Written by Zack Seckler
Edited by Joann Jovinelly
In the world of celebrity portraiture photography, where looking like plastic perfection has become the norm, photographer Chris Buck stands a world apart. Complicated lighting and retouching aren’t the tools of his trade, it’s the grey matter between his ears.
If you aren’t already familiar with the name, try looking through many major magazines, he seems to be everywhere these days. GQ, Esquire and The New York Times Magazine are but a few of his major editorial clients and in 2007 he was the first recipient of the Arnold Newman Portrait Prize.
Buck’s clever and often humorous approach to portraiture puts subjects in situations that are at once entertaining and revealing. Concepts that oscillate between the tame – Tina Fey balancing on a stool – to mischievous – Billy Bob Thornton urinating on a photo set. Whatever it may be, there is always a sense of sophisticated wit in Buck’s imagery. His style is a breath of fresh air; one that would be nice to see more of in the genre.
I interviewed Buck a few months ago at his apartment in New York. Our conversation first focused on our featured image: Buck’s portrait of the Vice Magazine founders and editors he shot for Wired Magazine (check out the behind-the-scenes video). We then discussed a variety of other interesting topics: how he generates ideas, the psychology behind his photography, dealing with celebrities and their publicists and a few tips for budding photographers.
Seckler: Tell me about the concept for our featured image, your portrait of the Vice Magazine founders and editors you shot for Wired Magazine (above).
Buck: I write notes before any shoot. Sometimes ideas are connected to specific shoots. Others are ideas for photographs that I didn’t shoot, but that I am still interested in shooting. First I decide what I would I do with my subjects if I could do anything. A lot of those ideas are extreme. Most are visual and straightforward, but some are ridiculous. I have learned through experience to prepare a variety of ideas for every shoot, especially one that has the potential to be outrageous. You never know how things are going to go. I could be half way through a shoot and realize that my subject is willing to do anything. I try to be prepared.
Seckler: Let’s talk about the situation during the shoot. Which ideas worked and which didn’t?
Buck: The assignment was for Wired magazine, but I took the shoot because it was the Vice guys [Eddy Moretti, Shane Smith, and Suroosh Alvi]. I love Vice magazine; I love their attitude. I thought it would be fun to see if I could do something genuinely interesting and surprising, but when I talked to their PR people, they wouldn’t go for most of what I’d had in mind.
Seckler: What were the ideas they rejected?
Buck: I wanted one person to drop his pants in public while holding a video camera or all three men to pose nude while holding various pieces of meat in front of their bits [private parts]. Another idea was to pose them behind a wall with three glory holes and each man’s penis poking through each hole, which would have been awesome.
Seckler: What did they approve?
Buck: We shot with a baby. It was very straightforward. The men were photographed as a parent’s hand reached for the baby that one man on the end kissed. Basically, I thought, how can they say no to kissing a baby?
Seckler: Did you already have the baby on set?
Buck: Yes, they had agreed to it. We did four different shots. One was in the office in Greenpoint [Brooklyn]. The second was with the baby, which took the most time. We did another in a Chinese restaurant where the men are holding an actual MK-47 that we rented.
Seckler: Did you do all the prep work yourself or did you have a producer?
Buck: For magazine shoots, I generally do all the prep. Very few magazines will pay for a producer or a prop stylist.
Seckler: Tell me about the technical process.
Buck: I set up a backdrop so I could see part of the space, but much of it was blocked. Beautiful light was coming in through a skylight and I realized that I had to move the strobe because the baby was moving, as babies will, and that was blurring the shot. So, I moved the strobe and stopped shooting for 20 minutes. If you watch the video you will see that it’s inter cut between the shots with strobe and the shots with available light.
Seckler: So you first shot using only ambient light and then you brought in strobes?
Buck: Yeah, we brought in three Profoto 7A packs and three heads.
Seckler: To replicate that image?
Buck: Yes, we had one strobe over the camera that acted just as fill light. We had one strobe bouncing off the floor, like a soft box bounce or ambient light. And then we put one strobe behind the backdrop where the skylight was to reproduce a bit of a glow on the backdrop—a kind of flare—and we reproduced that.
Seckler: Why did you decide to reproduce ambient light?
Buck: I wouldn’t normally bounce light off a floor, but it looked good. I know my strobe is going to give me something I like if it looks good in the natural light. As a photographer you are influenced by the moment as much as you are interpreting any broader vision. I knew that the light would look good on film.
Seckler: And did you shoot film? What camera did you use?
Buck: I used Kodak Portrait NC 120 size film in a Mamia RZ 67. The film is 400 ISO, but I shot it at 200 ISO. I will use available light whenever I can. I’m not anti-technical, but I am not that interested in technique. I am interested only in how the picture looks. Knowing technical stuff is important. A good idea isn’t good enough. It must be implemented so the viewer can see what you want him or her to see.
Seckler: How did you first get involved with photography?
Buck: I studied photography in college, but I was more interested in music at that time, so I worked at a music paper as an editor and photographer. Before my final year of school I got serious; I decided to put everything aside and focus only on photography. Because I was already shooting for a publication during college, it became the road I took as an editorial photographer.
Seckler: So you got a few editorial jobs while you were still in college?
Buck: I was a photo editor for a music paper for a year and a half and I shot a lot of photographs for it. Most of the assignments were terrible. My execution wasn’t always bad; often it was because I was just starting out. Most of the better pictures I shot were self-assigned; I often photographed musicians who were coming through Toronto.
Once I finished school, I asked my professor if I should assist. He said, ‘No, that would be a step backwards. You are already shooting; you are already being published. Why you would work for someone else when you’re already working yourself?’ It was great advice. I never had to make the difficult transition from assistant to photographer, which I understand is tough financially and psychologically. However, I can see the value of assisting experienced photographers—it did take me longer to learn technique. It took me 12 to 15 years to learn how to light any situation well.
On the upside, I was building professional chops early in my career. Even when I was getting my first ad jobs, I had so much experience that I wasn’t intimidated by big budgets. I have 20 years of shooting experience going back to the 1980s.
I see both my assistants making the transition to being photographers, so you can learn from assisting and make useful contacts. Most people never use those contacts. If you assist more than two or three years, you probably don’t have what it takes to use those contacts. Most people who have assisted me haven’t asked me for contacts.
Seckler: Really? That’s interesting.
Buck: The people who typically ask for contacts are random people or interns who get serious about shooting. People who assist don’t realize that it often takes years to get regular work. Also, you’ll want to shoot for a couple of years for the experience. That is another two years. If you are really organized, you might work another year to transition from assisting to shooting. That’s a minimum of four years. For some people, the transition takes longer. Transitioning into shooting in your early thirties is much harder.
Seckler: What do you recommend for someone who is just finishing college?
Buck: I think that interning is far more effective than assisting. You can get many of the same experiences. Being an intern is very modest work, but if you are helping someone who is generous, you can ask questions and show that person your work. You can also take assignments; I give assignments to my interns.
Seckler: What do you mean?
Buck: I look at their work and give them tough assignments that challenge their abilities. If you are an intern for one year—with two different people for two or three months each—you can get as much experience as you would assisting over several years in a fraction of that time.
Seckler: Among the reasons why you’re a great photographer are your ideas. Tell me about your creative process.
Buck: My ideas usually come from discussions with clients. What is the angle of the article? What is the client promoting? I research; I really throw myself into it. I go and scout locations. Today I went to Martha Stewart’s studio to see the physical location. That does two things: First, I actually get to see where I’m shooting, and two, it immerses me in the shoot. After I left her studio I immediately developed ideas. I also research the person’s life and interests so when I am on set I can say, ‘Hey I read that you are interested in such and such…’ and even having that kind of banter is helpful. It may not affect an individual picture, but it might positively affect the relationship and they might just be more giving during the shoot.
Seckler: What research had you done for the Vice shoot?
Buck: I read a lot of interviews. Since Vice is centered on the idea of political incorrectness, a lot of my ideas came from that mindset, too. In a way, I knew they wouldn’t go for the more outrageous ideas because the point of the article was that the founders of the magazine are changing their image and being taken more seriously. I did first go by their offices to look around. In general, I like to come up with ideas that go against the grain, ideas that piss people off.
Seckler: Do you mean your audience, the publicist, or the subject?
Buck: I mean everyone. I mean whatever I can get away with. Even using the baby, for example. The baby was cute and I knew there were dangers in that because Wired might say, ‘We’re not shooting with a baby. This is Wired magazine, and we don’t do babies.’ I knew they might reject it. But I also knew that if I did it right, if I did it dry enough, it may be really interesting. I knew that the transgressive, and even sinister, Vice persona would come through if I just let them the three of them look serious and have the baby look almost actively cute. And the baby’s expression worked out great because he looks so cute and googly eyed.
Seckler: What is your motivation for being provocative?
Buck: I have respect for the people I photograph. I think I successfully strike a balance between reflecting who the person is exactly and my own ideas about life. It’s an exercise in subtly and sophistication. It’s like my photo of Gary Oldman with red all over his face. It looks like he ate a person; it’s cannibalistic, but it is actually from him sticking his face in a pie. It was shot very cleanly. He’s not making a crazy face—it’s a straightforward expression—but it looks violent at the same time. That image is a perfect example of what I’m trying to do in my work. I love sexual imagery, too. I like exploring ideas about violence, but it’s very difficult to get those ideas into a photograph and have it look smart and sophisticated at the same time.
Seckler: What are you trying to tell people in your work?
Buck: I am an individualist. When I first started out, I ignored publicists and did whatever I wanted. That got me in trouble, so now I am respectful to publicists; I make them part of the process. On the surface I am much more agreeable, but I still like to go against the grain. I control things in small ways. I influence the current of ideas, which sometimes leads to sexual or violent references that I would rather explore in my work then in my life.
Seckler: How do you build relationships with your subjects?
Buck: Pete Weintz from the band Fallout Boy said that I knew more about him then half the people who have interviewed him. When I photographed the band Interpol, they said that I knew their names better then most people at their record company. And I think people respond to that respect. Pete Weintz got naked for me because I made him comfortable. He dropped his inhibitions.
Seckler: How do you relate to your subjects? Do you try one idea first and then push the envelope a bit more?
Buck: I am very careful about how I roll out ideas. Sometimes I share them, or if it just involves a simple prop, I will bring it along and spring it on everyone. I am friendly, but careful about how much I interact with people.
Essentially, I am a director. In a way, a portrait with a celebrity is like a medium-level director dealing with a huge star. Even though the director is running the ship creatively, if the celebrity is a bigger star then he or she can control what happens. As the director, I often photograph people who have much more power then I do. They can influence the shoot. I have to be careful about how they perceive me; I have to maintain control.
Seckler: Let’s say the client agrees to do what you want. How do you direct the shoot?
Buck: I work in a general way. As we shoot, I may get more specific in my direction, but if I am general, then they might give me something that I wouldn’t have expected or requested. Sometimes I will literally just say, ‘Do something’ and they will do something that I never even thought about. People have done crazy things when I said ‘Do something.’
Seckler: Like the portrait of Billy Bob Thornton…
Buck: …where he’s peeing? That was totally decided ahead of time. I keep a running list of ideas. Basically I had that idea while I was on set. My best ideas often come when I am shooting. For instance, I was excited for the Vice shoot, so I bet I will use those ideas later. And that Billy Bob portrait was exactly that: I had been shooting a businessman a few years earlier in a field—and I can’t remember if he took a pee in the woods or if I just thought of pee in the background—but I thought it would be interesting because it would change the color of the backdrop. It is a perfect union of vulgarity and beauty. The change in the color of the backdrop makes a subtle visual statement.
Seckler: What are the qualities of a great portrait?
Buck: A great portrait must have vulnerability. If there is no vulnerability, I don’t find it interesting.
Seckler: Why do you think vulnerability is essential?
Buck: Vulnerability draws you in. It’s just like a person who is humble—they make you curious about what they are going to reveal.
Seckler: What do you specifically try to capture?
Buck: I try to capture conflict in my images. I don’t think that’s unusual for a photographer. If your subject is known for one thing, I try to get ideas in there that are the opposite of what the audience expects.
Seckler: Why opposing ideas?
Buck: It’s like the baby in the Vice shoot. My subjects were known for being provocative. Babies are innocent. Vice is exactly the opposite of innocence. Once I had the idea, the execution was about trying to make the photograph feel like a real moment.
Seckler: How do you define your shooting method?
Buck: I have a dry sense of humour. There are also ways in which I frame my subjects that are repeated. My style developed slowly. Later I realized that not having such a distinctive style served me well.
Seckler: What does your work reveal about you? Are you violent or self-destructive?
Buck: I have a self-destructive streak. At a certain point in my career I had to learn not be self-destructive. I did things that hurt my chances of success, or I wouldn’t do things that would help me as a way to undercut myself. I had to overtly choose to be successful.
Seckler: Is most of your work editorial or do you do a lot of advertising?
Buck: In the last few years I have shifted toward advertising. In terms of days of shooting it might be still two-thirds editorial, but my advertising work is substantial.
Seckler: Why did it take you longer to get regular advertising jobs?
Buck: My interests were largely editorial. I came to advertising only after having success as an editorial photographer.
Seckler: Why hadn’t you approached more potential clients?
Buck: If I could do one thing differently, it would be to [go back in time and] think seriously about advertising earlier in my career.
Seckler: Isn’t advertising more rigid then editorial? Does that lack of flexibility conflicted with your style?
Buck: Advertising is more specific, but I tend to get hired for shoots I’m appropriate for. Advertising has got to look good in any [lighting] condition, so you have to ace it. It is more fun to shoot advertising because it is technical, but they want my style, so I have to retain a sense of self. I am very much a vital part of the process; I am very vocal about who I want and the locations where we shoot.
Seckler: What appeals to you about photographing people?
Buck: The human face is interesting. People are interested in faces and body language. In a way, making images is my way of connecting with people.
Seckler: How would you shoot your own self-portrait?
Buck: I did a self-portrait for Esquire where I photographed myself with a black eye. It was violent. I also did another with a stuffed toy elephant coming out of my fly, which was sexual. An earlier self-portrait showed me nude—so there you go, sex and violence.