Having made his reputation on how he shoots celebrities, it’s not surprising when asked by Esquire for a self portrait, Buck, not content to sport almost two grand of Dolce & Gabbana, gave himself (with the help of makeup artist Jason Paulson) a black eye for the shot. “It’s sort of reflective of my work, though—a little weird sometimes and interested in personality above all else,” he says in the accompanying caption to the opener for “Me, Myself and I.”
The late director Russ Meyer was often pictured flanked by the pulchritudinous mounds of flesh he celebrated in films like Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Supervixens. In Buck’s diptych portrait, he smiles at the camera in one frame, before dropping his head toward a cake shaped like breasts in the next. Whether it’s Adam West about to slip the Batman mask over his aging face, or a shirtless Ozzy Osbourne, looking surprisingly glamorous, it’s fair to say that many of Mr. Buck’s subjects find themselves shown in a different light. Natural light, if possible.
A slight, energetic man, with cropped hair and an intense gaze, Buck reveals a dry sense of humor. He has a slightly raspy voice that shifts a bit in pitch and speed when he warms to a subject. Unlike many photographers, who prefer their work to speak for them, he speaks of his work and his creative philosophy with great insight and interest. In fact, he enjoys interviewing other photographers and has several interviews posted on his Web site (www.chrisbuck.com), under the heading “interviews & other links” in the Everything Else section.
He does know how to turn a phrase. Witness this description from his online bio: “Born in 1964, in the week that A Hard Day’s Night topped the charts, he grew up playing hockey, board games and lots of hide and seek with the neighborhood kids. His father worked for Kodak so he decided to go into the family business and become a photographer. His first photographs were of buffalo. The mammal, not the city.”
Buck studied photography at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (1983–1987) in his hometown of Toronto, Canada, working with legendary street photographer Dave Heath (A Dialogue With Solitude, 1965) in his final year.
He got his career rolling with assignments for Canadian music publications Nerve and Graffiti before moving to New York in 1990. Several years ago his long-time agent, Julian Richards, began to get commercial assignments for him. One, a large job for a Hewlett-Packard photo library in progress, he almost turned down. Richards advised him, “Just pretend they’re celebrities. Just put that same hat on and work with these people.” Buck accepted the challenge and found himself pleased with the results.
For three years in a row, he shot portraits over a two week span for HP. It opened up a whole new area he hadn’t previously explored. “I really got excited about shooting more regular people and their stories,” he remembers. “I started taking on jobs, editorially and commercially, that I wouldn’t really have thought about before.
“There’s a great power about celebrities and the way we connect to them as a culture, and obviously as individuals,” Buck explains. “There’s something different and equally powerful about portraits of just regular people in that they are inherently universal because you’re not bringing the baggage of it being George Clooney or whoever. If you make a portrait of someone that people can connect to…in a way you’re creating the persona for them right there, rather than using their existing persona and giving it a twist, or a different spin.
“I do photograph real people somewhat differently than I do celebrities. I still bring the same sense of interest in certain aspects of people—their quirkiness and humor and sort of strange absurdness. I kind of brought those into photographing the real people…I guess a bit more gently,” he adds.
Since that watershed project, Buck has enjoyed working on concept or idea-oriented photographs that have nothing to do with celebrities. “It expanded a whole new area for me, like shooting a car in suburbia,” he says. “I don’t think of it as being that different than the other things I used to do. It’s not using people, but bringing almost, a different kind of life to objects.”
Looking about the neat lower Chinatown apartment he shares with his wife Michelle Golden and cats Moragg and Sunshine, you can see the humor and the clever design sense he brings to his work, in his choice of art and furniture. In the living room, there are shelves of art and photography books. The atmosphere is soothing: leaf wallpaper in blue and brown, with blue-gray walls, a Mies van der Rohe daybed and a large framed portrait of Mao—he likes communist art, not the politics—from a visit to China. A portrait of Johnny Thunders, guitarist for the punk/glitter band the New York Dolls stares out from a frame, it is one of the few photographs on display (and the only one shot by him). His inhouse studio, in what would normally be a dining room, is very neat with floor-to-ceiling bookcases full of boxes organized by photographic format, two computers, a busy phone and intern, Allison Green, from Pratt Institute.
As if jetting around the world on shoots for clients like Citibank, Hitachi, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Goldman Sachs, weren’t adventurous enough, Buck enjoys playing street hockey, a dangerous-sounding sport where hockey is played office, on asphalt in street shoes. Last year he broke his ankle—not playing hockey, but running for a cab. “I didn’t get the taxi, I got an ambulance,” he relates, with a wry grin. He made a portrait of Donald Trump while on crutches. Trump gave him valuable advice for photographing celebrities; he said to Buck, “Make this quick, I have many important people waiting for me.”
Buck’s work is seen in publications ranging from Esquire, Outside, Blender and Q to Flaunt, Premiere and The New York Times Magazine. “I think of it as three different areas I’m working in now,” he says, speaking faster, “celebrity portraits, real-people portraits and more idea-oriented pictures. And then, of course what happens is you end up with stuff like this (he points to a photograph in his portfolio of a man who made a robot head whose face he based on his girlfriend) where they all cross over.” He seems to enjoy the preparation as much as he does the actual shoot. “Sometimes I just know who someone is. If I’m shooting Brian Wilson, I don’t really need to do research. Although,” he says, immediately contradicting himself, “we did a lot of research [for that shoot]. I really wanted to get a great shot. I knew of a cool film documentary called I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, so I went out and bought it. That was great, because it was shot less than ten years ago and I got to see how he carries himself now. I wanted to see what he was like, how he moves, what he’s interested in.
“I try to find first person Q & A’s. If you get Q & A’s that are long enough, people will mention things that interest them. I try to find something visual in there that I can use for the photograph. If they’re a movie person, I’ll rent a couple of movies that I think will be good. Two things are important to me in doing research: one is minutia, two is I like to be positive. I say that because, for example, if I am going to be photographing an actor, I want to go out and try and rent movies they’ve done that I think I’m going to like. I don’t really want to go rent a movie that may happen to be their latest, but I think it’s going to be kind of awful. Not because I necessarily want to like them, but I want to think they’re important. If I think they’re important, I’m going to work harder and do better pictures.”
Worth is key to his approach: Buck must find value in what his subject does. “I think that’s where a lot of my instinct in doing portraits is in the first place, the perception of people being very important. The last thing you want is if someone becomes super huge or a legend and you did a half-ass shoot with them because you wanted to get home and do the laundry! It can happen, there are times when I am on shoots and I’m very busy with juggling lots of things and I have to turn off my cell phone and just get in the moment and find the great shot.”
In this age of celebrity news 24/7, we beguile ourselves into thinking we know these people who feature so prominently in our lives through the media; these distorted role models with their entourages and excesses. But for Buck, celebrity is more than gossip or envious musings, it’s his livelihood and his creative focus. It’s clear he has thought a great deal about how best to approach this aspect of his work.
“People have pointed out that oftentimes my pictures of celebrities don’t look like the iconic view of them,” he says. “I think I instinctively move away from that. I’m kind of the anti-iconic photographer.
“There’s a reason why every magazine cover has a big face on it. As human beings we’re really drawn to that empathy, sexual attraction, identification—there’s just something so powerful about the human face that’s amazing.
“I hope to make portraits that are a little more serious than what magazines often want from photographers. I don’t shoot a lot of the very biggest celebrities, typically because my work is not usually about glamour. It’s about something else. And that’s not to say that my work is unflattering, because I don’t think it is. It’s not super flattering. It’s not about elevating the star to that higher pinnacle. It’s about something more emotional,” he concludes.
Chris Buck continues to ponder the meaning and draw of celebrity, dividing his time between New York and Los Angeles, places with their own constellations of stars. And he is editing images for his first monograph. The working title, “Take a Picture…It Lasts Longer” couldn’t be more apt for this photographer, whose pictures will, no doubt, be around far longer than many of his subjects. ca