It is so comfortable to be around photographer Chris Cuffaro that it’s no wonder why musicians gravitate toward him. Friends including director James Cameron gathered together at Mr. Musichead Gallery inHollywood on August 31, 2017 for an exhibition featuring photos shot on the set of the Cameron-directed music video for “Reach” by Martini Ranch which took place back in 1987. This event was just one of many to come as a part of Cuffaro’s Greatest Hits series of exhibitions which feature photos spanning his career of musicians including Pearl Jam, Nirvana, No Doubt, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, George Michael, INXS, Iggy Pop, and countless others. Here is what Cuffaro told me about his exciting time spent face to face with some of the biggest stars in music.
The Brite Stuff : Take me back to when you shot the video for “Reach” and met James Cameron.
Chris Cuffaro: Shooting on that video was a huge deal for me, I was working with James Cameron and all these great actors. He had just finished Aliens, and Kathryn Bigelow had just directed Near Dark. They actually met on set for this video. I just told Jim that working on that set for those two days inspired me to get into directing, and I ended up directing my first music video a few years later with Pearl Jam. So much came from this video when you begin connecting the dots. Five months later in December of ’87, I shot on the George Michael “Faith” video and that launched my career—I ended up shooting him for a year. These are the stepping stones of my career. This whole project, Greatest Hits, I started 3 ½ years ago. The whole idea is a celebration of music photography.
TBS: We lost both George Michael and Chris Cornell recently, how does losing people you have worked with affect you?
CC: All my friends. It sucks. The only death that really bothered me for years was Michael Hutchence because he was the nicest guy in the world. When Chris died I was bummed because of how it will affect the kids. Why did he do that? It makes zero sense. I hate the fact that these people are dying, but we all die in one way or another. I’m blessed that I was a part of their lives and they were part of mine.
TBS: You do such a great job of capturing personality in your portraits.
CC: Music photography is really just a portion of what I do. I’ve been shooting forever, these are just parts of my career. I’ve shot live shows, I’ve shot behind the scenes, the one wedding I shot was Tom Hanks’ wedding. People always ask me what I love most, all of the above.
TBS: Some of your publicity shots of No Doubt and Limp Bizkit are burned in my memory, those campaigns were so important for musicians at the time.
CC: And you used to get paid for it. Before everyone was documenting their lives on social media, I was doing it. I was documenting it everywhere I went. The difference is now that everyone is doing it. Everyone shoots a concert so why bother shooting one? I always tell people that I caught the tail end of the death of the music photographer. I was there for the good times in the 70’s and 80’s, but now it’s not even a career anymore in a way because everybody shoots.
TBS: Did the people you shot trust you and allow you to direct them?
CC: That was the goal no matter what you shot: getting the trust. Getting them to let themselves go, I was backstage at tons of shows and they let me do whatever I wanted. I saw a lot during ’91 and ’92, but they trusted me. They knew the crazy shit, even the stuff I did with George Michael—they knew Chris wasn’t going to run out to do something stupid or tell people dumb things. For me, it was always about getting that trust. To this day, when people trust me it’s the best. My #1 job is to make you look good, that is your job as a photographer—especially in Hollywood. I get paid to make you look good. Trust is so important. There is nothing better than having an artist, a musician or an actress, that trusts you and lets you do whatever you want to do. It makes the best pictures, but trust is hard to get.
TBS: When will the documentary with The Greatest Hits be done?
CC: I’m about 3 ½ years away from finishing it. My friends have been watching me go crazy with this. The goal is to end in NYC at Madison Square Garden so I’m doing all these events leading up to it like Greatest Hits: Grunge, Greatest Hits: No Doubt, Greatest Hits: Chili Peppers with upcoming ones in Sydney, London, and South Africa. This is so unique for me, it feels so weird.
You can add Christina Rath to the list of famous people shot by Chris Cuffaro. For more photos of Chris Cuffaro’s work, see gallery above. Prints are available for purchase on his website, CuffaroPhoto.com