James Vargas Saxophone Legend // The Craziest Shoot Of My Life

Okay, so I couldn’t decide what to call this blog post. It was a toss-up between ‘James Vargas Saxophone Legend’ and ‘The Craziest Shoot Of My Life’, ‘cause like that’s kind of true. 

A couple of weeks ago, I got a one of those random phone calls that I really love for the chaos that could ensue on the back of it. It was Monday afternoon and I was already booked in for a job shooting a property in Durham. But when a phone call comes in that just makes you go, “Huh?” you have to ask a couple more questions just to see what you’re missing out on. So, the phone call goes, “Hi Gavin, we shot a project a couple of months ago. I’ve just changed jobs, I’m now the manager of a musician. Is there any chance you’re free this afternoon to take some images in Newcastle?” I pointed out that I was unfortunately already booked and it was a little short notice for me because I normally work on around a two-week lead time for shoots. But it just intrigued me, for a gentleman I knew who was an educator in a college to now be the manager of a musician just seemed a fantastic transition. So, obviously I asked a question of who the musician was and what it was that they wanted to capture. Just out of curiosity, just out of that thing that sometimes niggles away in your ear, that you need to ask the question. 

So, I got a little bit of information and it intrigued me some more. It was actually the saxophonist from Boy George and from Culture Club. He’s also played on numerous records over the years and generally in a scene in London, in Ibiza and as it turns out, Newcastle. With people that, names that just roll off the tongue, from the last 30 years-worth of music. So, you know, a little bit like, ‘Ah,’ not that it got away, but you know, one of those ones that would have been really, really, really interesting to shoot. A couple of hours later – so it was around 10 o’clock in the morning and around one o’clock, I pick up Karl, my assistant and we’re going down to Durham to shoot a property and I get a phone call from the agency that booked me to do it. “Unfortunately, due to things outside of our control –” as these things often do, the shoot was being postponed. And I was already in the car with all my camera kit. And Karl, my assistant. 

So, never one to waste time or to miss any opportunities, I rung back Mr. Manager to go, “If you happen to still need a photographer, if you’ve not managed to get somebody sorted out for this afternoon, I happen to have my camera with me, I happen to have an assistant with me. I’m here to shoot if you fancy it.” And they hadn’t managed to get something sorted out, luckily it was all back on and off we trot to the middle of Newcastle to meet the musician. And it turns out his name is James Vargas and I didn’t know him but obviously when I started listening to the list of things that he’d been involved with over the years, it became clear that I’d listened to him play many, many times over those years. 

So, again it’s a bit of a ‘picture the scene’ moment. We meet Laurence, his manager, have a quick catch up on life, to how to go from one thing to another and then a door springs open and a whirlwind of a person came through the wall in his shades and his pink suit with no shirt. And the atmosphere in the room changed, it was just amazing to be around somebody with that funny energy that you get from somebody that’s lived a life and has stories to tell. 

So, where does the shoot come from, where does the shoot go? Well, being 100% honest, it was a whirlwind! I am someone that plans but doesn’t plan to the finest detail in the sense that I’m always open for flexibility and for seeing the situation as we are shooting, so I’m always looking for those little nuggets of light or we’re looking for those little bits of ideas as we’re going round. So, to have such a change of, “I’m shooting a property where I know all the confines and all the restrictions and what I’m doing, to going to this,” where it was literally absolutely free rein and James going, “I’m your muse here, you tell me what photos you want,” is a massive shift in mindset and thought process, so it was very much off the cuff and very much on the hoof. 

But, what a fantastic shoot! And we shot everywhere from the site of St James’s Park with the steps that were up the stadium to a [very old pub] on Stowell Street, went round to the back of St. James’s Park near the old Georgian terraces with the really cool lines and the architecture on that side. We did it at The Strawberry for a little bit and then we wandered aimlessly through the middle of Newcastle to try and find clothes and things that he wanted to wear and extras that he wanted to do and it was just one of those things that it’s sort of difficult to describe and all the things that happened in a way that captures the looks on my face especially. Well actually more so on Karl’s face, because Karl’s only 21 and the days of Boy George and Culture Club are a good generation before he appreciated who they were. Even the mention of when James was out with Jay from Jamiroquai which obviously harked back to my days in the 90s, Karl had that look on his face, like I was talking a different language. 

But overall, to be part of it was absolutely fantastic and to capture the images that have since gone onto banners and will be soon going onto marketing material for James’s push to move back up to the North East from his London base and be the known saxophonist and DJ in the music scene in Newcastle, like he was in the past, is just a great journey and a great thing to be part of. 

But technically, it was a lot of natural light shooting, going with the flow with two channels of light, to minimise equipment moving round in the middle of Newcastle, because we knew it was going to be a number of locations in a very quick period of time. It was an involving shoot and I think if had involved big lights and staged poses it wouldn’t have had quite the relaxed atmosphere that the shoot dictated and the end result needed for this case. 

In that situation again, would I have tried to do an emergency plan? Maybe in some ways but on the flip side, the way my brain works, I was able to pick kind of five or six locations in the space 10 seconds. Knowing Newcastle very well, I was able to do that. Had it been in another city, had I had to go to you know, last minute in Birmingham, or last minute in Manchester, in an area I don’t know as well as I do around St. James’s Park and the top end of Newcastle, it might have been different. But I would have still gone on that first priority of finding the light and finding the creative lines, as I often do. Is this a lesson in not planning? No, not by any stretch. But it’s a good justification for being adaptable and creative when the need arises. 

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