Friday, March 17, 2017

Chris Buck: Uneasy

Chris Buck, Toronto, Sept. 2016

MY FRIEND CHRIS HAS PUBLISHED A COLLECTION OF HIS PORTRAITS. Uneasy: Portraits 1986-2016 is, as the title states, thirty years of his best portrait work. It came out last month, is huge and very expensive to ship, and might be one of my favorite photo books ever.

Twenty-seven years ago, when he was about to move to New York City from Toronto, I sat down with Chris in the basement of his parents' house in Etobicoke and interviewed him about his career so far, and what he wanted to accomplish with this very big, risky move. Part of that interview has been excerpted on the dust jacket of Uneasy.

A year and a half ago, when he was still working on the book, I sat down with him again for another interview and photo session. Here are the best bits from over an hour of talking about portraits, careers, family, digital photography, money and strippers.

Chris Buck, Etobicoke, 1990

ME: So, looking back, was moving to New York a good decision?

CHRIS: It was probably the most important one I ever made. The most important thing is that it took me out of the environment where I grew up. Being here in Toronto now is very pleasant and very livable but for whatever reason, whatever childhood trauma, leaving was very liberating. Getting away from my peers, my family, as much as I love them, was good for me psychologically. 

It's not that I remade myself in New York. It's that in Toronto, people perceived me the way I was when I was 12 or 14. In New York I could be me at 26, a grownup, having my wits about me and some sense of confidence, a man and not a boy. All these things I didn't feel when I was in Toronto, whether it was the local music scene or my peers from high school or middle school. I would recommend it.

For work opportunities it was the big pond - still is the big pond in most ways. That afforded me opportunities and access that I wouldn't have had here. For one, access to top cultural and entertainment figures for subjects. The magazines - I wanted to work for magazines at the time - that was where all the magazines were. But most importantly in New York I was among the best of the best. It put me in that environment where I had to rise to compete. That was challenging but was really good for me.

George W. Bush by Chris Buck, 1999

ME: You've shot three presidents. (Four, by the time Uneasy finally came out.) Did that help make your reputation as a portrait photographer?

CHRIS: I photographed W first, then his father ten years later, then I did my shot with Obama three years after that, and the shoot with Obama was the turning point in the way you're talking about. W was not president when I shot him, and he was so hated by everyone who mattered in my business that putting him in my portfolio was actually a negative. George HW Bush has become more respected in recent years, and certainly sitting with a sitting president who was as iconic as Obama...Getting him in a way made the other two significant. 

Now I've shot three presidents. With Obama it wasn't just doing a sitting with him as doing a portrait that looked like my work. I was kind of walking on air for six months. The shoot itself was pretty amazing and I'm proud of myself for the way I handled it in, like, four minutes. In many ways it felt like, in the 25 years I was working up till that point, everything I learned was used in that shoot.

Newsweek, portrait of Michele Bachmann by Chris Buck, 2011

ME: I think your portrait of Michele Bachmann was a real game changer for you. It was identifiably your portrait and it became a news story and a social media phenomenon. How much did it affect your career?

CHRIS: Only in retrospect, years later, did that became an iconic cover, and because of that I got seen as a great cover photographer. Six months later I started getting covers. The person on that cover was an A-list person. What had happened to me in the past was I'd be shooting the inside story people, not the A-list people. So what's ended up happening in the last five years ago is that half of the celebrities I shoot are household names - my last shoot was Trump. I did Yo-Yo Ma, Kendrick Lamar. 

I was either shooting people on their way up or their way down. Now I'm shooting people at their peak. One of my wishes was - I said this in an interview I did six or seven years ago - that I wanted to make Chris Buck portraits with A-list people. I don't always achieve it, but I do often enough to make it worthwhile.

The funny thing about that picture that you'll appreciate - a lot of people were criticizing and commenting on the picture, because some people were criticizing me, and others were defending me by saying that I didn't choose the picture, the magazine did. But of course you look at it and say "That's a Chris Buck picture." And the funny thing is that I've handed in a lot of pictures like that over the years - they just don't run!

Nick Offerman by Chris Buck, 2013

ME: Back when we were starting out we used to make fun of the high concept shoots that were done by people like Annie Liebovitz, but I noticed that after you moved to New York your own work started to take on a conceptual edge that I guess it didn't have when we were both poor and inexperienced and just trying to get a good shot. How did that happen?

CHRIS: You're right. There are certain pictures of mine that make me think 'this looks like Annie Liebovitz.' And I think it goes back to our criticism of Liebovitz, which was a kind of literalism. My conceptual pictures, when they were effective, do not have that. They're hinting at something, or they're creating a mood, or there's a prop that's suggesting something contextually. It's not this thing where Bette Midler is lying in a bed of roses, or the Blues Brothers with blue paint on their faces. I think her stuff got better later on, but there is an aspect of a literal narrative, and the complete story is there. I try not to do that. I try to have it more open ended or suggestive. Ideally I like to have some aspect of ambiguity or mystery to it. 

But part of that is the marketplace. I remember doing a meeting at Esquire, and the art director saying to me "We want our own David LaChappelle and maybe you're it. Do you think you can be that guy?" And I don't know what I said, maybe I tried to change the subject, but I didn't say no. I wanted an opportunity, but I wasn't going to embrace something I didn't want to be. LaChappelle to me was the wrong direction for portraiture, all about the show, very garish, bright colours. 

I think that having photo editors wanting to go in that direction - there was something we discussed at the time, but in terms of how I would shoot and edit, and how my editors would choose different images than me, had to do with, we were thinking about what would look good in a photo book, what would look good on your wall. Versus their "what will look good after you turn the page in your magazine." And I think that the LaChappelle images jump off the page. They're dynamic, and people get them. There's a lot of people who are obsessed with platforms like Instagram eroding the value of our profession as photographers, but people like LaChappelle show that that really can't happen

Yes, some Instagram photographers will become more serious photographers because that will be their entryway, but most won't, because they won't set up scenarios, they won't learn lighting. Lighting takes time even if you have a knack for it. I prefer the more simple portraits, even the kind of portraits that I don't do particularly well, like Wolfgang Tillmans' portraits, or Catherine Opie's portraits, that are often just a simple shot of a person in a space by a wall where there's nothing happening, but you know as a photographer that they shot a ton to get to that photo; it feels psychological but there's nothing you can pinpoint that's actually happening. I've done those pictures, but they're very difficult to do.

Robert De Niro, from the Presence series, by Chris Buck

ME: Your Presence series, which you collected in a book, was really important to me because it seemed like a reaction to the way we once used to obsess about getting access to celebrity subjects, and how frustrating it was to deal with managers and handlers and publicists. You were getting that access and then taking pictures where the celebrity was in the shot, but not visible.

CHRIS: It's saying, right, you know what? Fuck you! You're not going to be visible. But it's also, and that's where the title comes from, you've got Robert DeNiro. All you need is the name. You don't need to show him. That picture is instilled with Robert DeNironess, because his name is next to it and there's proof he's there. Their essence makes the picture cool, and that is celebrity portraiture, right? This is a picture of David Lynch. Cool. A lot of my friends who knew my work were like, "this is the ultimate Chris Buck portrait." It's dry, it's witty, it's a celebrity, but you've filtered out the noise; their face is not necessary. Their name and your name is enough.

I'm not a conceptual fine artist. I find work like that, when it's funny and it's inviting, I like conceptual work that is high concept like that. In the way that John Cage's work is - there's a playfulness to what he does.

ME: It's sort of like that book was your 4'33".

CHRIS: Exactly. But I needed to put them in the picture to ground it, which I know is strange. Putting them in there and then showing proof was a way of saying this isn't just a concept, this is actually a thing. This is real.

Billy Joel by Chris Buck, 2001

ME: What's the default you go to when you get a portrait assignment? What would you do, knowing that you'd deliver something, no matter what? What's the common thread linking all your photos?

CHRIS: Usually there's some kind of prop, there's some vague sense of awkwardness and an off moment. I wouldn't say it's an in-between moment. It's a real moment, but it's a kind of awkward moment - that's where I go. And it usually involves interacting with a physical space or an object. I use that to get people to come along on this ride with me, to get into the role. It gives them something to bounce off. It helps them move from "Oh, I'm having my picture taken."

A lot of getting that unusual picture is kind of believing in it and wanting it, and being ready, suspending disbelief for yourself first. Of course, more than half the time they'll say no, but if you try all the time you'll get those pictures.

Chris Buck, Toronto, Sept. 2016

ME: What's next for you? After the book, what are you really excited about doing next?

CHRIS: You always feel like, as much as you're proud of things you've done as you get older - and you forget how you failed - you have to feel like what you could do next is going to be the best thing that you do. What makes me excited about the Gentlemen's Club series (a series of portraits of the husbands and boyfriends of strippers) is that it's such a good idea. When I was first talking about it, people were really confused by it: Stripper's boyfriends? Why stripper's boyfriends. But then I asked them if they wanted to see some of them, and they said yeah - who are these guys? I wanna see! 

There's so many things about them that are interesting, but the more I'm doing it the more I'm seeing the self-portrait aspect, seeing how much I'm connecting to them that I didn't really know initially. And how much I'm liking them. And how much they're self-portraits again. I was thinking the other day - "Fuck! Self portraits again!"

ME: Why is that a problem?

CHRIS: I was curious about someone I don't know that's two steps removed from a world I might be in. I might go to a strip club and watch a girl dance, but I'm not going to be friends or be social with this dancer. I'll have a professional interaction but I'm not going to go past that. Secondly, their romantic partner, I'm not going to have a connection with them. I'm getting close to what I want (with the series) but I'm not there yet. If I can make my best portraits ever with this series, then this could be the most important work I do. They're not celebrities. I realized when I was doing the (Hewlett Packard ad) series, if you can do a strong image that's not a celebrity, it has more power than a great picture of a celebrity.

If you can make a picture that has universal appeal that doesn't rely on that, you're moving into the area of a W. Eugene Smith. Something iconic. This is a photograph for the ages. This is a photograph that will be powerful. And if I can make a picture of this guy and not tell you what the context is, and you say "This is a weird picture. This is cool. Who is this guy?" If I can do that, I've hit the mark.

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