Music and Culture
I've been into photography since the eighth grade. My shot at Reseda skate park of Dave Z. doing an invert won a city photo contest and that was it. I was officially as cool as I thought I was.
In high school I probably surfed more than I took photos but I loved being in the darkroom. In junior college I got back into it pretty heavy, going downtown and shooting a series on homeless people.
I remember cutting triangle-shaped mats and frames and hanging up my photos on the wall, only to hear the teacher say, "We are here to grade only what's IN the frame."
One day I found out how old he was and I did the math--I figured out he graduated from college before the invention of color film. That was all I needed to hear – I knew I needed to leave and go on to a real photography program. I went on – to two more years of real photo school (complete with color film and everything). The year was 1985.
I shot a whole book of cologne bottles and real '80s-looking product stuff, then one day I thought, this just is not me. I realized that to have any kind of passion for my photography I had to shoot subject matter I was interested in and for me people were it.
Next thing I knew it was the late '80s and I was out of school lugging lights around on other photographers' sets in Hollywood. Then in 1990 a friend of mine brought me in to work with Annie Leibovitz and her crew on her Los Angeles shoots.
Wow, what four years those were! I found myself lugging the same lights around only this time the hotel room I was staying in cost more than I was making that day--my morning coffee and bagel were more expensive than my shoes.
I learned a lot though, and I ended up doing location scouting in and around Los Angeles for some other big-time New York shooters. This went on for years and while it was really fun at times and a really interesting way to make a living, one thing really started to bug me--seeing the photo credits in the magazine.
They would credit just about everyone, from the photographer to hair and makeup, wardrobe, etc., right down to who made the models' shoelaces, with never a mention of the guy who found the location in the first place.
Luckily I found a solution--go shoot the photo myself.
I quickly found that doing this and getting started in editorial shooting (minus the budget for the $100 bagel and coffee that I had never really gotten used to), I was also going to have to find the location and bring the lights myself but that was OK because I already knew how to do that.
I've been shooting for the OC Weekly (and others) in Orange County, Calif. This free weekly magazine covers music, arts and culture in the county. To date I've shot 19 covers—17 published and two more will be out this month.
After each shoot, I usually take a moment to write a page or two in my journal while the experience is still fresh in my mind. I chose these three shoots done between 2006 – 2007 to share with you.
BIG TEMPS, rapper / Garden Grove, Calif. / May 2006
When I spoke with Orange County rapper Big Temps, I asked him if we could meet at his house--I always like to meet musicians at home to relate their music with the surroundings.
Temps says, "Oh no, homie, just meet out back behind my place that's where I'm always at – out back posted up in the alley" Knowing I was heading into an unfamiliar area and reading in the e-mail I received describing Temps as "Gangster Rapper," I asked my friend, digital tech Tom Mishima, to come along on the shoot.
When Tom and I arrived at Temps' place he was indeed "posted up in the alley" but he opened the gate and took us inside his place. We shot a few portraits in Big Temps' room in front of a poster of legendary rapper Biggie Smalls and a few shots in front of some artwork that Temps' older brother had sent him from prison.
Temps explained to us that his brother had gotten sentenced to 200+ years and his parents were gone, leaving his grandmother to raise him and his little brother.
We headed outside and shot some photos in the backyard when he picked up his son's tricycle, "Ya homie," he says, "my son's 3 now." Tom and I then ask, "How old are you?" "Eighteen," Temps says. "I got his mom pregnant when she was 15."
It was at that point it became clear why Temps had drive and focus and carried himself the way he did – he was trying to get himself and his family to a better place through his music.
MATT COSTA/ OC Weekly Cover / August 2006
Assigned to photograph another cover story, I knew I had to deliver something that would be a good cover image as well as an image that would tell the story about the musician Matt Costa, who's a young singer/songwriter from Huntington Beach, Calif., currently touring the world and gaining a lot of notoriety.
I met up with Matt at his house in downtown Huntington Beach and shot a few portraits inside. One thing I always do is drive past the place I'm meeting someone and take a look around for location options.
Editorial shooting, I have learned, requires being flexible and being able to roll with the changes that come along as the shoot unfolds. Such turned out to be the case with this shot.
I had originally scouted two different location options nearby: One was a fence down the street from Matt's house that had an interesting cactus next to a little patch of plants and room above the fence showing some blue sky.
We headed down to that place after the inside shot only to find a car parked there. With no way to shoot as I had planned, I was glad to have another location to use.
A few blocks away I had scouted an alley that had no new buildings or anything post-mid-1960s or '70s in the area. This was a perfect match for the type of music Matt plays and a perfect way to make a photograph have a "timeless" quality to it.
With the sun setting behind the clouds, I had my photo editor, Tenaya Hills, hold the focus light while digital tech Tom Mishima and myself scrambled to set the lighting. I asked Matt to lean into the camera and we shot until it was dark.
We were all pleased with the final result but I think Matt probably said it best when I asked him to change his shirt after the inside shot. When he came out and said, "How'd you like this one? You just can't go wrong with a big tiger on your shirt."
TIM LEEDOM / OC Weekly Cover / March 2007
Having been assigned to photograph a cover story on controversial author Tim Leedom, I began by researching my subject. When I Googled his name, his book entitled "The Book Your Church Does Not Want You To Read" came up.
I try to have the subjects' story and background information gathered from a phone conversation with them before we meet. Then I can concentrate on guiding them through the photo shoot. By the time I meet the subjects they have usually already spoken with the writer and had time to reflect on what they said. Sometimes they want to elaborate on that conversation or they might ask me to shoot images that they arrange—to further their point visually.
I learned a long time ago that I am not there to make a friend or to agree or disagree with the particular person's views, etc. If I do make a friend or learn something new, then great, but at the time of the shoot making a good photo is the priority.
I explained to Tim in our phone conversation that doing the photo shoot might be difficult at the church he had in mind. When I met up with him and his associate Lisa we determined that shooting there was not going to work.
I've also that learned that having the ability to make quick decisions is a big part of being a successful photographer.
With a few hours before sunset we headed out on a search for a place that worked–-a location where we would not be interrupted and I could do my lighting. After a short drive we came upon two churches that were right next door to each other. I made the obvious image of Tim seemingly in front of the cross on the roof of one building but it just did not work; the sizes of the cross and Tim were too out of scale.
A lot of times when a location isn't working I will decide to eliminate the location entirely and rely on lighting, props and composition to make the point. We headed behind the church to a gritty wall. Tim himself had brought some props--a cross being one of them.
After setting a somewhat moody lighting setup I asked Tim to look up at the sky and clutch the cross. A few weeks after this photograph ran Tim's publisher contacted me. We negotiated a deal to run the image on the second pressing of his book jacket.
© John Gilhooley
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