Courtesy of The Book Club
Dean Chalkley has shot everyone. Not with a gun, obviously, although that would be quite an interesting story in itself. As one of the most respected photographers in Britain, Dean Chalkley has snapped a platter of well known faces from Scarlett Johansson to Simon Cowell.
In his new exhibition, The New Faces, which is currently exhibiting at The Book Club, Dean Chalkley returns the exploring mod culture. Having been at the forefront of the Mod explosion in 2006, when The Horrors burst onto the scene from Southend, I sit down with Dean Chalkley to discuss life, death and what makes a good photographer…
I know you started out with Dazed and Confused, but prior to that, how did you get involved with photography?
It depends how far you want to go back really! When I was a kid my dad had a big old Russian Zenith, which was a bit like a tank. Really solid. I don’t think he knew how to use it properly, and I certainly didn’t. But we played around with, experimenting with all kinds of filters; so I got into it from that context. As I got older I got much more into it. At school I was really into clothes and wanted to be a fashion designer, so photography took a backseat as I thought I was going to be the next Savile Row tailor to the stars! Then I got in car racing funnily enough. Only minis, but I raced at Brands Hatch and places like that. But before I did the racing, I went to Brands Hatch and ended up taking pictures of the cars. After that I decided I wanted to find out more about photography, so I did some evening classes at a local college, which was a bit of an odd experience. They’d get a model in, and you’d have to queue up to take a photo of her, a bit odd really. Then I decided to give up on motor racing and get into photography full time.
It’s interesting that you wanted to be a fashion designer when you were younger as a lot of your photographs, like the ones currently on display at The Book Club have a very strong fashion aesthetic.
When I was in school, I was a real strict mod character. Probably quite annoying, but I didn’t care! I grew up in Southend on Sea, and at that time there was a real strong hold on youth culture, it was very tribal. I was a mod and I loved the music, the clothes, the scooters, I was immersed in it. Conversely you got characters such as the skinheads, who were doing the same thing but they hated you. These were the times where if you wore a pink shirt and walked down South End High Street, you’d definitely get your head kicked in. No question of a doubt. Today it’s a lot more liberal. Back then it was very divided. You had a passion and a pride for your tribe.
You returned to the Southend Scene later when you did a lot of photographs for Junk Club and The Horrors, who embraced that Mod Culture.
The Horrors weren’t The Horrors back then. I went back home and went to Junk Club one night, and it was amazing. Instantaneously you could tell there was something there that had been missing for a long time. The town had been homogenised, it was very dissatisfying with the bland all encompassing blanket of Smooth RnB and that kind of thing. It steamrollered out everything else, and then this group of kids started doing something different for no other reason than they felt a magnetism for it. It was an organic process. Rhys and some of those guys would come up to London and were quite big on the mod scene, but it would go back to Southend and transmogrify into something else and then influence other people. I found it fascinating. And if you find something fascinating, you’ve got to capture it then and there otherwise you might miss it. The last day of my exhibition ‘Southend’s Underground’ was the last day of Junk Club. A lot of characters moved on, some moved up to London. But the ripple effect of that scene can be found everywhere, from Dior to other bands. You could tell so many of those people were going to become something, they had the spark; they just needed something to ignite. And they did it because they loved it, not for any commercial interest.
You’ve shot a variety of people from a range of backgrounds and tribes. Is there a particular group you feel a particular bond with or have a preference to shoot?
Not really. One of the fascinating things about photography is that it enables you to look into the lives of others. It’s fabulous, I mean, like you. You’ve got heroes, I’ve got heroes, but with our jobs you can go into peoples lives and touch them…but not in a sexual way, for the record! For me, I idolised The Jam when I was younger, but recently I’ve been working with Paul Weller and it’s like ‘Jesus! This is amazing! Paul Weller!’ I believe in heroes, which sounds lame, but I want to have heroes. But at the same time, I want to celebrate real people. And Junk Club was exactly that. But sometimes you get a phone call asking if you want to photograph Scarlett Johansson, and that’s pretty amazing.
As a photographer do you consciously watch out for movements that happen like Junk club, or is it something that transpires naturally?
I don’t actively pursue things. I have no idea what’s happening on the metal scene because I have no interest in that. I’m a bit idealistic, but I do what I want to do, and what interests me. You have to be careful what you wish for, for example if you took a real interest in teapots, and spent your life photographing teapots then people are going to know you as the teapot photographer and there may not be a chance to expand from that niche. I like to move around. I had an interest in body builders, and I actually did a photography project for Amelia’s Magazine. Amelia came up with the title, which was brilliant, called ‘Physical culturists’. What inspired me to do that was a bodybuilder I knew. He was coming up for a competition and put so much energy into it, but people tend to mock bodybuilders a lot, but it takes real dedication to do that. So I wanted to portray them in a heroic kind of way. I showed the pictures to Amelia, and she liked them, so I took the project further for the magazine. It wasn’t ridiculing them; it was about showing that they are also really dedicated.
It’s a bit like this chap I know from Southend, and they call him the Bagpipe Man. He used to drive around on a massive tricycle motorbike, which had a car engine in it, playing bagpipe music. He had a Mohican and a kilt on. It turned out that he had his penis and tentacles pierced eighteen times. Whenever he went into a bar, he’d lift his kilt up and smash a beer glass. I thought to myself ‘that’s quite unusual’ for the same reason. He’s an outsider, but also kind of a hero. I entered a photograph of him into a competition with the same sentiment and some editor put a comment next to the entry ‘from some pea brained optimist’!
Well, I think it’s quite good to be a pea-brained optimist as a photographer. A lot of photography has become very sterile. What with how much we can manipulate photographs with computers, a lot of the beauty is gone. The dirt, the mistakes – that can make a great photograph.
Some artists I’ve spoken to lately talk about the loss of personality in art with the digital age. Do you work digitally or tend to use film?
I embrace digital culture, most of what I do is digital. But it should be viewed as a tool, it should enhance what you’re doing but not be the heart of it. However the notion of error is frowned upon in a digital context, whereas in film error is a part of photography.
There was a quote recently that I read that said ‘A camera does not make a photographer and Photoshop doesn’t make a designer.’ If you had to sum up what makes a good photographer, how would you define that?
Someone who likes what they do. The camera and Photoshop is the peripheral, it’s the thing inside that drives it. It’s your heart, your soul and your viewpoint. It’s like a meat mincer; you take all your life and your influences, bung it in the top – the cupcake you had from when you four, the music that changed your life – all that stuff. You take it all, put it in, crank it through and then out of it comes your art, and your outlook. That’s the most vital thing. And if you lose your sanity through it, that’s the most devastating thing. You can get another camera, another computer, but if you lose your mind then that’s a big problem. I guess being a good photographer is having a vision inside that you have to communicate.
For someone who has been so successful as photographer, do you ever think about the legacy you would like to leave behind?
That’s an interesting question that I’ve actually been thinking about. I’ve made a will and everything! I thoroughly recommend it too, great fun. You think about it as an artist, after you die, what happens to your work? I think everyone wants to leave behind something, which is a resonance to themselves. I’ve captured moments in time, for other people to look at in the future. And I think that’s enough.
With all the different work you’ve done, and the artists you’ve worked with, you must have some good stories. What’s the weirdest encounter you’ve had?
One time I was doing a photoshoot in Iceland with The Propellerheads, and after the shoot we’re going to this party. So we go around to someone’s house, knock on the door and this woman opens the door shouting ‘Come in!’, and it’s Bjork! It’s not particularly weird, but it’s one of those great strange things when you go to Iceland and find yourself in Bjork’s house. It’s a very weird life, but I tend to live in the now and not think ahead, aside from planning out my funeral. I stay grounded, I’m never going to run off and buy four houses.
Was there ever a point when you were pursuing photography where you felt like you wanted to pack it in and get a stable job?
Well, when I started I was living in a cheap house in Golder’s Green whilst doing internships. I had no money, signed on to the dole whilst I tried to make it as a photographer. But after a short period of time, they were like ‘Well, unless you get a job at Tesco’s, we’re going to take away your money’ which was horrible because I had worked so hard to get the point where I’d nearly made it to be told to work in Tesco’s! Thankfully soon after that, I became a full time assistant and began making enough money to live. A lot of it comes down to timing; you need to know when to push and when to pull. You never want to be blindly ambitious either, you don’t want to steamroll through anybody. You meet people like that, and it’s just not a good way of conducting yourself. It’s a long game, it’s not about getting to the top quickly, and it’s about making it but having longevity. Doing a job like this is like going up a ladder, if you knew how high it was you probably wouldn’t start in the first place! The trick is to only look two rungs ahead, and keep going.
My final question, is what advice would you give to young creative’s starting out?
Do what you want to do, and follow your instincts. Follow your heart and don’t compromise yourself.
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