Normally we have to scrabble about, beg, or leave hampers on doorsteps of famous photographers in order to interview them. By some divine miracle, Creative Director at Sony Music and absolutely legendary music photographer Josh Cheuse came knocking on our door. Would we mind posting about his work in the lead-up to his solo show in New York? Certainly not. Could we ask him some questions about his spectacular firework of a life hopping across the pond and back again to photograph some of the world’s most famous musicians? Sure.
Josh’s shots are what music photography should be about: intimate snapshots of the famous in quiet moments that could only be captured by those close to their hearts. We asked him some questions about his time spent with The Clash, his new show, and what photography has meant to him in his life.
Your new show looks brilliant! Can you tell us a little about how it came about and what’s in store?
Well a bit of everything from the last – yipes! – 30 years. From a shot of The Clash I took when I was 16 to a shot of the amazing Buddy Guy from last year. The Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Joe Strummer, Oasis, Tony Bennett, all my faves. Also Kate Gibb has done a cool limited edition screen print that we will have for sale. She’s a master. We’ve been working on projects together off-and-on and hope to collaborate on a whole show next year – this will just be a taster. I’m a big fan of her work.
I also have Joly from Better Badges in London, the original Punk badge outfit, selling pins. I’m gonna hang up Joe’s pirate flag from his Glasto campsite and there will be music and libations. Friends and family are coming. I haven’t shown in New York for almost ten years and a lot of this stuff has never been seen. I want it to be special.
What was New York City like in 1975?
Well my first shots were from 1981, but growing up in the city in the 1970s was amazing. It was a different place to what it is now. It was dirty and run down and not just a shopping centre for Europeans and Russian oligarchs. It was cheap to live and thus easier for people to be artists and musicians and the like.
When you first started out, what make you decide to photograph bands?
I just loved music, and with no musical talent it was my way in – my contribution to the party. I loved documentary photography and war photographs and the music scene had the same excitement level with less immediate danger. It was a bit like joining the circus. Don’t look back.
What was your first impression of The Clash?
I loved the sound from the first time I heard it and when I saw them live it was like nothing you have ever seen. Disparate elements combined to make a hell of a racket. Them and The Specials were the best ever, hands down.
Can you tell us a little about your relationship with Joe Strummer?
Great friend, guru, mentor, teacher, partner in crime. I miss him something awful.
I read that you were a big fan of the darkroom – can you tell us about your early processes?
Developing film in my mom’s bathtub, using the school darkroom to print pictures of these amazing bands. Hands in the chemicals like an idiot, no tongs. It was just amazing to me that any image came out at all, the silver reacting to the chemicals, like alchemy. I would shoot something incredible and then get on a plane with a hangover and pray that there was something on the film. You had to wait and see. I think it built character.
Tell us a little about your transition between photographer and designer?
Well when I was working with Mick Jones or Joe Strummer we did our own sleeves. We designed it on a napkin or whatever we had on hand with Sharpies. Then I’d take my photo and the napkin in to the record company and try and explain it to the in-house cat. Studio Gerrard in Denmark Street, Simon Ryan, Chris Austopchuk at CBS Records. Years later I brought in a freelance job to Sony and Chris asked me if I wanted a job, I said “when do I start?” And he said, “How about Monday?”. That was 18 years ago and I’m still there, in the same office. Funny old life.
Do you think that a photographer with a good eye could always be a good designer?
I know I have a good eye but when it comes to design I’m a bit of a feel player. I think I’ve got better. The photography helped. Maybe like an actor directing a film and knowing how to work with actors. As an art director I just try and treat people with respect and they will do amazing things for you.
Music publishing is changing rapidly – do you mourn the golden days of NME, Rolling Stone, SPIN etc.?
I loved the music papers and magazines, still do. I loved Pennie Smith’s work. She was and is my hero. David Corio, Adrian Boot, Kevin Cummins, Michael Putland to name a few – great photos with real passion. I learned a lot from those papers. I shot for the first few years of SPIN, that was my start of being published. I had the shots they needed, then they started sending me out on the road. Good times. I have music magazines hidden all over the house. Now I just keep the ones with my shots in or my friends on the cover.
If you could go back and change anything, would you?
Just take even more pictures.
It sounds like you were on the road a lot – did you ever really settle down and live in London or New York?
I was traveling a lot and then I met my wife Caroline in 1989. She is from London. I went there to finish Earthquake Weather with Joe after three months in LA and I stayed for three years or so. Then we both moved to New York and made a new life together here. 25 years later we live in Jersey City with our son, just across the river from Manhattan. I miss London because of all my friends are there. You make intense friendships on the road. For life. Like the mafia, but with better music.
Was there anything you didn’t manage to photograph that you wish you did?
Pete Seeger, Bob Marley, I don’t know, I’m good. That’s why I called the new exhibit Grooving Years, because they were and they are. Do what you do, try and be kind as you travel along and see if you can bring a little beauty into the world. It’s so hard for so many people out there. If you are blessed to do what we do as creative people, I think you owe it to everyone else to make something positive.
Of your whole back catalogue, which photo means the most to you?
I love that session I did with Joe in Portland Road outside Mick Jones’ house. I bet him we could do a whole session before Mick got out of bed. They were going off to record something for a soundtrack, Sid and Nancy I think. Joe posed with his beloved Morris minor, he sat on top of it and draped himself across the bonnet. We had a laugh. I developed the film with my little polaroid black and white slide developer with the crank on the side. We held the roll up to the light and had a peek, it was magic. Grooving years indeed.