“Every Chris Buck photo is a mystery, a pervading, off-putting idea, always conceptual, often visceral, and sometimes unfathomable.”
Not our words, rather those of George Lois (Esquire Art Director, 1962-1972), but we’re happy to borrow sound bites when they so eloquently capture the essence of pas Life Framer judge Chris Buck’s utterly original portraiture style. Simon Cowell clutching a rabbit, Steve Martin with baguettes for fingers, Billy Bob Thornton urinating on a roll of wallpaper… To try to do any of his images justice in words is a fruitless task when each shot oozes such distinct personality, sharp technique and wit. Chris really is unparalleled in this field.
We put some questions to him, in an effort to get beneath the skin of a true creative.
You’re best known for your celebrity portraits. Can you give us an idea of how that came about? Did you get a big ‘break’? Did you always intend to focus on portraiture?
I went to school for photography, but I was actually much more interested in popular culture at the time and that’s where my heart was. As a young person you’ll have some voices around you telling you to pursue what you love, and not necessarily what’s practical, and I was very much into music – reading the NME, seeing bands like The Smiths… I was involved with a local music paper in Toronto as a photographer and photo editor (for Nerve). I managed a band for a while. Released local and international bands so I was really involved in the music world but the fact was I had no talent for making music itself. Ultimately I wanted to be involved in the creative side of whatever I did and so I decided to throw my weight behind shooting musicians and bands. That’s how I ended up being a photographer.
Your portraits are always inventive and unexpected. Do you go in to a shoot armed with concepts, or are ideas generated spontaneously during the shoot?
I certainly go in with lots of ideas. Some are complicated, involving props and costumes, and some are more simple; a gesture or a facial expression. I bring a whole range because you don’t know how game people are going to be, or whether the ideas will work with them. I try lots of things, and edit later to see what worked.
I like to be very prepared, but I also try to be very open to what might happen on the shoot. Subjects might give you an expression in the moment, but rarely do they have ideas, and the ones they do are usually bad ideas! You learn to not have any expectations of your subjects. I initially found it frustrating that subjects bring so little to the sittings but now I appreciate that I’m really in charge.
Of course on advertising shoots I’m working with a team from an ad agency, and they become my creative partners – which I love, because these people are usually so inspired and ambitious!
“Every magazine shoot can feel like a mystery, and a bit scary, almost like starting from scratch”.
Now that you reputation for unique images precedes you, do you feel a pressure to make the next image quirkier and more surprising than the last?
I’m proud of a lot of the work I’ve done but it’s not like I’m sitting back letting my reputation proceed me. Most of my subjects won’t know my work so they don’t have expectations either.
Every magazine shoot can feel like a mystery, and a bit scary, almost like starting from scratch. I never know exactly what’s going to happen, and it’s always a little chaotic – and magical.
Is there anyone who has stood out as being a joy to work with? Or conversely really challenging?
I’m often working with these entertaining people, but really I’m just trying to get one or two great photos. That’s my aim. People will ask, ‘Was it fun?’ and I’m like ‘no! It wasn’t fun!’
It was work…
Right! I like to say that “if you’re having fun you’re not doing it right.” It’s stressful and for the first three quarters at least I’m just working to make it come together. I might look relaxed, and I’m glad it comes across that way, but really I’m just pushing to get a unique image.
That said I get on well with the comedians, people like Andy Samberg and Steve Coogan. I’m not trying to do a cheesy picture with them and they know it, and relax and have a nicer time. I photographed Steve Coogan just before my daughter was born, and he has a daughter, so we ended up talking about that, and it was enjoyable to chat about being a father.
Is there anyone you’d love to photograph? Perhaps bands, harking back to your career beginnings?
I’m a fan of the Black Keys so I’d like to shoot with them. And then there are the obvious people I’ve not got to yet; Vladimir Putin, Madonna. Rob Ford (Mayor of Toronto) is famously contrary and there’s allegedly video footage of him buying crack so he could be fun to make a portrait with!
What makes a good portrait a great one?
Some vulnerability or openness. Even a damaged quality coming through from the subject. To me that’s what makes a great portrait.
And finally, do you have any advice for our audience of aspiring professional photographers?
I’m going to give a pretty hardcore suggestion that may not suit everyone’s taste, but I think that it is actually solid advice.
I believe that it’s more valuable to be kicking against things than be inspired by them. A lot of young photographers will see shooters they admire, and they’ll try to make work in that fashion. If you see work out there in the genre that you work in and say ‘I think this photographer’s wonderful, I’m going to make pictures just like that’ it’s going to take you a long time to carve your own style and to have a vision that’s separate from people you’re influenced by. But if you look at work out there and say ‘these people are getting it all wrong. I’m going to show them how to get it right!’ you’re more likely to push out into fresh territory.
The fact is, it’s a competitive business, there’s a lot of good people, and to differentiate yourself and have the fortitude and patience, and maybe anger. Anger can be an amazing catalyst to success.