Dream. Believe Do. Interview #16 Listening to that little kid inside

John Chakeres was fascinated with photography and the space program from the time he was a child. After graduating from college with a degree in art, photography and printmaking, he followed his second boyhood dream to the Kennedy Space Center when the first shuttle launched in 1981. John photographed the shuttle program – some 50 launches in all – until the Challenger disaster five years later.

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John: I guess the dream I had as a kid was to become an astronaut.

Dennis: Alright. Going way back then!

John: Yeah, because I was fascinated with the space program and man going to the moon. It’s what actually got me into photography, which is my current passion and obsession.

Dennis: How did it get you into photography then?

John: Well, I used to watch every launch on TV.

Dennis: Right.

John: I used to talk my mom into letting me stay home from school because back in the 60’s they, when man went into space, it was all day wall-to-wall, continuous TV coverage.

Dennis: Right.

John: Most of the time she’d let me stay home and I would just be glued to the TV the whole day.

Then I started to set up my dad’s camera in front of the TV set and photograph the launches on TV and just became fascinated with photography because, I mean, this is a really cool piece of equipment that had a bunch of sort of cryptic numbers on it. You had to do, like, kinds of little knobs and things that you could turn and change things. So it just fascinated me and I sort of learned more about photography.

At one point we were at this department store and they had a little section of… actually a camera department in this department store. I saw this developing kit and, once again, talked my mom into buying me this developing kit.

So I took these precious pictures that I’d photographed with the rockets taking off and decided that was going to be my first roll of film that I would process. I had not a clue about what I was doing because I really didn’t read the instructions. I just said, “Oh, cool. This is chemistry and…”

Dennis: Is that right?

John: Yeah.

Dennis: You didn’t read the… Oh, no!

John: It said, “Oh yeah, just take this film and put it inside this dark tank and pull these chemicals in and you’ll have these magic pictures at the end.” Well, I was shooting 120 film and if you’ve ever shot a medium format roll film, it has a paper backing on the film.

Dennis: Right.

John: So I’m in the closet. It said “Do this in absolute darkness to load the tank.” I’m in the closet and I’m unreeling this thing and I’ve got two rolls in my hand. I didn’t know anything about how the film was comprised on the roll. I thought it was all just film. And so, I’m in the closet, I’ve got these two rolls, and I put it all in the tank.

Dennis: Oh no!

John: I pour these chemicals in and I did everything the instructions said. I opened it up and I had this horrible, mess of half-developed film and soaking wet backing paper, everything.

Dennis: Stuck together and everything.

John: Oh, it was a mess! I was really depressed, I guess, for lack of a better word because, one, there was my precious space pictures on this roll and I goofed it up.

Dennis: It’s not like you could wait till tomorrow and shoot it again.

John: Right.

So I learned a lesson that day that I eventually told my students many, many years later: Don’t be emotionally involved with your first roll of film.

[both laugh]

John: I’ve shared that story with them because, you know, you get in class with these kids and you’re explaining loading this tank up. You can see they’re freaking out. How are they ever going to do that? I said, “Well, for starters, just go out and take a roll of film that you’re not emotionally attached to. Just for practice.”

But even with those early failures, I just became passionate about photography. And so it began this life of sort of being fascinated with man going to space, photography. There was all these overlaps of the technology of photography, the technology of going into space.

Dennis: True.

John: That really sort of planted the seed in me from a very young age as to… I didn’t realize it at the time. I mean the benefit of age is you can look back on those days and go, “Oh, yeah. Well, that was the time that that things sort of changed in my life.”

Dennis: You don’t necessarily see it at that moment.

John: No, no. But, in time, I realize that there was that link between technology, man going to the space. It was all new cutting edge technology, never been done before. And my passion for photography, which satisfied this interest in science, it was chemistry, it was hardware. There was a whole technology in photography.

Dennis: Right.

John: That became like a cornerstone or implanted in my brain about how these two things interacted with one another.

Another thing I realized years later is what the space program represented to me as a kid was to do something that’s never been done before. You had to adapt to new technology. I think years later as I was trying to make my own way in art that that lesson stuck with me. That for my art, if I was going to try to create art that hadn’t been done before, I was going to utilize my fascination with technology.

Dennis: There you go! OK.

John: So, that’s been a thread that sort of run through my whole life.

As I said earlier, my dream was to become an astronaut. As I got older, my passion for photography grew. I eventually went to college and got a degree in art, in photography, and printmaking. Studied art, the art of photography, fine art on a much broader spectrum. Fascinated by many great photographers: Ansel Adams – I had the opportunity to work with him.

Dennis: Which you just toss out as, you know, just one of those things someone does!

John: Well, he was probably the first photographer that really… Actually, there were two photographers. One was Ansel Adams and the other was Ralph Gibson.

Dennis: Oh, sure.

John: I remember in… I think there was a magazine called US Camera or something. I remember just in the late 60s that I saw this spread of photographs that really resonated with me. I just remembered the photographer’s name was Ralph Gibson. I think it was probably one of his first published spreads of photographs in a magazine. They just stuck in my head.

Went to college, discovered Ansel Adams, and Ansel Adams had this process called The Zone System. It appealed of my love of technology because it was a very precise system of exposure and development so it taught me how to do photography in a very precise, predictable way. He also taught me you can’t just be a technician. You need to be able to take that craft or that technique and marry it to your vision. It’s that marriage that really makes you…

Dennis: Right. The combination of…

John: Right.

Dennis: If you have the technique as part of it. But to have the vision, how to make it come together.

John: Yeah. The takeaway I had there was there could be people with great vision and can’t craft it. So the lack of craft obscures the vision. Or there’s people that are great craftsmen that have no vision and so their photographs, the crafting only points up or makes their lack of vision more visible.

Dennis: That’s good.

John: So to speak. And so I really thought about that.

Also, as a student, I discovered Ralph Gibson again because he had published … he was like a pioneer in these self-published or small edition art books. I remember seeing his first book Somnambulist, and I’m going… this connection came from seeing these pictures in US Camera years ago in his first book and I’m going, “Wow, this is great!”

What Ralph Gibson gave me is he was very conceptual about his work. Somnambulist was, obviously, about a dream and sequence. I said “Wow, what a great vehicle for photography.” This visual equivalent of dreaming.

I had these two great photographers and I got to meet Ansel Adams. Through Ansel Adams I met Ralph Gibson. And so, on the surface, it might seem like an odd couple because Ansel Adams: view camera, majestic landscapes. Ralph Gibson: 35mm Leica camera, very grainy.

Dennis: Right.

John: What I got from both of those is I love Ansel Adams’ craft and technique and I like Ralph Gibson’s concept or his conceptualization behind his work. But I didn’t like small format, I like large format; very detailed, very crisp. I didn’t like grain to the point of owning an 11 by 14 camera at one time just to make contact prints.

Dennis: Wow. That’s a big camera.

John: Yeah. It was huge.

So I got out of college. I know this is sort of a long…

Dennis: That’s okay. It’s a great story.

[both laugh]

John: My students used to tell me that I tell these long, winding stories. I always end up back at the point of the original intent. It’s sort of a path I follow. [laughs]

Anyway, I leave college. I had this great desire to create my own statement. I wanted to create art that was more idea based. The United States started flying in space again on the space shuttle. And so this was… I got out of college sort of mid-70’s and I knew about this program that was eventually going to fly called the space shuttle to make a reusable space craft that could launch into space and return to Earth like an airplane.

In 1981, they had the first launch… all that childhood memories came flooding back. All that passion. All of that. A light went off in my head and I said, “Wow, this is an opportunity to do a photo project.”

I wasn’t interested in doing a journalistic project. I think I took this majesty and grandeur of Ansel Adams’ photographs and wanted to bring that to the space shuttle. Didn’t think that I would even have the opportunity to do it but it got that excitement, that childhood excitement going again.

Really, one day my wife said, “Why don’t you just contact NASA and see if you can go there.” I tended to doubt my own ability a lot of times and so I said, “No. I mean, what, I’m just some little guy. They’re not going to let me come down there. I’m not associated with any kind of news organization.”

Dennis: Right, yeah, because the press had their space and everything but this is outside of that.

John: What I did have is I had a small publishing company at the time. I was trying to follow, I guess, in the footsteps of Ralph Gibson and publish my own work in a small press. Idea is to publish other peoples’. Actually I did a couple of books under that publishing company, a collaborative project with another artist - an early book of landscape photographs.

Dennis: OK, right.

John: So I had stationary and everything to press on it. The company was called Nuance Press. So I just, one day, at the encouragement of my wife, I wrote a letter saying I’m a photographer. I have this publishing company. I’d like to come down and photograph the space shuttle. God, about a month later, I get a reply back and they granted me press credentials.

Dennis: Just like that!

John: Just like that.

It was 1981. I’m going, “Wow, this is great. I’ll be able to do all these pictures.” I packed up my truck. I had a Toyota Land Cruiser at the time and I guess I packed all my camera gear that I had in there. Not a clue about what to expect. I showed up like a week before the launch. I stroll in to the press center and nobody is there.

[both laugh]

Dennis: It’s a week before!

John: Right! I didn’t know where I was going to stay. Literally, I just drove to the Space Center without any kind of pre-planning, whatsoever. And it’s like I show up, I expect all this fanfare and activity. Nobody was there at the press center. I started asking around and they go, “Things aren’t going to happen here for another week or so.” They asked where I was staying. I said, “I don’t know. I’ve been sleeping in the back of my truck; my Land Cruiser.”

Dennis: Ah, youth! [laughs]

John: [laughs] They said, “Wow, it’s going to be hard for you to get a place to stay because it gets booked up.”

One of those things were being sort of naïve and clueless really worked in my advantage because had I known that I wouldn’t be able to get a place to stay or the things I was going to have to deal with that were to come that I wasn’t even aware of, I probably would have never gone down there the first place. I would have talked myself out of it; that I could never overcome all these obstacles.

I was just so fueled by that kid inside of me that loved the… had a passion for man going into space. That’s literally what drove me to go down there in the first place.

So I left the press center and they said, “Yeah, come back in about three days and things will start to happen around here. You can get your official credentials and all that kind of stuff.”

I drove into a little town called Titusville and I just go to the first hotel I see. I said, “You got a room?” They said “Yeah, we have a room.” I said, “Do you have a room for, like, a week?” They said, “Well, no. We have a room for three days.”

Dennis: Right. Until the event happens and it’s filled up, right?

John: Yeah, right. Because they’re booked up for the launch. I said, “Well, fine. I’ll take the room.” At least I’ll have three days to sort of get my bearings straight and all that.

Every day I walked to the office and I said, “Has anybody cancelled?” They go, “No.” I’m ready to head out the morning that when the press sort of site officially opened for business. I go to the hotel and they said, “Well, we had a cancellation so you’ve got a room for this night.” I said, “Great.” I went in and I got all my credentials. When I went back the second time, there was a lot more activity. It was pretty crazy.

I guess what I learned from there, as far as the hotel goes, once you’re sort of in a hotel it’s hard for them to get you out.

Dennis: Throw you out. Ah, there you go.

John: Yeah.

Dennis: There you go.

John: I came back that night and I said, “Is there room available tomorrow?” and they said, “Yeah.” Pretty much I had it all the time. So I got very lucky I got a hotel room.

I started setting up my cameras and, I mean, the shuttle’s three-and-a-half miles away. I didn’t have the right equipment. I just didn’t have a clue. I guess going down there I was bringing all of my art school experience and view camera. I happened to have a Hasselblad which was medium format but I had a 250mm lens. So from 3 miles away, [laughs] the shuttle looked like a little ant on the horizon.

[both laugh]

John: Three-and-a-half miles of haze and everything.

My initial experience there was horrible. I wasn’t equipped to do the job. But I was just so overwhelmed by the experience. One of my goals was to see Walter Cronkite. I think it was one of the last missions that he covered.

Dennis: Is that right? OK.

John: Yeah. I saw sort of the silhouette of him sitting in the studio. They had all this sort of… all the major networks had these makeshift studios. So I saw all these TV personalities that had been covering the launches for years.

Dennis: From when you’re a kid even, right? Yeah!

John: From when I was a kid. Suddenly I’m there amongst all these reporters that I had grown up watching on TV. That was a big deal. Even CNN was in its infancy. They were even, at the time, considered like a second-rate news organization.

Dennis: This is 1981, right?

John: Yeah.

Dennis: Because CNN had launched, like, in 1980. They were brand new, absolutely.

John: They were the new kid on the block.

Dennis: Right.

John: They didn’t even have a studio there. They just had a reporter that would…

So I was just overwhelmed by the whole just being amongst the press corps. I photographed that first launched and the photographs look like shit. They were horrible.

Dennis: Little bitty ants on the horizon.

John: Yeah, you know. This little sort of smoky trail that was... Because there were so much… Florida is so humid and right on the ocean. The haze and everything, the atmosphere is just horrible.

The action, as far as photography, was to do close up stuff. I used to see all these photographers getting on these buses and going off to places. I’m going, “Where are they going?” So I went into the… talk to them and they go, “Well, who are you with?” I’m going, “Nuance Press.” They go “Who’s Nuance Press?” [both laugh] “Well, I’m a little publishing company that publishes art books.” “Oh, well, that’s very nice.” They sort of pat me on my head.

Dennis: [laughs] Nice boy.

John: [laughs] Yeah. I said, “So where are all those other photographers going?” “Well, they’re all with all these news organizations and talking with them.” They said, “Oh, yeah, they get to set remote cameras.” And all these… And that’s the action. That’s the action I wanted.

Dennis: Right.

John: I said, “Well, can I go with them?” Then they said, “Well, that’s only for the news, for the hard press. You have your pass to sit in the press site and that’s it. You don’t have any access beyond that.

And I’m going… I was a bit discouraged but being, again, totally naïve to the situation, it really worked to my advantage. That was my first kind of experience with um…

So, my being very naïve to a big government bureaucracy, which is NASA. Political hierarchies and reality, it really worked to my advantage. Because, you know, had I known all this sitting up in Ohio where I was from and that I was going to get all these obstacles thrown in my way, I would have never gone down in the first place.

But I was there. I started to see what it entailed. I knew I was totally unprepared photographically to do this because coming out of art school, I mean you’re taught that you’re free to do whatever you want. I could go photograph. It was much different in the ‘70s as far as just being on the street photographing or going out anywhere and photograph - people who weren’t suspicious of the camera.

I was used to driving down the road, pulling off, taking my cameras out, taking pictures. Walking into the woods and taking a picture wherever I wanted. Not having anybody telling me where or what or how I could set my cameras.

Dennis: Suddenly, you’re at NASA with rules everywhere.

John: Oh, yeah! Suddenly I’m in this big government organization that has restrictions up the wazoo. If I stepped outside of this particular boundary, I was subject to be detained by security. I was really confined to this press site or any escorted - I had to be escorted everywhere. Of course, that escorting was only going to come if you had a legitimate reason to be taken to that facility for instance, you know, like where they prepare the space shuttle or where they stack the rockets, the Vehicle Assembly Building or even close to the launch pad.

That little kid in me was just fired up. Once I got a taste of it, and saw it, and was close to this amazing piece of technology and it was… this is something that had never been done before and I got a front row seat to this. I was hooked!

I go back to Ohio and write another letter and they granted me press credentials again. I went back with better camera equipment. I knew what to do. I knew to book a hotel before I left Florida for the next launch.

Dennis: There you go! Right, right.

John: So I went down to the second launch. My pictures were better; I started to meet people.

Dennis: Were you still confined to that…

John, in the day

John: I was pretty much confined to it. It really wasn’t until like my third trip down there that they said, “Well, okay, this guy is… whatever his project is, he seems pretty committed to it.” They started to free up a little bit. The first couple of times they did know me from Adam but I started to get known.

I didn’t get a lot of access but I got more access. I was able to go out and get closer to the rocket with some of these escorted tours that were really meant for the news services. At that time, the world’s focus was on the Space Center. I used to say this is the greatest show on Earth. I mean there were times thousands of journalists and several hundred photographers. You start to make friends and acquaintances.

My love of technology and problem solving - I was fascinated by these remote cameras that people would use to get the shuttle pictures. We couldn’t buy these remote camera-triggering devices. Everything was sort of made just for that purpose by whoever the photographers were.

Dennis: Really? So you had the remote cameras. The cameras up close to the shuttle where it was unsafe to be physically.

John: Right.

Dennis: But the mechanisms to trigger them, they had to build from scratch.

John: Yeah.

Dennis: Wow!

John: The way it worked is the press was three-and-a-half miles away, in the press site. NASA would allow the press to set cameras as close as 700, 800, 900 feet away from… There was what they called a perimeter fence that went around the launch complex. We couldn’t get on the other side of that fence but we could be right outside of the fence.

That always presented problems like you can’t shoot through the fence, you’ve got to shoot over the fence. We would come up with… people would bring big ladders out there, all kinds of stuff. And anchor them into ground and… But there were no remote camera triggers so people would build their own.

If the launch was delayed, you’d have to go back out and service the camera. A lot of times they were using like lantern batteries or motorcycle batteries and the batteries would run out of juice. They’d have to go out, replace the batteries if the launch was delayed.

Dennis: Wow.

John: People used sound and different things to trigger the devices. If a helicopter flew over, it would trigger it. So there was a lot of failed - false triggers as we call them. People’s film would run before the rocket ever took off. I was sort of fascinated by that aspect of picture taking and that problem. I said, “Boy, you know, someday I want to be able to do this remote photography.”

I had a friend from grade school who was like an electronic genius. He built a computer in his basement in the late 70’s. It had like eight toggle switches on it and eight lights. He says, “Yeah, you can flip these switches and make this little spot appear on a TV.”

Dennis: [laughs]

John: I thought, “Wow, this is great!” I came back and I called him up and I said, “Hey, do you think we could build a camera trigger?” He goes, “Sure. No big deal.”

Dennis: Unbelievable.

John: From my experience down there and talking to other photographers and what their problems were, I came up with sort of a list of what it had to do and some of the features that would be nice. I said, “It needs to have two ways of triggering either by light or by sound.”

Dennis: Okay.

John: It needed to be able to recover from a false trigger. In other words, people could develop a trigger that was a switch. It was easy to flip a switch. The trick was to turn the switch off if it was a false trigger.

Dennis: If you had the helicopter coming overhead, for example.

John: Right. So we came up with the idea that if it gets a sustained signal, the thing will keep running. But if it’s a false trigger, it’ll only run for like a second and then it would shut down again. So that was another criteria that it had to be able to stay in the field for several days without changing the battery.

I had this long laundry list of things that I wanted. We’re literally socked away in his basement and playing around. I used to call it “breadboarding”. It was a thing where you could put IC chips and resistors and all kinds of things and then you would sort of tie them together with these long wires.

After a lot of experimenting, we had this big sort of breadboarded trigger. I mean it was huge. It was probably two foot by a foot tall or something with all these wires on it and I’m going, “Well, that’s great!” It met proof of concept that it met all the criteria, except the last one, was it was just too big.

Dennis: Right, right.

John: We worked on shrinking the size down that we could put it into -- at the time they were called Pelican Boxes. They were waterproof boxes. But it was still like an 8 by 10 box that was about three inches tall. So our first trigger was sort of this big box. It was waterproof. It had like a gel cell kind of battery in it; smaller than a motorcycle battery and it could run for a couple of days. So we had like the first evolution of that trigger.

First time I ever put it out there, there was a huge storm that hit and wiped out everybody’s cameras except mine. Again, being naïve or just looking at how people solve the problem, I decided I was going to mount my camera, low to the ground, spread the tripod legs out so I had a big footprint. So that it was not… had a high center of gravity and made it unstable.

Dennis: Like in a wind or whatever.

John: Yeah. Then I got one of those big sand spikes and twisted it into the ground and a turnbuckle that I put a link on the bottom of the head of the tripod and the turnbuckle and tightened it down so that it was anchored into the ground. Our trigger was waterproof so I just laid it on the ground. This big storm came through and wiped out 60%-70% of the cameras but mine survived. I got my first remote pictures of a launch and they were perfect.

Dennis: That’s crazy!

John: Wow, I was on top of the moon. That was probably about the fourth launch or something like that that I had seen.

Dennis: That’s crazy.

John: But we weren’t happy with the design. It was still too big. At the time, it was 1984 I think, and the first Macintosh computer came out. I bought it. Literally, I bought it two weeks after it came out on the market. There was this great program in there called MacPaint.

Dennis: Right.

John: It was this program that you could do drawings like at a pixel level.

I had our circuit that at the time was probably 8 by 10 or something like that on the board. I drew it out on - all the circuits - in MacPaint. I figured out a way to shrink this thing down because on original triggers we used to just solder hard wires. But we need a printed circuit board if we really wanted to make something small.

I literally shrunk this thing down to a circuit board that was the size… It’s probably about 2 inches by 4 inches or something.

Dennis: That’s a big difference!

John: Yeah. It was very small. I drew out all the wires and everything on MacPaint.

I knew about… there was these photo resist circuit boards that if you had a… they were a direct positive process. If you had like a sheet of film and exposed it to that board, it would put all the little marks, all the traces of the wires on this thing. You would process it almost like processing a photo - but in acid, it would etch away everything. It was copper. It would etch away everything that didn’t have the resist on it. Then once you cleaned the resist off, all that was left were all these little fine copper traces that were the wires.

I designed it on MacPaint and I took the file to what was called a service bureau at the time and then I said, “Make me an overhead transparency of this file.

Dennis: Right, because we didn’t have printers then.

John: Right.

I got this overhead transparency and got all the stuff together to do a printed circuit board in my darkroom, went down and exposed this thing. First time I had this printed circuit board that was about… And went out and bought all these Dremel tools, like a Dremel saw and drill press. I trimmed the boards down and used a little Dremel drill to drill out all the holes and soldered in all the IC chips and the resistors and capacitors and relays and all the stuff.

Through a couple of trial and errors, we actually had come up with this… what became known as the “Omni Trigger”. It was very small fit inside of a small box and ran on a 9-volt battery.

Dennis: Unbelievable.

John: Yeah. My friend was really smart in that he knew that CMOS technology was very low power consumption. The third generation, I think, of this trigger had all this CMOS, which was relatively new at the time.

We came up with this trigger that was in the small little box with a 9-volt battery. I showed up at the Space Center with this thing and nobody believed it would work. It was the best trigger anybody had ever built for shuttle photography.

Again, completely naïve to that because I was so compelled by solving a problem and it was a creative process. It was literally a solution to get my own photographs because I couldn’t buy it. I wasn’t going to go to AP or National Geographic and say, “Hey, can I buy one of your triggers?” ‘cause… I knew I was going to have to build my own.

Little did I realize, at the time, is I wasn’t the first to build a trigger; I built the best trigger. When everybody started to get wind of this, everybody wanted it. They wanted my trigger.

Dennis: Get out of here! Did you sell it then?

John: Well, I had to weigh these two things out because I’m not a businessman. I was there to make art. So I wasn’t there to create a business. I didn’t want to do a business because these were all hand built…

Dennis: Time intensive. Labor intensive.

John: Yeah, very involved. If I was really going to try to make money by selling, I might have had to sell them for several hundred dollars at the time just to pay for my own time and everything.

Dennis: Sure.

John: And people weren’t going to drop $700 for a custom trigger. But the light went off in my head and it was like… When you get National Geographic or Associated Press or New York Times and these people contacting you, Time Magazine, just the whole list - UPI, United Press International - all wanting my trigger I go, “Well, I could build a half dozen or a dozen of these things.” I said, “We’ll work a deal. I’ll lease you my triggers, you hire me as a technician.” Because what I figured out is that they had something I wanted and I had something they wanted. They wanted my triggers, I wanted their access.

Dennis: Sure.

John: I wanted to become part of the press corps just so I could get my photographs.

Dennis: And get into the inner sanctum that they had access to you didn’t have access.

John: Exactly. Yeah. I wanted to fly out and access. That was perfect to me.

The deal was is that I will lease you my services, my equipment, you hire me as a technician. I’m not a stringer. I’m not one of your photographers. I’m a technician to help you use my triggers. I would build custom interfaces for them to interface their camera to the trigger.

Dennis: But then by being a technician for them, that freed up your work as still being your work.

John: Yeah.

Dennis: They couldn’t grab ahold of your photography.

John: Well, the deal was is that, “You let me set my cameras up, I keep my film.”

Dennis: Right.

John: Because if they hired me as a stringer, I was working for them…

Dennis: The film goes to them.

John: …and the film goes to them. Mine, I didn’t want to be a stringer, I didn’t want to be one of their photographers. I would be your technician, you use my equipment. I’ll lease it on a per launch basis. But you let me set my cameras and I would…

At the time, I built up an arsenal of four Hasselblad ELM’s and a whole kit of lenses. I built custom housings for my cameras to protect them from elements. It was this constant evolution of problem solving to get the picture. It all went back to wanting pictures that were, like, pristine and clear. I couldn’t put a view camera out there so the next best thing was a medium format camera.

Dennis:          Right.

John: But if you didn’t have some kind of protection on the lens, the morning dew or whatever would accumulate on the front of the lens and you’d get these very impressionistic…

Dennis: [laughs]

John: …pictures of the launch [both laugh], which were not what I was after at all. Nobody really was.

So, I developed these housings that had doors on the front that would open right before the… it was all tied in with the trigger circuit and it would open. So the lens stay protected the whole time.

So, I had all my equipment and the deal was is I would work with their photographers, set their cameras up. I would set mine up. I would find out what places they had access to and then I would decide where I wanted my cameras to go. That’s how I started to get a lot of these really good pictures because I finally got access that I’d never really had before.

I just became a regular fixture there and, in time, I developed a lot more access and got into the Orbiter Processing Facility, Vehicle Assembly Building, a lot of the other storage…

Dennis: Just through your contacts. Because your relationship with the magazines or because of the relationship with NASA?

John: Everything.

Dennis: Everything?

John: It was a combination, you know. As I became affiliated with some of the press organizations - and I was totally freelance at the time and that was pretty common practice. A lot of photographers were stringers stringing for the news organizations. Again, I was never a stringer but I provided technical support; got to know all the people that were responsible for dealing with the photographers. I was there so often that, after awhile, if I wasn’t there, it was unusual.

Dennis: Right.

John: After a few years, that was my life. It literally became my life.

Dennis: Did you shoot all the launches then and the recoveries?

John: As many as I could. Probably, in my time, I probably saw 50-some launches.

Dennis: Wow!

John: I literally bought a house near the main entrance to the Space Center. I was down there so much that I set up an operation where I could keep all my equipment and deal with my contracts or whatever I had with the different news organizations to some place I could build the triggers and house them. I wouldn’t have to pack them up in my car and drive back to Ohio all the time.

Dennis: Right.

John: I left most of the stuff down there and I began flying back and forth.

Dennis: A whole lot easier! [laughs]

John: Yeah. Then the launches were pretty frequent so I was probably two weeks out of almost every month I was in Florida preparing. I would go back and handle whatever I had going on in Ohio. It spun off into other things. I became a contributing editor to a magazine. It spun off into some other commercial ventures.

Dennis: That’s great. How long did you shoot that? How long did you shoot the shuttle program?

John: I was there from 1981 to 1986.

Dennis: Okay.

John: And a little beyond that. But ‘86 was… I was there for Challenger.

Dennis: Oh my.

John: That sort of changed everything.

Dennis: The program changed a lot, of course, afterwards.

John: Yeah. The program changed. I was there and it was just such an emotional thing that my project essentially ended with the Challenger accident.

Dennis: By your choice.

John: My choice, yeah.

I mean the program went on ‘til 2011. I mean this is 1986. It was not like the program ended but my sort of… Something ended that day, that optimism, that reach for the future.

The program was meant to be… it started when I went down there was still R&D - research and development program. And in that period I was there it went from an R&D program to a fully realized commercial program. They were providing access to space to paying customers.

There was a whole cottage industry that was developing around the space program as young companies coming in and having access to space to develop new technologies.

I mean on some of the launches it was like going to a trade show. There was literally a big tent on the press center grounds. You go in there and all these contractors would be there with all their stuff that they were flying on the space shuttle. It was a very exciting time.

And as a young kid, I still felt that… or as an adult, I felt that excitement of when I was a young kid because there’s something new and exciting.

Dennis: Right.

John: Here we are, witnessing this routine access to space. NASA’s charter was always to make that technology available to the private sector.

A lot of the technology I use to get my photographs I attribute to the moon program. Like the development of small circuits - IC - integrated circuits. That was all developed out of necessity to get man to the moon. NASA’s charter was to make that technology available to the private sector and I think it inspired people like Steve Jobs and Wozniak to create the things that they did that led to what we have today as Apple. It was sort of cool that I could develop my product with the original Apple computer.

Dennis: True.

John: So, when Challenger happened, everybody just… They put the brakes on everything and they said, “Well, we were putting all of our marbles into the shuttle basket and maybe we need to rethink this.” The shuttle literally went back to an R&D program doing more just scientific missions for NASA, military; commercial moved to other vehicles.

There was, at least in my mind, that enthusiasm for trying to discover the next great thing by going into space. I don’t think it’s ever quite recovered from that. Or maybe it’s just more my perception of it.

Dennis: As a child, though, you said had this boyhood fascination. Staying home from school to watch the launches, then you had a chance to get access to it. For many, many years did your fascination die in the day of the Challenger?

John: My fascination didn’t die. I think the world died around it. I don’t think the world saw it in the same kind of excitement I saw in the promise of what there was or what could be, I guess. For me it was, “Oh, sure, we’re going to go back to the moon and then we’re going to go to planets.” I also knew that - and it’s not like we stopped it - we have a continuing presence today in space with the space station.

Dennis: Sure.

John: Something, I think, died in me or left me that day of the Challenger accident. It was just… I couldn’t… It was just hard for me to go back and do the project. It was hard to maintain that level of commitment to the project just because of life in general.

Literally that day of Challenger I put all those negatives in storage and I didn’t look at them for another 25 years.

Dennis: Really?

John: Yeah.

Dennis: So where’s your project today then?

John: Well…

Dennis: What have you done with the negatives since?

John: In 2011 the last shuttle flew. The program came to an end. Pretty amazing, I mean, when you consider that was the longest running space program in American history. I mean we had the first launch in 1981 and it ran through 2011.

Dennis: That’s a long time.

John: Amazing!

At the time I was doing the project in the ‘80s, I always envisioned it as a book because it was new. It’s funny because the art community at the time saw it as journalistic. They didn’t react to my photographs as these sort of majestic, symbolic photographs of history and technology.

It was funny. One day I said, “Well, Ansel Adams photographed the National Parks.” I photograph - which is another great government program - and here I was photographing the space shuttle, a national treasure, with the same kind of… I really wanted to get the same kind of majesty that he got in his landscape photographs. So that was my whole thing.

At the time I would take these to galleries. They saw them as journalism because it was so really different than what I was doing at the time. To the general public it was journalistic so I couldn’t… So, I wasn’t getting a lot of support through that system infrastructure that I was part of which was galleries. That combined with the Challenger accident, I just decided that I was going to put this project on the shelf.

Luckily, for me, I was smart at the time to preserve the negatives in an archival way. Put them in the proper sleeves and boxing ‘em up. I kept pretty good records for an individual that doesn’t pride himself on record keeping.

I put the project on the shelf and life goes on. I went and did many other things as an artist and a photographer. And then in 2011, when the program came to an end, I said, “Well, I have now a historic document.” I have a very specific period of time in the life of the shuttle program that I was fortunate enough to be able to document. Basically it was from the beginning when it was R&D to where it went through to a commercial program.

At the time there were four shuttles. There was Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis. Looking back on that I said, “Well, maybe it’s time to finish this project after 30 years.”

And the art community’s also changed a lot. They’re more receptive today to these very high-end kind of fine art documentary projects and you’ll see a lot of great projects on environmental things where you have an artist that can give that elevated vision of what the topic is. I mean create these really grand photographs that attract the viewer but also has a narrative to it that’s also very social or documentary. There are several photographers, contemporary photographers, that have done amazing projects.

That’s sort of what my thinking was back then with this project. I mean I came out of art school and I went down without a journalistic intent. I wanted to make these amazing, majestic, grand, symbolic photographs.

I revisited these things and I was excited to discover for myself that my vision, my integrity was still there.

Dennis: Nice, nice!

John: I rediscovered these photographs. Now I have the benefit of time to sort of look back on it and see where I’ve come since then and everything. Sometimes growing old can be a bitch but there’s some benefits to it that you’ve got history now. You can…

Dennis: Perspective.

John: Perspective and all different kinds of things. I’ve been able now to look back on and go “Wow! What an exciting period of time.” I’m glad that I was naïve because had I known a lot of what I know today I probably wouldn’t have done it. Because there were so many hurdles, so many challenges that that young kid in me kept saying, “No, you got to keep going. Listen, John, you’re there.”

Dennis: That’s great.

John: So, I kept listening to that little kid in me to sort of trust, keep me going, and solve the problems. That is my dream. That was my dream. I never flew in space but, boy, I had a front row seat for what I still call to this day “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

So, I never became an astronaut but I was able to take my love of photography and my passion for technology and space and all that and bring it together in this project.

Dennis: That’s great. John, it’s a great story. Thanks for sharing.

John: That’s my story. [laughs]

Dennis: It’s a great story. [laughs]

John: Yeah.

Dennis: If people want to see your work, it’s JohnChakeres.com, right?

John: JohnChakeres.com. The shuttle work is not on that website yet. It will be, eventually. I’ve done a whole series of other projects since then but this one is really close to my heart. It’s the kid in me. It was the seed that started everything.

Yeah, like I said, I didn’t become an astronaut but I got close. I know astronauts. [laughs]

Dennis: There you go. That’s great.


Dennis Hodges
Dennis Hodges


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