With more than 100 cover photographs to his name, John Gilhooley is easily the most prolific and recognizable photographer whose work has graced the pages of OC Weekly during the past two decades. Born in LA and raised in Glendale before moving to Huntington Beach in 1988, Gilhooley’s career has taken him to the heights of the profession—scoping locations for Annie Leibovitz one day, then flying down to Baja with Brad Pitt the next. For this infernal rag, he’s taken photographs of everyone from punk-rock icon Jack Grisham and neo-ska/pop queen Gwen Stefani to best-selling crime-fiction author Don Winslow and Ducks hall-of-famer Teemu Selänne.
So taking portraits of famous people isn’t exactly intimidating to Gilhooley. What surprised him, however, was how much effort it took to capture his own portrait. “I can shoot 100 people, but when it came to me, I had no idea what to do,” he says, laughing. “I put it off, thinking I’d get a great idea.” After considering various posed shots that would show him in the act of photographing someone else, Gilhooley finally realized this was actually the perfect opportunity to take his own self-portrait, something that had never occurred to him to do. “Taking a photo of myself was way harder than I had thought,” he adds. “After 80 frames, I still wasn’t done, but finally I had to stop. I mean, am I really that self-absorbed?”
As a junior-high-school kid in the LA area during the late 1970s, Gilhooley took up darkroom photography just as he was getting into punk rock, surfing and skateboarding. He remembers his first two cameras: a Pentax K1000 and a Canon AT-1. He began taking his camera to different skateboard contests, and in eighth grade, he entered into a citywide contest a shot he took of a skater who had gone airborne off the side of a swimming pool and inverted himself. The maneuver gave Gilhooley the perfect opportunity to capture the skater upside-down in the air. He won the contest.
“That went to my head, and I told everyone I was going to be a professional photographer,” Gilhooley recalls. “In reality, all I won was a certificate or savings bond where you can’t get the money until you are 18. But in my mind, I was a paid photographer.”
After high school, Gilhooley attended Glendale College for a year and a half. His elderly teacher wasn’t particularly impressed by Gilhooley’s penchant for intentionally scratching his negatives in an attempt to mimic the new wave graphic-art style of the early ’80s. “I was a punk-rock kid, a surfer,” he explains. “I wasn’t interested in getting everything perfect. I thought a scratch on my negative made it art.”
At loggerheads with his mentor—who had graduated from art school before color photography existed—Gilhooley transferred to Los Angeles Trade Technical School. Although he never graduated, he quickly hooked up with a group of commerical photographers who had a studio downtown and began working for them in 1986.
By 1990, Gilhooley was scouting photo-shoot locations with a Polaroid camera for famed photographer Leibovitz. He spent the next three years on her team. “She would come out west to shoot a celebrity, and so I’d take the Polaroid all over to different locations, from the high desert and dry lake beds to Venice Beach, and they’d pick locations, and then take a celebrity there, and she’d take the photo,” he recounts. “She wasn’t easy to work for, but my work wouldn’t be what it is today without her.”
For another three years following that stint, Gilhooley worked for Rolling Stone photographer Mark Seliger, helping to arrange shots of Sean Penn on an LA rooftop and Brad Pitt in Mexico; his memories are a blur of an endless rotation of hangouts with movie stars and rock & roll legends. After shifting into the more steady work of commercial, especially automotive, photography in the early 2000s, Gilhooley stumbled into what would become a long-running freelance career with the OC Weekly.
In 2004, after submitting a few photographs to the Weekly’s then-photo editor Tenaya Hills, she sent him on a last-minute mission to shoot a crime scene in Rancho Santa Margarita. A week later, the paper sent Gilhooley up to LA to take a photo of the Adolescents, who had just re-formed as a band. The results became his first Weekly cover. “I’ve lost count now, but it’s more than 120 covers,” he says. “Shooting portraits is the most amazing work.”
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).