Debut Solo Shows: An Interview with Jesse Chehak
December 5, 2008
If you had to ask me what has meant the most to me so far in my pursuit of photography, I would say two things. First, it has allowed me to step away from myself and to become stronger and more able to accept and utilize criticism. Second, it has brought some of the most special, intelligent, and talented people into my life. For that alone, the toil, money and sacrifice is worth it. I think that is why early photographers formed movements and groups, they were all like-minded individuals who wanted to spend time together.
One person who came into my life almost at the outset of my photo journey was photographer Jesse Chehak. When I was in school, even before I started studying with Joel Sternfeld, I was lucky enough to get an internship at a newly launched photo agency, Redux Pictures. One of my first jobs there (of many) was to go through every magazine that came in the door, pick out good work and then cold call photographers about stock representation. Well Jesse Chehak was one of my first picks. And in a strange twist of events he had recently studied with Joel, who I had just begun classes with. I vividly remember looking at his portfolio for the first time, even at that stage in my photo knowledge, I recognized he had something special. My instincts were right because shortly thereafter he was selected for PDN 30, signed with a top agency and has not looked back since in his photo career.
Near Palmer, Alaska. 2007
So it has been lovely for me to see his career grow and run into him from time to time, as I finally made my way as a photographer. One thing that has always stuck me about Jesse, is what a positive and sunny attitude he has, so often those of us trapped in the cycle of taking our work out and waiting for our turn at bat (that may never come) bad mouth everything and everyone and get caught up in a negative cycle. I certainly have done it myself on occasion. I often have conversations about the process of going from making a great body of work, to being offered a solo show. Sometimes it seems like some sort of magical line that is impossible to cross. So I asked Jesse to answer some questions about how his first Chelsea solo show came about, and what the experience was like. He very generously took the time to share his experience.
Near Three Rivers, California. 2007
GG. How did you meet your gallerist? By appointment, portfolio review, or did they see your work and contact you?
JC. I met Bruce Silverstein after a chance encounter with one of his gallery assistants at last year’s NY Photo Fest in Dumbo. She is an old friend of a friend that I hadn’t seen in ages, but was always fond of– a real smarty pants and a total sweetheart. She asked me to come and show Bruce some of my work and so I did, hoping for some good feedback and a chance to practice talking about my work, something that always makes me sweat. That day I met with Bruce and his staff, including his director Elizabeth Shank who I adore. The appointment was positive, and really I just sat back and watched them argue a bit about my work, adding bits here and there and answering some basic questions about how and when the photographs were made. I left feeling good about having met with a new group of obviously serious people, no more no less. I rushed out of town that evening, starting work on a two week project in Iowa that totally consumed me. I had forgotten to follow up with Bruce and send requested additional materials because of how busy and isolated I was at the time. One of his assistants sent a polite email reminding me of this and I answered promptly. The next evening Bruce called me from his home and asked if I’d be interested in putting together a show with him in his new space on 20th Street.
GG. How many group exhibitions have you been in before your solo show?
JC. I have participated in a handful of group shows, but none with much art world-cred. I am pretty reclusive and cautious about promoting what I consider my serious work. While I realize this hasn’t helped me woo the hearts those assembling the group shows, it has kept me away from a lot of the fluff. To be totally honest, I am not a huge fan of group photography shows unless all of the artists are working and thinking together towards a common set of ideals– like the f64 group or the Photo League. That said, I have signed on to a group documentary project that is taking place next year that will hopefully produce some interesting results.
GG. Is this your first solo show ever, or just in NYC?
JC. It was my New York debut, however I put together two solo shows in Los Angeles that got very little attention.
GG. How involved was the gallery in selecting the edit, framing choices and installation? Were you happy with the final result?
JC. The edit for Western Views was mutually decided upon between Bruce, Elizabeth, and myself. We discussed at length this edit because it is a slice of a larger body of work, Fool’s Gold, that is nearing completion. Fool’s Gold addresses a myriad of issues pertaining to the American West, and because of the size of his space and how I print this work, we could only fit about 6 or 7 pieces. So we focused on photographs that discuss non-human dominance despite what impact we have made. I have very specific and worked out printing and framing ideas for Fool’s Gold, so Bruce had little input on this front. Thankfully he is a very respectful and trusting individual and so I just had the pieces delivered a day before the show opened. We were all delighted with how it turned out.
Installation view | Bruce Silverstein Galllery, September 4 – October 11 2008
GG. Did you enjoy your opening or was it overwhelming?
JC. The opening was great but I’ll admit I was pretty overwhelmed and nervous. Luckily I had my wife there with me to hold my hand and to crack jokes with. Oh, and my outrageous father to entertain the crowd and keep things light. I have an amazing support system of friends and family that keep me grounded because I have a tendency to float off into the clouds at times.
GG. Did the experience exceed, meet, or miss your expectations?
JC. Let’s just say I am still recovering from what was an amazing experience. I look forward to future opportunities to share my work with my audience in this way.
Climax Mine Near Leadville, Colorado. 2007
GG. What would you do differently?
JC. I would spend more time in the city when the show was up, inviting people to visit the space with me. I think it is really important to be available to discuss and promote the show in person.
GG. Have other opportunities opened up to you as a result of the show?
JC. I have been approached by a gallery in Paris that wishes to distribute some of my other work in a sort of 20×200 way. We are working on the details now. Also, the Western Views work is traveling to Art Fairs with Bruce, offering it to a greater audience. It is at Art Miami now.
GG. Do you feel a part of a “club now” you are a Chelsea solo exhibited artist!
JC. Hilarious Cara! First rule of exhibited artist club…
Primm, Nevada. 2007
GG. How long have you been out there as an artist/ photographer?
JC. Both of my parents are committed working artists so I grew up surrounded by it. I studied music and performance in my youth, convincing all around me, including myself, that playing in touring bands was my calling. After two years of frustration and disillusionment in college, I took off for half a year in the Cascade Wilderness with NOLS. It changed me forever and it was there that I decided to dedicate myself to the outdoors and to protecting it. Later that year, while training to become a wilderness EMT, I discovered that my casual photographs were affecting people so I started getting serious about it. I returned to school to study with Joel Sternfeld at Sarah Lawrence College and I am extremely fortunate to have such incredible mentors pushing my practice and challenging my ideas. It’s all been about patience and dedication despite the ups and downs. Oh, music is still very important to me and I use it as an outlet whenever I need to. It brings me great joy.
GG. Can you talk about your work a little, process, influences?
JC. My process is always changing and often catches me off guard, however I can say that I am very much an experiential learner. This means that I don’t always see things clearly until I at a breaking point and physically in front of what it is I am seeing. Ansel Adam’s identifies this as a “visualization” and it is what keep me chomping at the bit. Getting there is usually the biggest challenge and it requires a willingness to get lost while knowing it always leads somewhere new. In other words, I would consider myself in my element while I am shooting or in hot pursuit, not in the darkroom, during the editing process, or while trying to explain the results. As for influences, I’d say it’s risky people that are not afraid to go down the rabbit hole.
GG. How long did you work on the project you showed?
JC. I started work on Fool’s Gold long before I knew what I was doing. It’s not quite finished and I am currently seeking grants to travel to a few more places to wrap it up. It’s taking me a while but that’s only because I work slowly and have exhausted most of my resources. It’s tough out there right now but I have never been more inspired by my surroundings.
GG. What are you working on now?
JC. I have a few nascent projects in the works. One is about a painfully transparent town in Eastern Iowa where my entire family is from. It is a collaboration involving many very high-spirited creative people and will include a film, book, and hopefully an exhibition. We are slated to continue work in late January and hopefully wrap it up by the spring. Also, and more importantly, I have been loosening up a bit and shooting a lot in black and white with a Leica here in New Mexico and processing my own film at home. With all the changes going on in the country, I feel it’s time to go back to the basics. It’s been amazing and totally liberating in that it is a reminder of how simple and immediate photography can be.