DPP Home Profiles Jake Chessum: Keeping It Light

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Jake Chessum: Keeping It Light

Jake Chessum photographs celebrities and global power brokers with unexpected twists to their very public personas

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Dave Chappelle on set.
Chessum: I always try to travel light. My work has never been about intricate lighting. It’s about personality and the moment. We travel with Profoto packs and four flash heads with stands, a tripod, and a backdrop, if needed. We also have a Quantum Qflash and a camera-top flash—a Canon Speedlite 540EX—for the EOS when I’m running around doing more reportage-looking images in low-light environments. I’m shooting with the Canon EOS-1D Mark III, mostly with a 24-70mm zoom. Coming from shooting medium-format film in a Mamiya with a waist-level finder to 35mm digital was a bit of an adjustment. I still use on occasion a Polaroid Land camera that was converted to take a Rodenstock lens that’s fantastic for portraits. There are some guys who are former employees of Polaroid who are making instant film again. They created what’s called The Impossible Project. I created some images that J.Crew used as in-store art. I really like the physical quality of the Polaroid itself—the white border, the color. There’s also something about the fact that you can only take one at a time; it kind of forces you to think a bit harder since you can’t fire off a burst. The camera is a rangefinder so there’s the possibility of a random element to the composition.
It’s vital to maintain someone’s interest in being photographed. I’m pragmatic and realistic about it. A lot of people who you shoot, they’re not that interested in being photographed.

Conan O’Brien goes over notes before a taping.
DPP: Your series of images of Viggo Mortensen are a mix between a portrait, a fine-art shot and a documentary image. How did this shoot evolve?

Chessum: I try and take pictures that I’m interested in, that I’m invested in. They often don’t fit into the standard definition of a portrait. I think that the aim of any photographer should be to get hired to take the kind of pictures they want to take. I hope that most of the jobs I get, whilst obviously commercial—inasmuch as I get paid for doing them—are aesthetically somewhat uncompromised, that I would take them in that style anyway. But at the same time I’m a commercial photographer, so I’m aware of what I have to deliver to the client.

Megastar Will Smith takes a moment to chat with local kids. Getting celebrities to relax their guard is a rare talent, and Chessum is able to capture singular moments with famous personalities often hidden from the public.
That particular shoot was for a cover of Arena Magazine, so we had to do a shot where there was eye contact and space around his head for cover lines. Sometimes the cover shot is the most interesting picture for me from the session. In an editorial context like this, there’s the freedom to experiment. You don’t have the tight commercial parameters that you often have in an ad campaign.

With Viggo, even though he’s a movie star and there were time constraints, there was a lot of freedom and collaboration. He’s a photographer in addition to being an actor, so he was great to work with. He was very visually aware. He got what I was trying to do. He was invested in it. It was a very intense thing. Even though there were people around, it’s just me and him forming a relationship for the period of the shoot. The shots were done using the ambient light.

DPP: Who are your photographic and art heroes?

Chessum: Harry Callahan and William Eggleston. Ellsworth Kelly and Eduardo Chillida. The Chuck Close exhibition at MOMA really inspired me—his attention to detail. I’m now into very graphic painting, Richard Avedon with his words and pictures. He once said, “A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.” I feel that absolutely hits the spot. I feel, especially with celebrity pictures, when someone says, “Oh, that captures the real him.” It doesn’t. It captures what you think about the real him.

To see more of Jake Chessum’s photography, visit www.jakechessum.com.


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