Sometimes there are good anecdotes about how someone became a professional photographer. This is one of them. John Chapple’s story is human and funny and honest. You could see it as the backstory to a character in a Wes Anderson film.
Chapple is originally from the County of Devon in southwestern England. As a child, he filled out a questionnaire for a careers officer in an attempt to pair young students with suitable vocational paths. When his answers were tabulated in the officer’s ancient computer, he was told he was suited to become a mastic asphalt spreader.
As when creative people are forced to take standardized tests, hilarity usually ensues, and this time was no different. Chapple’s family had an early VHS video camera. This would prove the fundamental building block of his career. “I used to love playing with that thing, and so I told the careers officer I wanted to get into video,” remembers Chapple. “I had no idea doing what with it, but it just it seemed like fun, rather than working. He said I need to be a photographer first; I needed to learn how to take pictures or use a still camera, so I kind of started that way and stuck with it.”
After a six or nine month stint in an autobody repair shop job, Chapple quit. Knowing he wanted to be a photographer at this point, he pounded the pavement and eventually walked into the offices of a local newspaper, The North Devon Journal. Asking the receptionist how he could get into photography, and not for a job, he was turned away. Cue more Wes Anderson music.
In Barnstaple, the young Chapple found an establishment called Waverly Photographic, and walked in. “I was so nervous I didn’t ask them how to get into photography. I asked them for a job,” he recalls. Told to come back next week, he did, and began his paid career in photography.
Working as an assistant, he did everything from making wedding albums to running errands, but shot no photos. The owner had another business called the Tony Freeman Press Agency. In Chapple’s spare time, he took a few news photos, from car accidents to a small flood in the village. Some of his shots went out regionally, and his shots of the flooding made a few national papers. Soon, he was moved over to the press agency, where he worked in black and white film, shooting, processing, and printing all his own work before putting it on an old wire machine.
Chapple stayed there seven years, where his workload included shooting for the local papers, plus covering a royal visit or sensational crime story for the national newspapers. Eventually, he applied for a job he saw advertised in the UK Press Gazette. It offered the chance to “photograph the celebrities in sunny California.” Chapple applied and ended up scoring a job with an agency called Online USA. His first assignment was covering the O.J. Simpson civil trial, where he spent weeks standing outside the Santa Monica courthouse among reporters and photographers from around the world.
From 1996 until 2000 Chapple based himself in Los Angeles, but flew everywhere to cover events for British newspapers. A position opened in New York when the previous British photographer headed back to England, and Chapple moved east. In late 2001 he covered the events for September 11, and his workload increased to the point he couldn’t keep up.
During this period, Chapple began transitioning to digital photography. “I was really nervous because I was definitely a film shooter from the beginning,” he remembers. “I started on a Nikon F3, moved to an F4, an F5, and then going to the D1x, it was awesome.”
By 2006, after covering the D.C. sniper, the anthrax attacks, all the stories connected to September 11 and it’s anniversaries, and three major hurricanes in one year, Chapple was ready for a change. Married by this point, he and his wife traveled Central and South America for six months, then moved to Australia.
After the relatively short Australia stint, he moved back to Los Angeles in 2007 and has remained there since, shooting as a freelancer for publications on both sides of the Atlantic, and lately, the Discovery Channel.
Although you may have seen his name in a photo credit for many years, what Chapple is becoming more known for is his stunning landscape work. A visit to a fine arts gallery in Western Australia got him inspired to work more on his own landscape photos, which he had always practiced when he had the time.
A Hasselblad owner for the past ten years, Chapple picked up a Linhof Technorama 617 and began to take his landscape work seriously. “I put it on a tripod,” he says. “I get up early, stay up late, and concentrate on making the best image I can. You tend to find you put more work into it when you’ve only got four frames on the film, and you have to pay for the processing.”
Slowing down from the usual machine gun-pace of photojournalist digital shooting has made Chapple sensitive to getting it right with less frenzy. “Suddenly when you have to set-up a tripod, put in a cable release, and load a film into one of these cameras, it becomes a whole other thing,” he says. “And then meter for it extensively to make sure you get the right kind of exposure. Measuring the difference between the sky and the foreground, to then put on the graduated filter to balance it off more. You definitely sort of take your time and concentrate more, and the end result is always better.”
In addition to the Linhof’s 6x17cm negatives, Chapple has shot his landscapes with a Hasselblad H3D-50 packing 50 megapixels. A Gitzo carbon fiber tripod keeps things steady. He uses Formatt Hitech filters and ultimately scans his film on an Epson V750-M Pro flatbed scanner with files coming in at between 900 megabytes and one gigabyte. An Epson Stylus Pro 7900 is used to print his landscapes up to six feet by two feet.
For photojournalism work, Chapple relies on a Canon EOS-1DS Mark II. He uses a Profoto Pro-7b 1200 Generator and some original model four-channel blue PocketWizard Plus radios to tie everything together. “I’ve had them for years and they still work great. I think I got them in ’96 or ’97,” he says.
The fine art aspect of his photography is a welcome change to the pace of chasing people on the steps of a courthouse or having five minutes to shoot a celebrity before getting kicked out.
Spot metering with a Sekonic L-758Cine meter keeps Chapple’s exposures on the money, avoiding the need for a lot of postproduction work. “I probably use about ten percent of what the meter does,” he says, laughing. “I basically put it on the EV mode. I’ll meter all around, and then a rough area of the sky. There’s a three-stop difference I need to put in my 0.9 grad or 0.6, depending on the exposure difference, just so I got balanced exposure. Then I would meter several different places to find out exactly an average meter reading.” He then does a round of incident metering before shooting. When photographing news events or celebrities, he uses a Sekonic L-358.
Chapple sees the photojournalism business in Hollywood becoming “crueler,” although he has not wound up like one of the perplexed and hapless characters in a Wes Anderson film, who always seem to have things happening to them. Chapple has learned his trade, but has moved on to become a true artist with his own vision. More than ever, he wishes to concentrate on his fine art—his landscapes and other natural world shots—more than ever. His photograph entitled “In the Spotlight” was a semi-finalist in the 2010 Hasselblad Masters, and won a Bronze Award in the 2010 International Aperture Awards. Other accolades appear on the Awards page of his Web site. With a desire to shoot landscapes full-time and a long list of secret locations he wishes to document, he is a ready and deserving photographer to take that leap.