leap of faith. It was partly financial, but partly opportunity. All the celebs are here. If you shot a celeb in London, it was in a hotel room for 20 minutes on a press junket.

One of the first jobs I did here after moving and I suddenly thought, “OK. This is working out.” It was for Nancy Iacoi at “Premiere” who called me and asked me to shoot Johnny Depp for a cover, so we flew out to Frank Lloyd Wright House in LA. Now, that’s a shoot. [laughs]

APE: That’s an amazing shoot.

Jake: It’s not 20 minutes tucked in somewhere. It was amazing to suddenly be here doing all that stuff.

APE: And you were shooting big time editorials, shooting for tons of magazines?

Jake: I was shooting for “The New York Times Magazine”, “Premiere,” “Newsweek,” “Esquire,” “Entertainment Weekly”, “Details” a lot of editorial.

APE: I want to get into the promo stuff and the custom portfolio books because these are really interesting. Let’s get into these books. When did you first start making the books?

Jake: ’97 was the first one.

APE: Describe the process. Why did you start making them like this with the color photocopies?

Jake: When I started working for foreign magazines from London, it was pre-email, pre-Internet. You would FedEx off the edit, so I was cutting out these pictures realizing that as I didn’t have two sets of contacts necessarily, that I would never see them again, and to have a record of what the hell I had sent them I made color copies and they were sitting around in a pile.

Then I said, “Hmm. I’ll stick them in a book.” So I started cutting them out and making these collages and arrangements which I think because I’d been to art school and done a lot of painting, drawing stuff that it was second nature to have a sketch book. It was kind of the first photographic manifestation of a sketchbook.

And within a few weeks, I started to get a thick little set of pictures. There were pages and pages of this stuff. I had always been frustrated with my portfolios because they were one or two prints from each sessions and it didn’t really reflect the shoot.

APE: You wanted to show the whole take?

Jake: Yes because I was confident at this point. It was following off my conversation with Grant Scott who said, “Do you want to be a working photographer or a good photographer?” He showed me a shoot that one of the guys who worked he’d with, I can’t remember who it was, had done with Antonio Banderas and this guy had everything. He had close ups, wide shots, back and white, color, different outfits.

And he said, “How long do you think they had to do this shoot?” I said, “It looks like all day.” And he said, “No. They had two hours.” He said, “You’ve got to cover more than one shot because what if you submit a color headshot and the magazine has already got 20 color headshots in this issue and they want a black and white wide shot? You’ve got to think about that.”

And I had never considered it. I was too dumb. This was early on in my career. I was like, “Shit. He’s absolutely right.” So I started shooting around and trying really to explore and shoot how he told me to, for him particularly. So I had all these shots that never saw the light of day.

APE: And that is also a signature thing for you is how many setups you do.

Jake: I guess it became that way just trying to give a variety.

APE: And is part of that you just wearing them out? Or are you just trying to find something?

Jake: It’s like, “I’ve got that. Let’s do something different.” I’m always thinking that there’s a better shot here that I haven’t seen yet.

APE: Back to the books.

Jake: I’d put these together and suddenly it became a tool. Not just for reviewing the work but for getting work. Art directors seemed to respond very well to it. They loved to see the variety, to see the outtakes, to feel it’s something that’s personal, which it is.

APE: It’s very unusual. I don’t think I know anyone who does it this way but again it just fits with your personality so well. And you did it out of necessity.

Jake: Yes. I had wound up the first one and then I think — “We need two of these,” so I’d do two. It got to a point where I think on one round we did six of them. It took weeks. It’s really labor intensive.

APE: And you’ve done one of these every year.

Jake: Yeah, pretty much.

APE: It’s amazing. That’s amazing just to have that record of your career.

Jake: It’s a good review. It’s good to look back just to try and find stuff. I’ve got a client that I am about to shoot for, and they’re looking for pictures of night views of cities so I just went through them last night and pulled out a couple. It’s good to review and find stuff.

APE: Night views of cities?

Jake: Yeah, it’s for a vodka client.

APE: Oh, to go in with your other shots?

Jake: Yes, so that we don’t have to shoot it because we’ve only got two days to shoot this thing.

APE: What about as far as promos and stuff? Did you just do the normal kind of promo cards?

Jake: Yeah, I did promo cards, although I think they’re of somewhat limited value. But, you’d hope to go into someone’s office and see one pinned up on the wall.

APE: [laughs]

Jake: It was brutal back then. It’s so much easier now to get pictures out there because you either have a website, blog, or send them in an email and people are hopefully interested to get them.

APE: Right. Yeah, let’s talk about that next, that evolution into The Daily Chessum. It makes a lot more sense to me now, meeting you and seeing and remembering the proliferation of images that you produce. Doing something daily, that makes a lot of sense now.

Jake: There are a hundred pages in each of these books. So that became an end in itself and a promotional tool that came out of nowhere and seemed to pay off. But then getting a website took a while and once you’ve got it up and running it’s hard to update, it takes a real commitment. I was talking to my agent and she was saying “Maybe you should do a blog.” I thought “Yeah, that’s great, but no writing.”

APE: [laughs]

Jake: I’m not disparaging any blogs where people write about their experiences, but I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to demystify the process. There’s a lot of stuff out there that you shouldn’t tell anybody. You know what I mean?

APE: Yeah. If you want to reach photo editors and art directors and art buyers, then you need to be showing pictures and not talking about the process.

Jake: Yeah as a consumer of some of those blogs, it’s interesting to read that stuff because it creates a kind of kinship and it’s good to know you’re not the only one dealing with that crap. But yeah, I don’t want to divulge that information. I just wanted to put pictures out there regularly to show what I was up to. It’s easy to do, look at, immediate. It’s my visual diary.

APE: It’s just another promotional vehicle.

Jake: Yes, and I was really happy that Tumblr sent me a little email saying, oh, we love your blog, we want to put it on our spotlight page. Which overnight, I went from, 500 followers to like, 3,000, and then the next month it was 5,000, and up to 22,000 followers.

APE: I talked to you a year or longer ago about it, and you were saying “I don’t know where this is going to go, but I feel like I need to participate.”

Jake: Yes.

APE: And you said you’re making a mistake not trying some of these new tools out.

Jake; True, and I’m not an innovator in that sense because I waited so long to jump on the blog bandwagon.

APE: No, but you took the time to see all the other blogs and make a decision, how you wanted yours to work.

Jake: Yes, and I thought, if you don’t update, you lose traffic so, I thought every day I’d put up one image, because putting up more would be a sheer burden to come up with more good pictures. Do you know what I mean? I didn’t want to dip into the archive too much. I wanted it to be something current. I want it to reflect what I was up to within that time frame. And obviously, it’s a kind of a cheat, because when you know you’re going to be busy, I queue up my 10 ahead or sometimes 20 ahead if I know I’m going to be crazed.

APE: And it’ll do it automatically.

Jake: Yes, it updates once a day, every day.

APE: Right, that’s perfect.

Jake: And then yesterday I got a bunch of PDFs of something that just came out, so I pushed everything back a few days and dropped those in to come in sooner.

APE: And, the other thing that you told me was with your shoots there’s all these outtakes that don’t make it in the magazine.

Jake: You have to be careful with that because you can diminish the value of the outtakes. Or upset a publicist. Clients want to pay for exclusives.

APE: Well, I think it’s brilliant.

Jake: Thanks. But, yes, it’s just a really cool way of making you work as well and making you take pictures. If you haven’t shot a job for a couple of days and you need to post, then it’s time to go out and shoot some pictures.

APE: I want to talk just really quick about the transition to digital. Obviously, you’re not shooting very much film anymore.

Jake: No.

APE: But then you were saying how much you like digital.

Jake: Yes, I’m psyched about it.

APE: When did you finally embrace?

Jake: I haven’t shot an ad job on film for five years. And I haven’t seen a reason why I would have to. So in the last four years.

APE: Once you embraced it you felt like, “This is amazing.”

Jake: It’s like a revelation. I’d read yesterday some photographer who went fully digital in 2001. I went, “Fucking hell. That was pretty early to really go 100 percent digital.”

APE: Some people don’t love the film and the printing. They never got into that. Obviously all that time in the darkroom, you love that process.

Jake: Years of printing black and white and processing film. Seeing it, holding it up in the darkroom for the first time. There’s a huge thrill. There always was in seeing the print come up, and actually going through the craft of washing it, drying it. All that stuff.

Letting that go took a while. But I think I went through a transitional period. I had a darkroom in London, but I never had one here, and as I got busier I let it go. I was also shooting a lot of color and I never printed my own color. Plus the printers I used were better at it than I was. But I’ll admit I was one of those sanctimonious douchebags back in the day who was like, “Oh my God, they never print. How can you call yourself a photographer? How disgusting.” When I had the kids, I didn’t want to spend a night in the darkroom. I wanted to go home.

APE: What was the revelation once you really got into it?

Jake: I had let control go to an extent with the printing and retouching when I was all film. But when I started shooting digital I felt I claimed it back. Getting the images to where I wanted them, even something as simple as making something black and white, felt like giving me a creative outlet within the medium that I kind of lost track of. I’d let that go for a bit and it was a revelation to get it back. Do you know what I mean?

APE: Yeah. I think that completes the circle. Thanks for your time.

Jake: No problem.

There Are 13 Comments On This Article.

  1. This is a great interview with lots of interesting photos. I know a lot more about Jake Chessum now. His style is very unique indeed and worth of praises.

  2. Thanks for sharing this great insight from one of my favorite photographers. I think it was the John Malkovich shoot I first viewed that really led me to look into more of his work. Great interview.