When it comes to recollections of his shoots, New York-based lensman Jake Chessum is an apologetic storyteller and a self-confessed fan boy. With every unnecessary apology to start his detour of a flash-filled tale about that time he shot Kate Hudson, Heath Ledger, Tom Hanks, or Robert de Niro, the accomplished artist makes this clear: regardless of his already high-profile portfolio, his job will never get old.
Beginning his career in photography in the streets of London, he ultimately found his footing when he and his wife moved to the USA. “I started working for The Face magazine, and they sent me to Los Angeles to shoot Ice Cube, The Beastie Boys, Russell Simmons, in pretty quick successions. That was the first time that I’ve really been to the States to work,” says Jake. Working with numerous personalities from actors to athletes, musicians to politicians, Jake has shot for publications like Esquire, GQ, Entertainment Weekly, The New York Magazine, and Time Out New York since then. Yet, he still remains nonchalant about his portfolio, enjoying each minute of every project. “Every assignment is exciting and different. It’s a weird thing because these celebrities and actors do hundreds of photo shoots; some of them might enjoy it, some might think it’s just a job. But I live with those pictures,” shares Jake. “I’m kind of a collector; I’ve always collected stuff ever since I was a child. It might just be something fleeting for them, but for me, I spend hours looking at the pictures, printing, and retouching; they become this weird part of my life.”
Can you describe to us your aesthetic?
It doesn’t rely on technique; it’s always graphic. I learned this through shooting my book, The New York Look Book. I think part of my skill is I can get people to behave naturally in a very unnatural situation. I always try to make people look as good as I think they want to look, and I think it’s about being relaxed. I still feel that I try to allow people to be themselves and reflect that on to the picture.
How do you prepare for an entire day of work?
I try to read up about my subject, especially if it’s someone who I’m not that familiar with. Just to find some kind of connection with their past and to know things that you shouldn’t mention. When you’re dealing with somebody famous, you’ve got to be careful not to say something rude. Also, I scout the location to try and pre-plan a set of shots. Once I get these plans, I can relax a little bit, because when I have a plan, I can be spontaneous a little bit. The worst thing for me is when I’ve already taken the picture before even shooting, when I already know what the picture is going to look like in my head. Maybe I’ve got delusions of grandeur, but I try to do something that surprises me or not what I’ve expected to shoot. I didn’t shoot film for three to four years, but just recently, I started taking film cameras again to editorial shoots. It’s really exciting to shoot film again because you can’t see what it looks like, they can’t see what it looks like, and nobody in the shoot knows what you’re getting. Just trust your judgment and instinct.
What’s your most memorable shoot to date?
Just the idea of meeting David Bowie and having a moment with him was just amazing. I remember when we went to a little house to photograph him, his assistant opened the door, and I could see him sitting on the stairs. In a professional position, you obviously have to control yourself from having a visceral fan reaction; if you’d react like that, you’d never work again. Your job is to take the picture that transcends that kind of visceral reaction, which is to go, “Oh my God! I’m in a room with David Bowie!” I took all my records to have him sign because I’m such a fan. I’m so lucky that my job allows me to access people that I can fulfill another aspect of my personality. I also photographed Amy Winehouse in 2004. I spent an entire day with her, which was obviously more significant for me than it was for her, especially in light of her tragic death years after. I can’t pretend to know anything and have a great insight about Amy, but that short time I spent with her is significant. After she died, I was really upset and shocked. I really didn’t know her, but obviously, she was an amazing singer.
You’ve published two books, The New York Look Book and Rubbish. Any plans of releasing a third one?
Earlier this year, I cleared out a storage space full of stuff, and I found a huge box of polaroids from shoots dating back to 1990, so I’m thinking maybe there’s something there. I have a friend, an art director who’s interested in working on it with me. We’re probably a third of the way through editing. Possibly a book of polaroids, who knows? Some of them are a bit funky, some got a bit folded and busted up, but that’s part of its charm.
You also like taking unusual photos when you travel, what’s the story behind this?
When I lived in London, I didn’t shoot a lot pictures on the street. Coincidentally, I discovered the work of William Eggleston and Harry Callahan when I started traveling to America to shoot. Their works are just so amazing and brilliant, and that inspired me to shoot pictures of anything and everything. Since I got an iPhone, that’s what I carry and shoot with all the time. I shoot pictures on the street, and that’s what you’ll see on my Instagram feed. My daughter gives me hell, she’s like, “You just took a picture of that man, didn’t you? Why are you taking pictures? You have to ask for their permission.” I’d just tell her that that’s the thing with street photography, you don’t ask for permission because it ruins the moment.