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(Credits: Far Out / Dean Chalkley)

Music

Far Out Meets: Photographer Dean Chalkley on working with Amy Winehouse, White Stripes and more

Taking a photograph is an art unto itself. It depends on the moment, the ambience, the dexterity within the angular frame to get it right. Or so I thought before talking to Dean Chalkley, who says one of the key things to getting the perfect shot lies in communication. “You should talk to the people you are photographing,” he says, “And understand what they’re about.”

Really, it’s about registering the chess pieces, to make them move in perfect motion. This photographer has clearly made an impression, having photographed everyone from Paul Weller to Jack White. Some of his photos of The White Stripes are among the duo’s most expressive and empowering, largely because he got on so well with the duo. He recognised Meg White’s importance and input to the band, feeling that Meg was an important collaborator with Jack White bringing out the pathos in The White Stripes’ work.

“Meg played a vital part in that band,” he says. “It’s amazing that two people could make that amount of noise too! I shot them on several occasions, one time on a cowboy ranch in Nashville, they were dressed in their fine pearly King and Queen outfits, amazing! The first time I photographed Jack and Meg was in London with a large elephant’s head -Don’t worry it was made of fibreglass”.

Chalkley recalls the most recent time he photographed the polymath Jack White was on September 21st during the opening weekend of Third Man Records in Soho. It turned out to be an exclusive gig in the tiny basement of the new store immediately followed by a Beatles-esque rooftop gig that towered over the Soho streets. “A Police helicopter hovered overhead for a while” Chalkley chuckles. “They must have thought a riot was going on with that amount of people jammed into Marshall Street…what a brilliant gig though a really happening”.

He makes it clear although he enjoys taking a jaunt through memory lane, he situates himself in the present. Like many of us, he is reentering a world where the pandemic is finally losing its grip on civilisation. “It’s been like a time-slip, the kind of thing you might see in a sci-fi movie, everything went into hyperdrive. A lot of time has passed, but it’s like no time has passed at all, very strange.”

“Photography preserves time,” he continues. “It captures a moment, when you take a picture it means one thing but what it stands for can change depending on the perspective through which it is viewed, it can evolve, change and even grow as time goes on”.

The White Stripes by Dean Chalkley. (Credit: Dean Chalkley)

I’m curious to hear about his experiences with Paul Weller, a man who is notoriously singular in his outlook and philosophy. “When I first met and photographed Paul,” he says. “It was a big deal for me, you have to understand as a kid I was really into The Jam, I saw them play, it was actually one of the best gigs in my life. The power of Paul’s music his attitude, charisma and you have to say fashion sense all left an indelible mark on me from those times. So it was great to turn up to that first session with him and he’s so lovely ‘Wanna cup of tea’, he asks. Such a nice guy, no-nonsense just straight up nice. I’ve done several shoots with Paul since, one of my pictures was used on the artwork for Wake Up The Nation, others have been used for tour posters, editorial features etc. To this day Paul still really loves clothes, music and the whole Modernist/Mod thing it’s always good to chat about those things whenever we get to meet.”

Chalkley highlights that creating a comfortable atmosphere in which artists can relax and be themselves is important, he says it isn’t wise to make the session too rigid as it can make artists uncomfortable. He illustrates this flexible approach by talking about a session he has just completed with Rhoda Dakar. “We just had a really good day, it was so good hangin’ out with Rhoda,” he beams, the smile coming through the telephone.

He name-checks DJ Ross Allen as another influence saying he thrives off originality, creativity and discovery. Again, Chalkley returns to Jack White as a way of furthering his thoughts and opinions. “Jack is a real ideas person,” he says. “The Whole Third Man thing is testament to that, it’s a big idea but the devil is in the detail, down to things like The Literarium an automatic book dispensing machine and recording booth where people can go and record their own music, these are in the London store.’

I ask him about his experiences with Amy Winehouse, and again, the photographer has nothing but compliments for the legendary singer/songwriter behind Back to Black. “Amy was an absolutely fantastic talent, and brilliant to be around,” he says. He uses the term “authentic” to describe her work. “With heavy influence from soul, ska jazz and rhythm & blues: There was a love for to the music and a natural affinity and where she was coming from.” We agree that people often search for tragic faults in musical icons that are gone too soon, but like Kurt Cobain and Ian Curtis, she had her strong qualities. “It was a pleasure to be in her company.”

We exchange details about contemporary musical acts who are presently making interesting art in the post-pandemic world, but Chalkley is here to discuss his latest exciting endeavour. “I’ve had this idea for a while,” he elaborates. “What if a group of musicians who have never all worked together before came together for a short period of time with no advanced musical planning, no advanced notes just the prospect of an immediate free form musical exchange…what would they create? After discussing the thought with Nick Brooke at Sunspel (he’s a real music lover), Brooke said that he would love to support this expansive creative project so it was on. I called this experimental project ‘New Perspectives’.”

Gathering his thoughts Chalkley began looking far and wide for the right combination of musicians to invite into the project as well as where it would all take place and how would it be presented. He enlisted the help of musician friend Nick Corbin, Corbin acted as Chalkley’s close musical confidant a person who he could bounce ideas off from there the whole project began to take shape. It’s an interesting, even arresting, hybrid of artists that were brought together and the scale and scope of the project show that Chalkley is interested in pushing his creativity to new levels.  

“I started to think that bringing together the right combination of musicians is important but so is the studio where we do it, I visited places with Nick Corbin, but then remembered a shoot I did years ago with Kitty, Daisy and Lewis in their analogue studio in North London,” Chalkley remembers. “After revisiting this magical place it was a must. We locked it in, and double great news Lewis would co-produce with Kitty and even greater joy Kitty agreed to play the drums in the collective when I asked her.” 

Amy Winehouse by Dean Chalkley. (Credit: Dean Chalkley)

“The whole collective gathering together was made up by musicians from different stratosphere’s,” he continues, “Each from different orbits, in a way whereby nobody new everyone but that person might have worked with that person and knew that person but not the others if you get what I’m saying, like all coming from different angles… The final lineup settled on was Andre Laville on Vocals, Amané Suganami on Keys, Solomon Douglas on Bass and the aforementioned Kitty Durham on Drums and Nick Corbin on Guitar and Lewis & Kitty Durham Producing and engineering.”

It was an easy process. “There was a democracy in the writing and recording process too, each musician inputting their thing it all gelled so well,” he says. “There were no egos, everyone was totally into it…nobody had any idea what the song was going to be until the band started jamming together bit by bit they all contributed and their composition grew and grew”.

Chalkley’s initial experimental idea of  opened up this new space to enable new form of musical expression that manifested itself into a thumping slickly produced 12” soul single. Whilst the sonic creativity was going on Chalkley photographed proceedings and directed a young film crew headed up by DoP Sophie Tuckwell to capture the moving images. The short film Directed by Chalkley and edited by Ciaran O’Shea together with exhibition photography and accompanied by a printed publication was presented at the Museum of Youth Culture in Shaftesbury Ave on February 22nd. 

Chalkley gets excited, discussing the process over the phone. Like photography, he feels that it was the atmosphere that led to such a successful collaboration. “As a side note the band decided they were going to call themselves Phono 48,” he concludes. “Phono after a sign outside the recording studio and 48 after the amount of hours they had to write and record the unique composition.”

New Perspectives ‘Phono 48’ Notes on a Record the making of So Pure by Dean Chalkley. Both available from bigacrecords.

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