T his is the second in the series of interviews in which a photographer chooses another photographer to interview. When Shaun Fenn was interviewing Joao Canziani, he asked Joao if he wanted to carry this forward and to interview someone himself. Joao, being the supremely nice and engaged photographer that he is, jumped at the chance and suggested he interview Chris Buck. Over lunch and an ensuing few weeks of editing, they talked in-depth about the heart of Chris’ inimitable style, shooting and publishing Presence and the very unique ways in which he finds inspiration. All while retaining the feeling of being at the table with them. I appreciate so much their time and efforts in contributing to this series with such an in-depth, thoughtful and personal interview. I’ll let Joao take it from here. Big thank you (I mean high five) to both.
Meet Mr Chris Buck, like I did one day over lunch. Two salient aspects about him: raspy voice and tall. It was that raspy voice that intrigued me: mysterious, and to me at least, mischievous. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that his pictures have these same qualities.
I’ve known and admired Chris’ work for many years now. I was always so curious as to how he came up with such smart and irreverent pictures. Then one day I had the chance to pick his brain. After being interviewed by SF-based photographer Shaun Fenn for POP Foto, Shaun asked if I could interview someone in return, and so he suggested Chris. How could I refuse?
Chris Buck is an advertising and editorial photographer based in NYC. He hails from Toronto, Canada, and has not forgotten his roots by playing street hockey once a week. He is currently exhibiting his new portrait project Presence at the Foley Gallery in the Lower East Side, New York, from January 16 to February 24, 2013. Presence has also been published as a hard cover book by Kehrer-Verlag. Chris is now being represented by the Apostrophe Agency.
Can you tell me a little bit about your childhood? You grew up in Toronto, correct? Were you into hockey, or any other sports?
I was very bad at all sports. I remember one year in hockey, I was the second worst scorer of the league. I stopped doing sports at a certain point because there was just no point.
How did you get started in photography?
My high school was not particularly arts oriented; it was more academic, which was actually good because I ended up going to photo school later, for college.
I remember one class in high school called “Mass Media,” in which we had to make our own magazines, make a TV ad, make print ads, do a lecture about something. And photography was one of the things we did. We had to get a real camera and shoot a roll of 35mm – not snap shots, but real film. And I did it, and my pictures were pretty good.
What did you shoot for that assignment?
It was black and white portraits and some street stuff. Just one roll of film. That was the assignment. I did a portrait of one of my best friends, and it was really good. I thought, “Oh, wow. I actually have a natural aptitude for this.” Later on I joined the camera club at school and I shot for the yearbook and things like that. And that’s how I learned about photography. That was when I was seventeen.
But up until my final year in college I was mostly interested in the music world. I managed a band, I worked for a music paper as a photo editor, and I released compilations of local and international bands. I was really more interested in that; I thought I was going to be in the music business. But I was not the musician, so I realized, well, I only have so much influence on the creativity and the music itself. Whereas in photography, I’d go out and do a shoot and if it was not successful, I could go back, make some changes, and maybe next time it would be successful. I could control things, and move forward of my own steam. That was a really big deal and one of the primary reasons I decided to be a photographer.
What made you decide to move to New York?
When I graduated from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, just for fun, a friend and I came on a trip to New York. I brought my portfolio and showed it around, and it got some surprisingly really nice responses. I remember being in my second meeting, at a pop culture magazine and the guy said, “Hey, Joe, come over here. This guy is actually good.” And it really stuck with me.
I went to Esquire, Spin, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and a lot of smaller ones like Star Hits. It was just a very good experience and people were positive and encouraging.
I went back and I talked to my professor and mentor Dave Heath. He had been a street photographer in New York in the late 50s and early 60s. I said, “After the positive feedback of this trip I’m actually thinking maybe I should move there. So, I’m going to stay in Toronto for a while, build some kind of career and then take that momentum to New York.” “That’s a really bad idea,” he told me. “You do that, and you’ll spend ten years working in Toronto, then you’ll just to go to New York and start at the bottom anyway.”
From those very first portfolio meetings, is there anything you ended up recognizing in your own work? Do you think that these photo editors recognized something unique in your work?
This was the 80’s, pushing to early 90’s – still that time where people are doing heavy lighting, like shooting against the sky with a heavy warming filter – very lit looking. Yet my pictures were often black and white, shot with available light; they’re more intimate. They were more my personal style, like picking odd moments where people look a little weird or something. I think those kinds of things. I was more interested in grace and oddness and vulnerability than I was in a heroic picture. And that was when the heroic portrait was at its peak. My style was more personal versus being kind of glamorous or dynamic. So making a picture of a celebrity felt more like a personal moment.
But don’t misunderstand, I did not get that much work. My early clients were mostly very small clients, like the Village Voice or Guitar World.
How did this sort of wonderful wicked sense of humor in your pictures develop? Did this humor always exist in you?
I never really intended on making pictures that had wit or humor in them. I wasn’t against it, but my interest always was – and to some extent still is – to make a picture that has some element of intrigue and vulnerability.
I do prefer pictures that are darker in their esthetic, not just visually, but also in terms of the mood or the attitude. So that’s really what my intention was, but like anyone, I can’t help but put who I am into my work.
Yes. I hate this word, ‘sophisticated,’ but it’s kind of a developed humor. It’s not something like hit-you-in-the-head obvious; you’re actually, shall we say, respecting your audience that they have brains.
I think that it works well in photography, as you said, than the banging-on-the-head because photographs, work because you can live with them and you can spend time with them. When you look at a picture and you get a joke right away, and you go, “Ha! Ha! Ha!” then that’s it, it’s done.
Or you don’t get it at first.
Yes, exactly. Or you think, “Is that meant to be funny or not?” And you can’t tell.
I think the Presence project is a bit like that, too, where some people think it’s funny, some people think it’s serious, some people don’t connect to it at all. And that’s all good.
With Presence, I have to admit that I first found the concept wasn’t going to work, or perhaps I didn’t completely understand it. But, you pulled it off and I really admire people like yourself that have the courage to go through with it. Did you have ever have doubts? If so, what made you persevere?
On some level, I recognize that each image is kind of a slim offering as you don’t get to see the person and some of the pictures are dynamic, but a lot of them are pretty quiet. But I thought the overall concept was interesting and I believed that some people would get into it, and the ones who did would really love it. That, I never doubted. I did have doubts in practical ways because it took me a couple of years to get a publisher, and I approached a couple dozen publishers before I finally got one. It was published by Kehrer Verlag, out of Heidelberg, Germany.
They’re a great publisher.
Yeah, it’s a great publisher and I’m just happy it’s with a real publisher, I don’t care what people say. Self-published books are not the same, you know? Having a book with a publisher, especially with a project this weird, it really validates it. People look at it differently.
How did you approach the sitters? Say you were shooting Robert De Niro, and then you asked him to do a Presence shot – what did you say to him?
Well, once I had a mock up, it was a lot easier because as I’m describing it, I’m showing the mock up, including examples of previous shoots.
For example, with Anthony Bourdain, I said, “I’m doing this project, it’s pictures of celebrities,” He replied, “Yeah, yeah, whatever.” He’s, like, “Whatever, sure, as long as it doesn’t take long.” That was the typical response.
And, you know, that was fine. I didn’t need them to care deeply, I just needed them to do it.
But some people were really into it, like Rainn Wilson, from The Office. We did a cover shoot for New York Magazine, and then we shot him for Presence – and his shot was quite elaborate, actually. Literally just outside the studio in Los Angeles; he said, “We do some business, we make some art.” I thought that was very sweet.
Let’s talk a little about concepts. I find it challenging at times coming up with concepts for shoots. Or having that fear that one’s going to run out of ideas. Do you ever worry about that?
Well, first of all, I think we’re so lucky to be doing a job in which your chore is to come up with interesting, creative ideas. Whenever I’m tired or wondering what I can come up with, I express appreciation to God that this is my job. If my burden is to come up with cool ideas, then wow, that is the great problem to have.
It’s a great blessing to have.
So first it’s appreciation, and then one thing I do that helps me get in the zone is I do research on people. Even if I know who they are already, I’ll find interviews with them, maybe some YouTube footage of them talking, and I want to learn about them. I’m learning, but I’m also getting in their head.
I’m also finding out little things about them that might give me an idea. When I did the shoot with Simon Cowell for GQ Magazine, I thought, “What am I going to do with him? He’s going to be so difficult.” I was reading something about him doing charity work for an animal rights organization and it jumped out at me. What would be the most surprising animal to have him with? A little bunny rabbit.
When we approached his people and suggested this they said, “Only simple portraits.” Literally, that’s all they said. Justin O’Neill, the photo editor, bless his heart, instructed us to show up prepared nonetheless. We brought a dozen and a half bunnies; different sizes, colors, and patterns of fur. And Simon could not resist! He was just loving holding the bunnies, and that’s how I got the shot.
When I first sit down to come up with ideas for shoots I don’t think of what the magazine limitations might be, or what the subject will or won’t do – if I could do anything, what would I do? I come up with crazy ideas that involve, like, their sexuality or they’re on fire or, you know, different situations that are genuinely surprising. Very dark and very weird. This opens up my mind and then other ideas come forward, ideas that may be more doable.
You push it in your mind as much as possible…
Yes! But the crazy ideas – I still write them down. Because what happens is sometimes I have subjects later who will do anything, and then I have a chance to do that picture. I recently shot this actor from Parks and Recreation, Nick Offerman, for People Magazine…
Yes, I was reading about it on your blog, with the waterfall.
I came up with that idea for that, like, twelve years ago when I was preparing for a shoot with Andy Dick. We didn’t do it with Andy so I just held onto it, and I mentioned it to Duane Pyous the photo editor because he said, “Nick will do anything.” “How about this crazy idea?”
Or the picture of William Shatner being arrested was actually a shot I was going to do with The Strokes. I was going to have them all lined up against the white cyc, and then being arrested by the NYPD. So it’s amazing how ideas – if they’re the right idea, could be transferred. Of course, once I do it and it’s successful, I can’t do it again.
What inspires you other than the specific research?
Well, seeing the work of people like photographer Asger Carlsen. Not that I’m specifically influenced by his work, but I see that he’s pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable, and that helps opens my mind up.
One of the things you asked at the beginning was how, when one feels tired or they feel like they’ve exhausted their ideas, what does one do? I do feel I’m at a point that I may need to replenish some. I’d like to be more out in the world more and see what’s going on. I do see student work and colleagues within my agency but I think I’d rather be influenced by things other than photography, like music or film, or just the culture in general.
Like being in New York. And going to museums?
I don’t go to museums so much. I’d rather be influenced by things that aren’t art. To some extent, I’m influenced by my fears or things that excite me. When I’m watching a movie and I find myself very excited by something in a scene, there’s something about that that makes me very excited and intrigued. So, I make a note of it in my mind.
Can you elaborate a little bit more about your fears. Are these raw fears? Or, more existential or psychological fears?
I’ll be on my street waiting for a car service – I’m in Chinatown – and I’ll see workers unloading whole pigs off the back of a truck. And they’re throwing them on the sidewalk and then someone comes out from the restaurant and takes them into the kitchen. Literally a pile of eight pigs on my sidewalk. That’s pretty disturbing.
But it’s an amazing image, too. I’m not going to make an image of that, at least not exactly, because I’m not a documentary photographer, but it sticks in my mind and I think, you know, I’d like to do something with that some day. Something about that is disturbing and exciting.
You do a lot of advertising work. Do you think there can be art in commercial photography?
I feel like photographers a lot of times end up having this need or want to make money, and sometimes they forget why they started photography in the first place.
I absolutely think that commercial photography can be art. I mean, if it’s done right.
One of my favorite aspects working as a photographer in advertising is that it’s truly collaborative. I’m trying to bring my Chris Buck-ness to the picture in the obvious ways of the lighting or the composition, but also if I can help with the ideas and move them forward and make them better, yes. But oftentimes, they don’t want that or need that, and that’s totally fine. But I’m part of a larger thing.
Initially, my interest was in doing editorial portraits, but now that I’m in advertising a creative world that I had known little about is now open to me, and it’s inspiring. Yes, the parameters are more narrow and you have more people to sell to in terms of the upper echelon of the clients and all of that, but that, to me, is part of the challenge. “Can we still make great work with these concerns that must be addressed?” And I think it’s an amazing challenge. It’s really exciting that we have a chance to make art with all these restrictions.
Have you ever gotten work or been approached for lucrative advertising work where it didn’t quite your fit your style but you have tried to make it work? Or decided to say, “No”? How do you focus your path in that sense?
Any advertising job that comes to me, I’ll say, “Yes.” I mean, the only time I say no to jobs, aside from schedule conflict, is because I see nothing of interest to me. But in every ad job there’s interest because there is a good paycheck and a creative team with a problem to solve.
The fact is, I’m excited by challenges. I’ve done editorial shoots that have to do with cars, or food, or still life; I’ve done it. And even though it’s only editorial and the paycheck’s not exceptional, I’m challenged by it. I’m excited. I’ve done ad shoots where I do things that are unusual, like, big group shots, which I’m not typically known for, but I’ll do it because it’s exciting and a challenge.
It’s a growth process, but I feel in the past I’ve done advertising where it’s not quite me, or that I haven’t enjoyed, or would never end up showing…
Yes, I hear what you’re saying. There were times early on when I didn’t know if I was capable of doing what they wanted. When I shot a photo library for HP when I was with agent Julian Richards, I told him, “I don’t know if I can do this.” It’s real people, it’s portraits in the world. I don’t know if I could find the inspiration to make really great work.
If I can’t do it great, I don’t want to disappoint a client. But Julian said, “They used some of your photography to do their initial layouts to sell it to the client.“ I was scared, but I did a lot of preparation and I was able to do things I didn’t realize I could do.
I saw that if I was pushed outside my comfort zone, I could deliver. Part of it is technical and part of it is just seeing things a certain way. I think I’m just more open – I’m more experienced and I’m more open – aesthetically, to try things.
Yes, it’s good because I feel like you have one single focus and it’s defined you that way.
There’s a way in which early on, when you first are working, you must – particularly in a market like New York – you must show you do one thing well.
There are so many different people that want to say, “All right, Chris Buck – funny.” They need to be able to categorize you to remember you. But when you’re shooting longer, you can expand it out a little bit more. You can be defined in a richer way. That’s good because then different clients can come to you for different things.
Right. But your philosophy for emerging photographers is that the focus must be more narrow, yes?
If you’re in a city like New York, London or Los Angeles, that are big markets, and there’s so many shooters, you must get specific. Potential clients are not going to remember you if you say, “I do everything.” So you have to push the funny portraits, or whatever your thing is.
If you’re in a local or regional market it’s pretty much the opposite, if you can’t do everything competently you’ll starve to death. Of course, it gets complicated if you’re targeting the local market AND the national stage.
In this fine art versus totally commercial work continuum, how do you reconcile that? Have you ever had ambitions, say, of exhibiting stuff or doing more “fine art” work? Or personal projects?
In developing the Presence series, I initially conceived it as just an interesting personal project, but the work really lives more comfortably in a fine art context. It’s currently being exhibited with the Foley Gallery in the Lower East Side of New York (January 16 – February 24, 2013) and it looks fantastic.
It’s got me thinking about things I could do, or ideas I could work on for a gallery. It’s not like I’m going to be come a different person or even a different photographer, but ideas that could be hard to sell in the editorial or advertising worlds, I can now produce for that context.
So, what do you find challenging in the industry right now?
People are looking less and less at magazines and newspapers, and that’s an obvious issue for editorial, but also for advertising, in that print ads currently show up largely in magazines.
I’m curious as to what’s going to happen with that. I don’t think still photography will go away. I don’t think we’re going to be just looking at moving images. There’s a certain iconic quality to a still photograph, a richness that reveals itself over time. People do find that intriguing.
So we have to find a way for content to be produced exclusively, and for it to be trackable or locked. That’s going to be one of the big challenges. Magazines and newspapers and these kinds of unique content providers need to find a way to have their intellectual property protected, in order to justify paying the money on making this very expensive, very unique, exclusive stories.
So, kind of what The New York Times did?
Yes, but imagine, someone can link to The New York Times but they can also take that content and put it somewhere else.
Right, so it would work like royalties…Perhaps with the metadata.
What about other media? Are you interested in video or anything like that?
Video and film is very exciting and interesting. I was a little reluctant to come to it; but I realized that I don’t want to lose print jobs over not being able to do the video component.
When I get editorial assignments that ask for video, I will always take it and run with it. As long as they give us some kind of minimal budget and time to do it right. I have no interest in doing it half-assed. It’s got to be good, you know?
And how do you make it good?
Well, I make it good by making it “Chris Buck.” I mean, it’s got to be me, it’s got to be witty and smart and fast.
And visual. To me the visual is very important.
But on a technical aspect, crew and lighting and things like that?
Well, I mean, it depends on what it is. Part of it is solving problems in unusual ways. If it’s for editorial I’m only doing minute or two clips.
It just needs to look right, be clever, and be smart. I mean, the fact is that anyone can shoot anything that looks good, but not everyone is Chris Buck and has my mind. It’s got to be a little weird, a little funny. That’s something I always hope to bring to it.
What do you do when you’re not working?
That’s a very good question. Well, it ties into your question about ideas. Because I feel like for a long time, all I did was work. But I was young and I had a lot of experiences in my life and romance complications and dah-dah-dah-dah, so that all went to my work. And then I got some success, I got married and had a child, so in a sense, that affects my experience. That’s what I do, mostly, when I’m not working, is spending time with my wife and child. I’m crazy about my wife; and my daughter is darling and it’s very delightful to be with her. So that’s all a great time but it’s not likely to make my photography better.
I’m interested in politics, so that’s sort of a hobby in a way, to read about politics and follow that. My interest in politics has replaced, in a way, a lot of my interest in music, which was my great passion when I was younger. I don’t know how my politics really affects my work, but it’s interesting – it probably seeps in there in some way. I’m very interested in the future and what’s going to happen in our world. As one gets older as an artist, you can’t help but become more conservative in your ways. But I think it’s very important that as an artist, you must shake that off and be open to what can happen.
Even when I talk about what’s happening with magazines, I don’t regret these changes; I’m actually excited about what can happen.
But to answer more directly, I do love running, and street hockey. I’m still no good at hockey, but adults don’t seem to care as much about that.
Running is amazing. I did 11 miles yesterday. That’s one thing that inspires me.
Totally. I love that. I love going to other places and running. Like, if I’ve got a shoot somewhere and I’ll be there for a few days, I’ll bring my running shoes and I’ll run, I don’t care.
One time, in Salt Lake City, it was so cold! I thought, “Hey, it’s cold, it will inspire me to run faster,” But running up that hill towards the temple, I was dying! I was, “Oh, my God, this is not inspiring, this is going to kill me.”
How do you find the time? And since your blog is pretty new, can you give me any thoughts on social media and all that good stuff?
I use it to give a really rich back-story about shoots, promos and just creative thinking. I find that the blog is good for posting fun assignments that I wouldn’t likely put on my website. I don’t mean just behind-the-scenes photographs… For example, I put a shoot for Psychology Today and it was all very Vargas-influenced. I would never put that – it’s too different than my other work. But it was a really fun assignment and I kind of got it by accident.
I post a lot of stuff about the workshops I do. I show the work of my students. It’s nice to show other people’s work. I think my agent is not really crazy about me doing so much about other people because it sort of defeats the purpose of it showing my personality – especially on set. But to me it seems weird to have “Here’s another post about me,” and now, “Here’s another post about me!” I’m always in there in some way. Like, my post about my friend Stephen Gates, I put a picture of us together. So, there’s always a link.
That’s one of the reasons why I came to New York. I feel you can elevate this community of not just photography, but art and such. One has the power and capacity to expose this kind of stuff.
And, I feel like it augments your brand…
It is my brand. I think that featuring people like Stephen, or Christopher Bonanos or other photographers like Asger, it reflects on me. I know these people and I’m celebrating them and it also speaks to my taste. I’m a tastemaker and I’m hopefully introducing other people to what these artists do.
What are your thoughts on a rep? Tell me your philosophy behind seeking and being with a rep.
I’ve thought about this a lot because of recently leaving Patrick Casey and not being with one for a few months. Being a contrarian and very much an individualist, I’d like to be able to control my own thing. But there’s also an aspect of collaboration, and a great agent can play that role. I certainly had that with Julian Richards for many years – which was a very important developmental time for me, creatively and in my business. Having a partner who had a very similar viewpoint – aside from the other things he did as an agent – was really great. Remember you asked about the Presence book and saying, “Did it ever feel like it was pointless or people wouldn’t get it?” Being with Julian, there was always that sense that he got it and that was almost enough.
I considered continuing solo, like Monte Isom. But the fact is that – two things: One is, I realized I’d spent all my time doing meetings and showing my book and promoting, instead of making new work and personal work, and I realize I want to do the latter more. Even though I enjoy meeting prospective clients and making cool weird promotional pieces; it’s fun, it’s interesting; I still need time to make new work.
And, here is the second thing – I had lunch with a client friend the other day, and she said, “I don’t want to negotiate with a photographer; I want to negotiate with their agent.” Because you have this awkward, and sometimes aggressive, conversation about budget and fees, and then you’re walking onto set with them. That’s not cool.
The client that I had lunch with is Veronica Reo, of Young & Rubicam, whom I shot Xerox for, and she actually has introduced me to my new rep, Kelly Montez and Apostrophe. They are super nice but also very serious about working hard for our clients. I’m very excited to be with them!