We’d like to introduce Jesse Lirola, a music and celebrity photographer based out of Chicago. Jesse has been shooting professionally now for over a decade for a range of magazines including Rolling Stone, GQ, Fader, Spin, and XXL.
Tell us a little bit about when you first got started with photography.
Although I was a double English major in college I grew up in a house where photography was ever-present, whether I was in the darkroom with my father, looking at my parents’ photos on the wall, or being shown my mother’s Leica M2R that she had around her neck when my parents met - it was always a part of me before I really got into it.
Music was also always an inspiration for me. My older brother is a jazz bassist, and I took all sorts of lessons (which just never stuck). I always thought writing would get me closer to music by writing about it, so really what I do now is an extension of what I was trying to do long before I picked up a camera in a serious way.
What was your first camera?
My first real camera was a Leica Minilux, a small point and shoot with a great lens and some manual controls. I remember I was 14 when I was allowed to use one of my parent’s cameras and at 16 when I started to really enjoy shooting for the first time.
From that summer in 1997 on, I basically had the Minilux with me until I graduated to the M system my last year in college. I had some time in college where I got really into digital photography and taught myself Photoshop, looking back at those files now I wish I’d just shot film, but learning Photoshop and starting a digital workflow is equally important these days as shooting so it all balanced out.
Aside from a bleak 4 mega-pixel period in college, I was mostly shooting film. Even after college I had a few digital cameras that I was using but it wasn’t until the technology progressed that I realized I had incredibly small, terrible files.
Anyway - my senior year of college I started using the Leica M system on my own, and still shoot it today.
When did you start shooting professionally?
Right after school I had enough of writing all together and a friend helped me get a job in production in LA and Vegas. I’d head out to southern California and we’d work boxing, or UFC, or on set of whatever TV show he was hired on.
The niche of that wore off pretty quickly and I needed to find some sort of creative way to tie my recent understanding of live events and TV with my love for music. I realized it had been in front of me all along. Photography at that time was about finding a way to make sure I was around music.
In 2005, I started assisting a friend who had moved to Chicago to work on Christopher Nolan’s Batman. It really was a pretty organic way that it all came together. By assisting for my friend, I learned the business aspect of photography on film sets, commercial shoots, weddings, live gigs, and a bit in the studio too. I worked for him while trying to get gigs on my own for a year or so and finally things started rolling. Since I’d always been such a fan of music it turned out a few good friends had ended up working in different parts of the music business and that’s how I started shooting shows.
Mind you - it wasn’t easy, I remember when I started to get paid to shoot a concert, and how exciting that was. I’d work for the first three songs in the pit and then I could hang and watch the show. I shot anything I could, and just started running with it, heading out to music festivals like Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, and Lollapalooza. I ended up working with a contract for Getty images for a little while before I realized being a wire photographer really wasn’t what I wanted to do, but through them got turned on to fashion week in NYC. This exposed me to a world I never knew existed. At the time fashion week wasn’t the spectacle it is today and there were far less people who know of it or covered it. Photography has taken me places I never knew I wanted to go, and shown me things I never knew about over and over again.
Any tips on working with celebrities and musicians?
The way that I approach things, no matter whom I’m meeting or shooting, be it in my personal life or professional is all the same. Whether I’m on assignment meeting an Oscar winning actor, Grammy winning musician, a musician on their first tour, or just someone next to me on an airplane or at a bar I still introduce myself and ask their name and go from there. I’m always reminded by my mother that teachers told her I should have been a doctor because of my “bedside manner”, (well…that and my abominable hand writing), but that same skill applies to photography when you’re working with people. In so many shoots there’s so little time to establish some common ground or a report at all, which actually can make for all that much better a portrait. I love the challenge when I have a studio on site backstage at a music festival where I’ll be shooting upwards of 30 + bands a day with barely any time with each one to get talking with them and to make them comfortable enough for the image to show them in a different way through that connection.
What are some challenges you face as a photographer?
I really see the challenge of the photographer being so much more about the connection you can establish with your subject than the technical aspects of the image. The photographers I look up to most are those who can show this connection in their work.
There is also a saying that it’s not the tool you're using but how you’re using it. I saw an interview with a guitarist I’ve shot quite often talking about his gear, saying that it’s not about having the best gear but knowing how to get the most out of the gear which you have. I feel like that’s incredibly important in photography too.
In the age of digital photography, you not only need to have that understanding of what camera or lens to use but also what light to exploit or mimic. When I want raw grit and texture I shoot a polaroid, or when I need clean and sharp I have another system for that. I have my go to bodies for my work day in and day out, but when I need just the right shot in camera for the look I’m going for I have that too.
The same thing goes for my lighting. When I’m documenting a recording session where it’s less about what shots i need and more about the record being made, I go for my Profoto B2’s. My assistant can easily help me out with a small 3’ Octa softbox, or the OCF Beauty dish on one head. The second head can provide a beautiful edge light with a really small footprint. The same setup works wonderfully for backstage when I have the option to light a shot. There is also something to be said about using the B1X on location or in studio. The system is wonderfully versatile, not to mention the air remote allows me to dial in changed down to 1/10th of a stop with a push of the button on the hot shoe. Once you get accustomed to the system there’s nothing else that works as well on location or in studio alike.
Do you have a favorite lighting setup?
I’m not really a “favorites” type of person. I guess that’s why I have so many cameras and like using different lights setups. People always ask me what my favorite artist to work with or my favorite camera or light set up, and I can never directly answer it. I will say though in my studio the most used lighting set up for me is a high key ‘Rembrandt style’ light. To do this, I use a octa softbox with a grid attached camera left, a bounce for fill camera right and a snoot or strip with a grid behind the subject to create an edge light. If the subjects clothing is important, I’ll have a large octa with diffusion behind me for fill (5’ or 6’). If I’m shooting on white I won’t need a grid but if I want more fall-off behind the subject I’ll raise that head and angle it down as to not illuminate the background more than I want to.
I really do like simplicity, so generally I aim to make things look like it’s just one light even if it’s more than one. I always like to give my subjects a bit of backlight to help separate them from the background, with that it doesn’t matter if their clothes are similar to the background, that light will define the edge. I also want detail in my shadows, so I always have some sort of fill light, whether it be bounced or a strobe head with less power than the key. I will say one benefit of the most modern digital bodies either 35mm or medium format the dynamic range and malleability of the files is really impressive, nonetheless I prefer to get everything in camera no matter whether I’m shooting with film or digital.
Do you have a dream kit?
In terms of lighting, if I had to pick with a budget in mind, I’d go with 2 D2’s, one B1X, and a set of B2’s. That way I have a small kit for on location, and a 3 head kit in studio, along with 1 additional powerful head for assistance on location shoots. Lighting is something that I’m always excited to see what’s coming next. My opinion on cameras is the opposite, as I feel like the best cameras were made in the past, when planned obsolescence wasn’t a thing. The technology is ever improving for lighting, from batteries having more power, to Air Remote compatibility, and making the equipment lighter. I’m always looking forward to see what Profoto is working on next, for I know it’ll make my work easier, and my kit more versatile.