John Charles self portrait

John Charles is a defiant artist best known for the rock and street photography he creates under his banner Rebellion and Truth. Razor sharp and precisely composed, his portraits evoke the exquisite stillness in the eye of the storm.

Though he is inspired by their work and they feature heavily in his, John Charles does not worship the rock star as an elevated lifeform. Rather, their personas and postures become one way through which he exalts the human condition. He treats all of his subjects, whether they are performers at the height of their careers, misfit friends or unknown passersby, with compassion, curiosity and reverence.

I met John Charles about ten years ago at a gallery in Los Angeles. In those days he was briefly based in the Bay Area. I casually mentioned that I was about to take a trip to San Francisco and that I was hoping to visit the final resting place of Elizabeth Short, also known as the Black Dahlia. Naturally having known me for about fifteen minutes he arranged to pick me up from the friend’s apartment where I was crashing. We spent time touring the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland before visiting The Bone Room where all manner of osteological specimens were on display. It was a perfect afternoon and he had made a friend for life.

Fast forward to this week. When I texted him to tease him for liking my Facebook posts he texted back, “It felt wrong for me too. I think we’re just supposed to be “in person” friends.”

As so many “in person” friends around the world have had to do, we’ve transitioned to digital communications. And while I’m grateful for the technology allowing us to stay in touch, I’m not immune from mourning the adventures we had planned this year, now indefinitely on hold.

And as much as I miss my friend, I worry more about him missing being out. He’s often on the road, but even when he’s in Los Angeles he’s exploring with a camera fused to his body like an additional extremity. Curious to see how he is faring, I asked him how a rock photographer adjusts to a world with no live shows.

You live in a highly populated area of Southern California.  How has your daily life changed since the spread of Covid-19?

The music industry came to a screeching halt, which means rock photography slammed right into its backside. 

I think I saw it coming slightly before it really hit because I was keeping an eye on global reports and doing the math.  I remember contacting everyone I had planned to shoot and cancelling everything a couple months out.  I was completely honest too. 

One of my friends asked “are you sure you want to tell them exactly why you are cancelling?”  I guess they were implying that I might have sounded overly paranoid about the virus, but that had never even occurred to me. 

As it turned out, I was right to cancel.  I also wasted my time doing it because by the end of that week every tour and event I was supposed to shoot was officially cancelled. 

So, to answer your question…. the daily life of this photographer has turned into a life of no photography.  (Cue the sad face.) 

That being said, we all know photography involves a lot more than taking photos.  I’ve been spending as much time each week doing post production as I always do. 

Even if we spend a year in COVID-19 lockdown, I’ll still be plugging away at photos I’ve already shot.  My back catalog is insanely large.  I suppose it is for most photographers, but I am literally never not shooting. 

I will very likely die before I process everything I’ve shot because every year I shoot twice as much as I can edit.  It’s a sickness…. an addiction maybe.

You told me you saw a hazmat team remove a body from your neighborhood.  I get the sense that many people who aren’t on the front lines have not had a personal experience with seeing sick people or deceased people.  How did confronting this reality affect your perception about what we are all facing right now?

Not just one…. two.  There was one about a mile from where I live and a few days later there was one within a half mile. 

Beyond that, every tenth person I talk to or see on social media is either in the hospital or has a parent in the hospital.  You all know what is going on. 

I sadly assume the majority of people have lost somebody due to this.  I’ve lost a few.  It’s sincerely horrible. 

That’s all I can say on that without spinning out of control into a depressing and angst ridden social/political tangent.  I don’t think that’s the point of this interview though.

What role (if any) does art and the artist have at a time of crisis?

I hate to quote shit I’ve seen online, but somewhere out there I saw someone write (not verbatim)…  “for everyone who thinks the arts are meaningless jobs, try getting through this lockdown without books, music, film, etc.” 

I think that answers your question perfectly. 

I think it also goes beyond that.  Artists have a way of capturing the impact of events and social response better than anyone. 

I appreciate abstract art and “art for the sake of art” as much as anyone else, but the artists I respect the most have always been those who make profound social commentary through their art. 

For example, when it comes to Shakespeare, I am relatively indifferent about plays like a Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I have read and watched plays like Henry V and Richard III many times over. 

I’m not so extreme as to say it’s an artists “responsibility” to try making a profound positive impact, but I am saying that’s how you win me over.

Are you reflecting on current events in your creative work?  And do you feel pressure to incorporate current events into your art at this time?

Absolutely!  Almost every painting I create, as well as every photograph I take, has meaning.  I really push my agenda through my paint brush. 

My paintings can be heavy handed and easy to interpret.  If you look at one of my paintings and don’t understand what I’m trying to say, then I feel like I’ve failed. 

However, my lens covers a broader perspective and my photographic themes are slightly more hidden.  Don’t let that fool you though… the message is still there. 

Many photos tell a complete story, but I also feel a much more complete story is told in the cumulative consumption of my work. 

I like people to come to their own conclusions after seeing multiple perspectives via my photography. 

I can always tell when I meet someone who really gets my work versus someone who just follows it for the rockstar eye candy.  I sincerely appreciate both, but I always feel more connected to the former.

Are you photographing something other than the concert and street photography you’re known for, or is the camera put away?

My camera is never put away.  Right now it’s in my “bug out” survival backpack right next to my front door, but I keep taking it out to shoot… well…  basically anything fun to get my mind off the pandemic. 

I am so desperate for content during lockdown that I’ve started photographing things like puzzles, stews, books and my lovely teak wood furniture. 

I’ve actually found it interesting to take a look at myself through my camera’s eye (not self portraits, but simply my living space).  It’s made me realize that no matter how much of a badass people might think I am in the real world, at home I just live like a self contained, happy lil’ Hobbit. 

I’ve also turned into Jerry Only from the Misfits, in the sense that I haven’t worn a shirt with sleeves for well over a month.

I have gone out a few times to find those epic post-apocalyptic shots.  You know the type…. sweeping urban landscapes without a single person in frame.  The problem is that this lockdown isn’t locking people down very well. 

Everyone wants to be the only person out there (or they simply don’t understand the scope of what is happening), so there are still people everywhere. 

I’m actually surprised this city isn’t full of student filmmakers trying to shoot zombie films.  Maybe it is, but I haven’t found ‘em yet.  I guess we’ll know who all the guilty parties are if there is a ridiculous flood of low budget post apocalyptic films at the end of this year.

You’re also a painter and a musician.  Are you making art in quarantine?  If you are making art, what have you been working on?

Have you ever seen that episode of The Twilight Zone?  …the one with that guy who loves reading?  …the one where he never has time to read, but then the apocalypse happens and he is happy that he finally has all the time he ever wanted and more books than he could possibly read?  …the one where he breaks his glasses at the end and can’t read without them? 

Yeah, I spoiled that twist if you’d never seen it.  That show is like seventy years old, so you’ve had your chance. 

Anyway, that guy is me right now.  I have dozens of brushes and twice as many tubes of paint, but yeah…. no canvases.  Obviously you can paint on other surfaces, but that’s not my thing.  I like working on traditional canvas.

I have been picking up my guitar a bit more this month.  So, there’s that.  I’m sure it’d be a lot more fun if I could play with other people.  Actually, I‘m going to try.  I’ve scheduled some low tech online jam sessions over the next few days.  I don’t know how well it’s going to work.  I have a feeling that if I’m only using my phone or laptop without additional hardware I may just hear myself and not the other musicians.  Hmmm…. I may have to actually amp my laptop or wear headphones or something.

Paintings by John Charles

If you are doing creative work, has the tone of your work shifted?

Absolutely.  Like I said, I am digging pretty deeply into my archives for content I’ve already shot, but the tone of what I feel like working on has definitely shifted. 

There were shoots I was really excited about revisiting like cemeteries, catacombs, mummified remains, violent protests and all sorts of other discord and shock, but the thought of working on that material right now has put me off.  …especially so for any content I shot in the countries and cities with the highest COVID-19 death rates right now. 

I’m not even working on much rock photography during these weeks.  Instead I’m leaning toward photos of friends and social events because that is what I’m craving in lockdown. 

I also think making some of those old photos available for people might brighten their days just a little.  People need that right now.

Do you feel more creative freedom or more restricted in any way and why?

Well…. I love location scouting for photo shoots and constantly changing up locations!  That’s on hold.  I love shooting new people!  That’s on hold.  I love going on the road with bands!  That’s on hold.  I love covering new types of events!  That’s on hold.  Yeah…. I’m going to have to go with “restricted.”

Have you explored any techniques or mediums during this time that are new to you?

Not really.  Again, it’s hard to change things up while being stuck in one location and using one set of tools. 

At the same time, I can’t help but to keep thinking about creative new things I want to try when this quarantine is lifted.

If you were going to pick a piece of art work you’ve created during quarantine or in the past that encapsulates this time, what would that be and why?

I haven’t done any painting during quarantine, so no…. no new art reflects this pandemic yet.  However, two things come to mind.

First, I did a painting for an art show called “Black Plague” about ten years ago.  It was a very subtle homage to Michelangelo’s Pietà.  The painting was of a frail dying man in the arms of another man who was wearing a plague doctor’s mask.  Behind them is a dark and tattered pride flag.  The idea behind the piece was to draw a parallel between AIDS and the Black Plague. 

Aside from attempting to tie a current social issue into a “Black Plague” themed art show, I felt placing AIDS in league with a historic event of that scope would help people better understand what we were (still are) currently dealing with.  Now, with COVID-19 on the forefront of everyone’s mind, this painting has taken on a renewed relevance and I keep thinking about the piece.

The other thing that comes to mind is….  well…. myself.  I have always considered myself to be my primary work of art.  I do not mean that in a douchey, narcissistic way.  If that is what I meant, I would have said I was my own “masterpiece” or something. 

As they say, art is in the eye of the beholder, so y’all can judge my quality if you’d like, but that wasn’t my point.  The word I used was “primary.”  I have always treated myself like an ever evolving metaphorical canvas.  I only try to incorporate things into myself that make me better, more entertaining, more intriguing, more real, more profound, more whatever…. whatever I think makes me a better person. 

Think about a work of art that you haven’t finished yet.  When you step back and look at it there are an infinite number of choices you can make.  You can always add anything, but you don’t.  You only add what makes your artwork better.  That is how I approach myself. 

I think others do it as well, but without defining exactly what it is they are doing.  I know there are many people who I connect with as if they are fellow artists, but they don’t consider themselves artists.  I look them dead in the eyes and have to tell them…. you are more of an artist than most self proclaimed artists out there.  You are creating yourself in a brilliant way!  Your body, your fashion, your surrounding and especially your mind…. those are your canvases!  I see it so clearly even if they do not, sometimes to the point of my frustration if they think themselves anything less than brilliant.

So, what was my point?  It’s that if I had to pick a focal piece of art created during this global pandemic, it would be… myself.  This is a time when I will learn more about myself, find ways to improve myself, find out what works and doesn’t work in my behaviors and actions in a scenario I’ve never before experienced.

What kind of art have you been consuming and why?  Is this different than what you typically consume?

Aside from in-person things like going to museums and art shows, I don’t do much art consumption at home.  Well, that’s not completely true.  I always enjoy seeing new works online by my friends and colleagues, but those pieces find me without my looking for them. 

I also occasionally dig around the internet to look for new works by my favorite visual artist, Clive Barker.  His imagination is a real escape for me.  I’d like to live inside his head. 

Anyway, it’s uncanny that you asked this question because this morning I was feeling a strange desire for comforting visuals, so I spent an hour getting lost in some of the art that I loved as a child.  Back then it was all about artists like the Brothers Hildebrandt, Frazetta,  …basically anything that was on the cover of Heavy Metal or Dragon Magazine.  I haven’t looked at any of that material for years, but revisiting it today made me feel like I was thirteen years old again.

It made me realize something too…  there are a lot of really talented artists out there now.  When I look at the works of my contemporary colleagues (many of which I am fortunate to know personally) I realize they are as good as…. no… actually better than the artists I grew up loving!  The talent out there is mind blowing.

How is your mental health?  Do you feel that you have been doing things to take care of yourself and if you do what are those things?

My “mental” what now?  I’m afraid I might not like my own answer. 

Honestly, we’re all doing our best to stay somewhat sane, but so much of this is out of our control. 

I’m filled with anxiety about all my friends (and basically everyone) being ok right now.  It’s keeping me up at night and giving me nightmares when I do sleep. 

At the same time, I’m also making a conscious effort to not keep contacting people to check in.  …but I’m failing at that.  I keep checking in on people.  I guess that’s helping with my sanity a bit.  …but not much.  I don’t always hear good news when I check in.  Maybe that’s another reason I’m trying to not do it obsessively.  That hadn’t occurred to me before, but it’s likely true. 

I’m just way too protective of the people in my life (and everyone), it’s almost to a fault and right now it is eating away at my sanity a bit.  It’s sincerely making me emotional just saying this.  How’s that for honesty, Barbara Walters?

Is there anything you like about self-quarantining that you may take with you when this period is over?

I hope not.  Aside from the experience and growth…. I’m good.  This can be a once in a lifetime experience.  I’d be fine with that. 

Unfortunately, I fear it will not be.  We will very likely find ourselves here again multiple times in the upcoming years. 

I’m sure most people will keep a little more toilet paper on hand at all times.  That would be good advice. 

I’ve been vegan for a decade and vegetarian for at least twice that, so I can’t say anything will change on that front.  However, I am hopeful some people will re-examine that aspect of their life and stop unnecessarily imprisoning and killing animals.  I’ve always been firm about my beliefs on that topic, but I try to refrain from being too preachy, so I’ll just leave it at that.  Deep down y’all know what the right thing to do is.

Did you have any planned showcases that have been postponed or cancelled?  Or were there any shows or concerts that you were looking forward to attending?

Yes!  That’s the biggest disappointment about all this!  …aside from all the death and poverty, of course. 

There were a few art show and charity events I was very excited to be a part of this year.  The cancelling of each and every one of them was painful because they were all for good causes and for things I am passionate about.  I’d give you more info, but my involvement in them had not yet been officially announced. 

Fortunately they haven’t been completely cancelled.  They have all been postponed until later this year or early next year, so I’ll save that “splash” until the time is appropriate.  Stay tuned, kids!

Has your financial situation been affected by the spread of Covid-19?

Well, groceries cost twice as much now. 

I remember studying “hyperinflation” as an economics topic at university.  It was one of those uncommon byproducts of recession, usually fueled by the “creation” of money, and resulting in the devaluation of currency, the killing of interest rates and longterm price increases.  I’m guessing we’re entering into one of those right now. 

This is definitely going to be a long term effect.  The inflation aspect won’t go back.  We’ll be lucky if time simply reduces the extremity of it.

But that’s not what you’re asking me.  You’re asking about me personally, right?  Well, I’ll tell you this…. my groceries cost twice as much now.

What can we do to support your work at this time?

Ooooh!  Here’s the part where I shamelessly plug myself!  Joking aside, I sincerely appreciate people following me on social media!  You can find all the relevant links on my REBELLION AND TRUTH website….

I will say this about all merch sold through REBELLION AND TRUTH…. 100% of every purchase goes to supporting animal rights.  I don’t keep a single penny.  All the details can be found on the REBELION AND TRUTH online store.

Did I say “REBELLION AND TRUTH” enough times?  That’s called marketing.

Thank you very much John Charles for indulging me in this interview.

If you want to see more of John Charles’ work, visit his website or follow him on Instagram.