The last day I saw Chester Bennington, in November 2016, we drove up and down the California coast for more than two hours. We spoke openly about our lives, losses, and futures. We had both recently lost parents to brain cancer. His brutal honesty that day will haunt me for the rest of my life.
We listened to each other’s new music: Mine was the heaviest piece I’d ever been a part of, and his was Linkin Park’s lightest effort, One More Light, which was the riskiest record they’d ever made. We watched each other’s reactions to the new music we had created, looking for approval.
Chester and I were friends for more than 16 years. I photographed him for almost a decade.
“I don’t understand why you like taking photos of me — you know I only have two looks,” he would joke with me, and he was right. Typically, Chester was either very stern or so full of smiles I’d almost have to plead with him to be serious. It was in between those two expressions that I got what I was looking for during our photo shoots.
Onstage was a completely different story; Chester displayed so many different emotions while performing over the course of each show, no matter which project he was fronting.
His passion and energy for his craft flowed through his veins, and I captured it several times over the course of almost a decade.
Many of those photos of the late Chester Bennington will be on display at monOrchid on Friday, June 21. I hope they will help you see the different sides of him, the many I that I saw through the camera’s lens.
Long before the bright flashes of my strobe lights memorialized Chester, we met on August 15, 2000, less than a week before my 21st birthday. He was 22.
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I was the vocalist for a makeup-heavy, industrial-influenced rock band called Victims in Ecstacy, which was opening for a then-unknown Los Angeles band called Linkin Park at the old Mason Jar in Phoenix. Chester, a Phoenix native, was their lead singer. It was a few months before the release of their debut record, Hybrid Theory, which would go on to sell more than 13 million records.
His interest in helping others was apparent that night. During our set, we broke our snare drum and I was forced to make small talk with the crowd to buy time. Chester, a skinny kid with bleached-blond hair, came to our rescue, loaning us Linkin Park’s snare, which allowed us to finish the show. I didn’t watch much of their set that night because I was outside talking to people. What I didn’t realize was that Chester had watched our performance and was really excited about what we were doing.
We ran into each again a month later, when Linkin Park played an early slot on that year’s That Damn Show at Peoria Sports Complex. I missed his set again that day, but while standing backstage, Chester tapped me on the shoulder, hugged me, and praised me.
It felt genuine, and I could tell he was excited about his future. After the show, he invited me back to the hotel where he and the band were staying. We partied hard, and he made fun of Limp Bizkit and did impersonations of Fred Durst that had everyone in the room laughing their asses off. His sense of humor was off the charts. Linkin Park later toured with Limp Bizkit, and Chester and Fred became friends.
Victims in Ecstacy would eventually fizzle out, while Linkin Park became one of the biggest bands of the 2000s. His success never changed our friendship or how we treated each other. If anything, I was more protective of our relationship and didn’t talk about it much, because it seemed like everyone in Phoenix claimed they knew him at one point or another and always wanted tickets to his shows.
After my band ditched our eyeliner, I got more serious about my interest in music photography. I had dabbled a bit as a senior at Ironwood High School in Glendale, but my photography teacher quickly became frustrated because I’d only turn in assignments that included bands. After a ton of persistence and bugging photo editors at local media outlets, I finally started shooting concerts professionally in 2006.
As much as I loved shooting performances, it was the offstage stuff that really resonated with me. Around this time, Chester started working on projects outside of Linkin Park, including starting a clothing brand called Ve’cel and becoming part owner of Club Tattoo with Sean and Thora Dowdell when the Tempe tattoo and piercing shop expanded to Las Vegas.
I was now a member of the media, but was also someone Chester trusted. After interviewing him backstage before a Club Tattoo anniversary party at Marquee Theatre in Tempe, I asked if I could take a few photos of him sitting on a couch.
“Of course,” he said. I was also the only one granted access to shoot his entire performance with Julien-K, the band that would eventually become his side project, Dead By Sunrise.
Later, during our first scheduled photo shoot, we used an office building break room with a white sheet as a backdrop, which was hardly a studio environment or even remotely close to shoots he was used to. The second part of that shoot was in a piss-stained alley behind Majerle’s Sports Grill in downtown Phoenix (the smell lingers in my head to this day). Fans started identifying me as Chester’s photographer online, and he became the centerpiece of my portfolio. We were both going down new creative paths while maturing as people; we were no longer getting drunk in hotel rooms.
After spending years in Los Angeles, Chester returned to Arizona during the aughts, living in Gilbert with Talinda, his second wife. He began doing charity work for Cardon Children’s Medical Center in Mesa, raising money for patients and improvements at the hospital.
I toured the hospital with Chester as a photographer, watching him meet with children and talking with families that were dealing with situations that no kid should have to deal with. The vibe was often very melancholy, but Chester’s smile when he walked through the door was infectious, and he made others feel at ease.
Over the years he brought music acts like Camp Freddy, Dead by Sunrise, Stone Temple Pilots, and eventually Linkin Park to perform at Stars of the Season, the annual charity concert benefitting local pediatric health care. He raised nearly $1 million over this period of time for both hospitals and patients.
By 2015, Chester had left Arizona again to live in L.A. I interviewed him over the phone in October of that year for Phoenix New Times as Linkin Park prepared to play a Halloween gig in the Valley. Our conversation somehow didn’t feel right.
It was the 15-year anniversary of Hybrid Theory, so I wanted to touch on his legacy and talk about life after music. I first asked him if he still felt a strong tie to Phoenix.
“I always feel tied to Phoenix. I still go to Arizona all the time, and my family is there,” Chester responded.
Then, the conversation got darker in a hurry.
“I will die in the state of Arizona, and I will most likely live out the rest of my life there,” he said.
I was a little shocked by his response, but didn’t dwell on it.
I asked him what he wanted to be remembered for after music. “I don’t really want people to think about me,” he replied, laughing. “Look, I enjoy being in Linkin Park, I enjoy the fact that people love coming out to the shows, they love watching us perform, and they love our music.
“There are lots of perks to being in Linkin Park that I enjoy,” he continued. “People are generally pretty nice to me, so that’s a nice benefit. But outside of that, all I want to do is be a dad and just do good things for my community and for people that I can help out. I don’t want to die a multimillionaire, just growing money. If I’m not doing Linkin Park, then I should just be at home. Just remember the Linkin Park stuff — that’s the only reason anyone’s paying attention, anyways.”
After we got off the phone, it felt like something wasn’t right; Chester didn’t seem like himself.
In November 2016, I made a trip to L.A. after mixing my new band There Is No Us’ new record with famed producer Terry Date. I reached out to Chester, letting him know I was in town. He asked me if I wanted to meet the next morning to join him in the gym for spin class. I told him I didn’t have any workout clothes with me, and he told me just to show up and he would bring everything I needed.
He arrived about 30 minutes late, and I arrived exhausted and out of shape. Chester brought me shoes and shorts, and we made our way inside a private Palos Verdes exercise spot. The room was a glow-in-the-dark cycling class where we couldn’t see each other. I was already over the whole idea of exercising when we finished spinning for half an hour.
Afterward, I went into the bathroom and changed my clothes, thinking we were finished. Apparently, we weren’t. When I came out, he looked at me and said we weren’t done yet. I changed back into my exercise attire, and we did another 30 minutes of workouts with a pack leader guiding us through stretches, yoga, and Pilates. He looked at me and said, “You’re going to hate me tomorrow.”
He was right. I hated what he’d put me through at that point, until he took me took to a CrossFit place and we spent an hour getting our asses kicked by a trainer. As tough as it was, the physical challenges weren’t as demanding as the emotional obstacle course we were about to traverse the rest of the day.
After he opened up to me about where he was in his head, during that November drive along the California coast, I listened to the lyrics of his new record with a numb feeling in my chest. Each chorus and verse sounded like a person reading a diary from the darkest depths of their emotions. I asked him how he was going to be able to explain the things he was talking about on the record since they were so personal.
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It turns out that he’d been crying out emotionally since we played our first show together 16 years earlier, and his pain was there and obvious the whole time. He died a few months after I last saw him.
He might not have been concerned about preserving his legacy, but those who were close to him are. I share the art that we made together as a tribute and a thank you to Chester. He was a part of my story in the beginning, and now he is cemented in my story for life.
“Celebrating the Life of Chester Bennington: A Photo Exhibit by Jim Louvau" Opening Reception. 6:30 to 10 p.m. Friday, June 21, at monOrchid, 214 East Roosevelt Street. Tickets are $35. A portion of the proceeds go to 320 Change Direction, a charity co-founded by Bennington’s wife to bring awareness to mental health.