The Photographic Journal

Chris Buck

Interview 021 • Sep 9th 2014

Foreword

Back in college, a good decade before I became interested in photography, I would cut out photos I liked from Rolling Stone, Spin, Premiere (RIP), not to emulate, but just because I thought they were fantastic. At the time I paid little attention to who took what, but in looking back, so many of those images were taken by Chris Buck. A true master of the portrait, he excels not just in capturing something authentic and interesting about his subjects, but about creating a space around them that is equally as fascinating. He’s one of the few photographers of his generation still pushing his craft, looking for places to improve, places to explore.

It was a true honor getting to speak with him.

Interview

You’ve been shooting professionally, successfully, for a very long time now. What kind of shoots are you looking for to keep you excited? Do you need to seek those out?

There’s a number of ways I can answer the question. I guess the first thing that comes to mind is that I still feel like I have so much I need to do to make my work better. Frankly shooting with celebrities and politicians and such, they’re such challenging contexts in which to work, to try to make a portrait. Obviously there’s inherent things that make it easier, like if you’re photographing someone who has a recognizable face, there’s all their history and just the fact that they’re recognizable…you could show a portrait sitting with the President and it could be a pretty uninteresting picture and people would say, “Wow! You photographed the President!” Doesn’t really matter what the picture looks like.

Interview 021: Chris Buck for The Photographic Journal

President Barack Obama for New Republic

I think that my picture is better than that. Obviously I’m super biased but I do think my picture is a little unique. There is that. I’ve always tried to do pictures of celebrities where the only value wasn’t that it’s someone we recognize. Obviously there’s some value, but it’s not the only value. And occasionally people will say things about my work that reflect that, they’ll say, “oh, this would be interesting even if it wasn’t so & so.” Or, “this is art, not just a celebrity picture,” and obviously I’m very happy to hear that. But that’s what I strive for, to make pictures of celebrities that are at least a little surprising or take you somewhere that most celebrity pictures don’t take you. That remains a challenge every time, and I’d say it’s really rare that I make a picture where I’m like, “that’s it, I nailed it.” At least immediately. Later on, with a little time…my agent jokes with me saying, “you don’t like your work for at least six months,” and it’s true!

Now she’s learned to not say, “hey I like what you just did can we put it on the website?” She waits a while, and then she comes to me. Recently I took pictures of Mac DeMarco, a young musician. Wearing a suit, black & white, a spit bubble just dripping. The magazine ordered that and I thought, that is certainly the best picture I’ve done in a while, this is like a home run, it hits all the marks: it’s beautiful, it’s surprising, it’s disgusting, and it also reflects him and it reflects me, it’s all the things you want out of a portrait, at least for me.

Interview 021: Chris Buck for The Photographic Journal

Mac DeMarco for Pitchfork

And other people seem to feel that way, other people give me feedback that suggested it as well, and I was so pleased magazine ordered it. There were other pictures I liked from that shoot as well. It was a great shoot. But that doesn’t happen that often, where I feel that strongly. Even pictures of mine that have become iconic aren’t usually the ones that are my favorite from the shoot. At some point you just have to live with it. One thing that’s happening lately, in the last couple years is, I’ve been getting jobs that are challenging for me in terms of subject matter or context. For example I’ve done a couple things were I’ve done pictures where the subject is also the client. I did pictures of Tegan and Sara recently. I was hired by them because they needed new PR pictures. I had met Sara a couple times, really liked her a lot, and I was a fan of their music, so I was really excited about it.

But I’ve always found that context to be really crippling in the past, because you see from my work that I’ve been around for a while, but my work is pretty aggressive in the way I tried to get what I want, I coax it from people, I manipulate it from them, I kind of…people say stuff like, “I don’t take photographs I make photographs.” I feel like I take photographs. I take them from you, the subject. I’ll take them whether you want to give them or not. I think that it’s definitely something, at least my kind of portraiture, where you have to have that attitude. Maybe it’s because I’m Canadian and I’m nice, and I don’t really like not to be nice, but I have to go in with an almost assassin’s approach, “I am getting the shot!” So working alongside people like Tegan and Sara, or I did some artwork for a TV show starring Kim Cattrall. And again, working with her and the other stars of the show was a very different thing for me, but I was very open to it and it worked out well in both cases. I think that because I have such experience, I felt confident in some of the areas that were going to be involved with the shoot, going into a scary area was something that I felt more comfortable with than I would have been ten years ago.

Interview 021: Chris Buck for The Photographic Journal

Tegan & Sara

A friend of mine is a photographer, and she’s a big fan of yours as well, and she wanted me to ask you if you still get scared about work stuff?

Like going in to do a shoot?

Mm hm.

Yes, I do get scared, I get very nervous, but I plan a lot, and the planning is as much to make me feel okay about going in as it is about actually being prepared. Obviously being prepared is very important too, but it’s a huge psychological thing, if you got a list of ideas ranging from if this person is ready to do anything, like Mac DeMarco, or here is someone who will do almost nothing, like the President, that I can get something I’m happy with. And obviously the expectations of them are different too. If I got the President to do a spitball that would be history-making!

Hahahaha, right! When you went in with the President, because I know you have a big list of ideas, did you go in with any ideas?

Sure! Initially when we were planning with the magazine, The New Republic, we had a bunch of ideas, and…the White House sort of nixed most of them. What actually happened, initially the interview was going to be something to do with youth and technology and things like that. But about a week before the shoot the White House talked to the magazine and said the President’s agenda is going to be more about such and such, because it was just before his second inauguration. So it was going to cover the state of the union, and what his plans were for the next year, so it became more general. I had this idea of having him texting, “what if we had him with ear buds in?” You wouldn’t see the device. Obviously he must exercise and wear ear buds, it’s not like it’s out of the realm of possibility. But just to see the President wearing something so iconic, so associated with…you see people on the subway with them…

More pedestrian?

More youthful. You don’t see a lot of old people doing that, it’s a more youthful picture, very contemporary-feeling. But they said no to all that. You know, I always kind of go in with the ideas of, “what if they’ll do nothing? What if they’ll do anything?” With the President, they told us that we would have between three to five minutes. Somehow seemed like anything wasn’t a possibility, and if anything it’d be, he does something and it’s interesting and we get it.

Do you hear that, “three to five minutes,” and just… (sigh)

No. Oh god, no. With politicians you know it’s going to be like that, I’ve done some great shots in my career where I’ve had five to seven minutes, and I think what’s great about those shoots is, there’s an energy with everyone, there’s no gently moving in, you’re out of the gate and you’re going for it. And the great thing with photographing the President was, he’s not chatty.

People are like, “oh, is he nice?” And I say, “no, he was business-like.” And I knew he was like that because I’ve read enough about him, and I follow politics, I knew he was a little bit of a a cold personality in person. So I wasn’t surprised, I wasn’t expecting anything else. And frankly, if it was Bill Clinton, we would have shot half as many frames because he talks so much. So I was actually really happy. And he was actually more cooperative than I expected. Because he asked what kind of expression did I want. Which I didn’t expect because a lot of politicians will come in and they’ll smile the whole time, and that’s really uninteresting. But he asked if I wanted him smiling or serious, and I said “serious.” So right out of the gate it was positive. In the sense of being cooperative and everything.

You mentioned in the beginning that there’s a lot of stuff you still want to work on. What kind of things do you feel you’re deficient in?

I guess…I wish my pictures were more visually interesting. I mean it’s an ongoing conflict in that I often like pictures, of other people’s work, that do something interesting that’s really simple, but in terms of lighting and context, there will be something going on, it’ll be kind of odd and somewhat disturbing, but it will be subtle. And it won’t be dramatic or literal. And yet…I feel my work could be more clever or just more, I don‘t know, taking it further. I’m not a technically-minded person, and I‘m certainly more technical now than I was when I was starting out. But I wish I could more easily pull that stuff out and deliver. Make the pictures more visually dynamic.

Hm, because I’ve always considered your work visually arresting.

Thank you.

Interview 021: Chris Buck for The Photographic Journal

George McGovern

It seems anchored in the idea that you have for each photo, but then it’s all brought out very visually.

I feel like sometimes I‘m successful with that, and other times less so. I don’t know. It’s hard to define, in a way it’d be easier to just show you other people’s work that have that.

That have something that you feel is lacking in your own work?

Yeah. I’ve been thinking in the last few days that I’d like to do more celebrity portraits that are kind of a lesser version of Presence (Buck’s photo series where celebrities are hidden, completely, within a scene), with less going on. And more where they’re turned away, or half-hidden, sort of integrated into a scene in a way that doesn’t scream “here is a celebrity portrait.” But they’re still really interesting pictures. Because I often find when I try to do pictures that are too subtle, they end up just looking like nothing happened. I don’t know if you’ve ever had that, like when you’re shooting and you think, “this is really a moment. It’s quite subtle, but there’s really a connection.” Then you look at the actual pictures, and whatever connection was there, and obviously I know it was real because I felt it, that’s not coming through in the picture. I know for me that’s not my strength, so that’s why I often try to get in something that’s a little bit conceptual, or some kind of little twist or prop or something, I find that brings it out.

When you say that’s not your strength, do you mean the connection or bringing it out subtly?

Bringing it out in the pictures, yeah. Doing a subtle portrait… Who’s really good at that… Tina Barney. Who else…sort of the better work of Wolfgang Tillman’s portraits. Really subtle, but there’s something going on there that’s really…he did a book of portraits, did a bunch of work for Index Magazine for their covers in the mid to late 90’s. There wasn’t a lot going on, but they were always great. I wish I could do that. I think some of my pictures do that, but usually I go a little further and have some kind of little prop or a visual twist.

But he didn’t seem to need that to make the pictures interesting. I wish I could do that. But when I’ve done it, I’ve done it a few times, but usually it ends up being boring. Maybe it’s me, but I feel like my pictures like that don’t usually work.

Interview 021: Chris Buck for The Photographic Journal

Harry Dean Stanton

It seems like you have a high bar for those pictures.

I guess. Why shouldn’t I? I do think that, I remember early on meeting young photographers who were self-taught. I worked as a photo editor initially as well as being a photographer.

For music magazines, yeah?

Yeah. One of my photographers was self-taught and one of the things I noticed about him was that he had really high regard for his own work.

Hahahahahaha (laughing awkwardly because secretly that rings all too true for our interviewer)

And I think it’s because he didn’t know the history of photography. When you know the history, you know what you’re up against. For me it was Irving Penn or Edward Steichen or W. Eugene Smith. Like…let’s get going, get some edging towards that line.

Do you think that was…would you have preferred to have been yourself or the self-taught photographer in terms of the high regard?

I’d much rather know because if you come out of every shoot, “I rocked it!“ How are you going to get much better? The thing is, I can look back at my work and feel that some pictures really are great, or a historical slice because of who that person was at that time. Only the work that’s older do I feel that way about. Newer work, I tend to feel…my agent feels that I come out of every shoot mildly failing.

Do you feel like it’s that gap between what you wanted to get from it and what you actually got?

Probably that’s it. That’s fair. I do think that is a real issue where photographers, especially young photographers, they tend to edit their work based on the picture that comes closest to what they’re aiming for. Which obviously is totally reasonable and natural, but is really the worst way to edit. Because you want to show the best pictures, not the one that is closest to that list you made, right? You’re always thinking about the shot that you wished you’d gotten, you asked them to do something and they said no and you wished you had phrased it differently, or they said yes and you didn’t nail it. It always feels like even the ones that work are some kind of compromise of what you’re aiming for.

Interview 021: Chris Buck for The Photographic Journal

Gary Oldman

I looked at a lot of interviews that you’ve done in the past and one thing I discovered was that you had testicular cancer. Do you think that had any effect on your career, your outlook on life?

You mean I have fewer balls now? Sorry, you were setting me up too nice.

(laughter) That was beautiful. I am proud to be part of that joke. We interviewed a photographer who actually passed away recently who had cancer, beat it, only to have it come back a few years later. But when he initially went into remission, it catapulted his whole life, gave him a momentum to live more.

And to not be afraid? Who was it?

Ezra Caldwell, he was one of the first interviews. Do you feel like it had that kind of…

I am sure it did, but I’ll tell you…I had heart trouble as a baby, so I almost died. I don’t remember it, of course. I had heart surgery at 5 weeks. A 5 week old about yea big, so you can imagine. Of course I don’t have any memory of it, but it’s something that I grew up knowing.

It is a fact that you carry throughout your life.

Yeah. So I think that I was ambitious early on because of that. I had a sense of mortality in a way that most young people don’t. It wasn’t something that loomed over me in a day-to-day way, it wasn’t like I was charging against the dark or something in some poetic way. But I always had some sense in there knowing. And also I remember one time talking to a doctor and them saying that my life span will be normal, 72 or 75, whatever it is these days. And I said, “come on, give me a break. I’m not an idiot, I’ve read. Having heart surgery has got to cut off some time.” So he replied, “okay, maybe a few years.” I think the cancer certainly returned me to that place. If I hadn’t caught it…I caught it, gotten taken care of, no relapse. If you go into a hospital and say, “I have testicular cancer,” they see you right away! Because cancer loves to spread, and God knows that what’s in your testicles is made to move through your body. It’s going to spread.

I caught it early, so that made a big difference, had it removed. At the time, I dealt with it practically, and then six months later I dealt with it emotionally, kind of freaked out, and had to see a psychologist. I wasn’t surprised that happened, so I dealt with it and it was fine. But what’s interesting is, all that happened around the time I turned 30. At the same time, I went through a crisis of identity for other reasons, because I was turning 30. When you turn 30, I think you can’t help but evaluate, “what have I done, am I achieving what I hope to achieve,” and I had kind of hoped to be the Irving Penn of my generation or something. And at that point I was getting some work, but not the work I thought I should be getting, and certainly I wasn’t being seen that way by anyone of note or consequence. I think, to be fair to my clients, I wasn’t delivering work that should have been seen that way.

It’s hard when you see contemporaries who are the same age as you or a year or two older, like David LaChapelle, he catapulted to fame within a couple years, two or three years. Photographers younger than me do it too; Ryan McGinley. When you see that happen to other people and not you, and maybe you didn’t admit it, but that was always your fantasy of what might happen, it’s very hard. I think that was kind of a reckoning I had when I turned 30. In retrospect, maybe 10-15 years later, I look back at that time with the cancer, and realizing that I would never be an Irving Penn, it was quite releasing for me. At the time it was very tormenting, and I was very upset about it, but I came to a place of peace with it thinking, “I’ll never be that thing, but I’ll be what I can be. I’m going to be a photographer. I may not be that original or interesting on a larger scope, but I’ll make some great work along the way, and that’ll be what it is.” Looking back, I can actually see that in that time of my 30th birthday and the next year or so forward was actually when a lot of my style really came together. What became my style came out of that struggle, I believe. It might have been tied in with the cancer too, some sense of change of life, change of view point. But it was a good thing. Since then I’ve always recognized that struggle is really central to growth. Like the Presence project and other series I’ve done, a bunch of series I did back in the late 2000s, were all really inspired by having no work and starting personal projects to create interest. And frankly I don’t think it really worked.

But I have that work and that work is satisfying in its own way.

Because it’s interesting to think about…do you often compare yourself to other photographers, other contemporaries? Do find that you are challenging yourself against your own work or against other people’s work?

Well…I try not to look at other people’s work. It’s not really my thing. I find it more distracting than inspiring.

Even friends?

That’s where it gets complicated. A lot of my friends now are photographers, and it’s really grown out of the fact that when you’re a photographer who’s been around and is known, then other photographers will accept you. Even before you do anything. With a regular person I have to woo them to like me, but with a photographer if they know who I am, they just accept me.

Interview 021: Chris Buck for The Photographic Journal

Gillian Anderson

Hahahhaha, they like your photos…

They like my work, so they’re open to me. I don’t have to impress them. And so I have a lot of friends who are photographers now. My interest in their work ranges from being totally excited and inspired by them, to not really being particularly interested. You learn…you can’t just be friends with people whose work you like. And a lot of people who do great work are not really very nice people. And some people who are really nice people don’t do interesting work. I would rather have friends who are nice than friends who do great work. And some do both. I don’t think that relationships with them are deeper, but they’re different. When you talk about work, in a way, if it’s someone whose work I really respect, their take on making work I tend to take more seriously. So I have a lot of friends who are photographers now, it’s sort of odd. If I’m going to meet with them, I might look at their work before we meet. I met with a friend for lunch a couple months ago, and knew we were going to talk about career stuff, so I looked at his website thoroughly before meeting with him. It was fun, it’s a lot of great work. Andrew Hetherington. It was a lot of work I hadn’t seen before. He had been working a lot, and it was great. Did you see his series of…he went on a Kid Rock cruise? They had a cruise.

NO! That just sounds amazing, those themed cruises, Weezer did one.

It was like that, but Kid Rock. The pictures are bizarre. They’re great. You see very few of Kid Rock, mostly just the people, I didn’t know that people still care about him. He was a star, what, ten years ago, right?

Yeah, he’s still around. He’s still got a fan base.

Yeah, but he’s only had a couple hits. It was weird. Anyway…

He went country, or rap-rock-country?

I had his big album, which I thought was great. I photographed him, and that ended it. He was terrible. Not very sophisticated visually. He said, “I want to be photographed like Tom Petty or John Mellencamp would.” And I was like, “that is not a helpful reference.” Can you mention The Beatles, or The Who, or someone who actually had some good photographs taken? Anyways. By the way, you can print that. Mentioning Andrew Hetherington again, he’s a friend and I want him to do well. To some extent we cross over, but to some extent we don’t. He does a lot more open documentary stuff, whereas I do more arrive-and-sit-down portrait. It’s somewhat more mobile, but I’m more of an assassin.

More composed?

Well, but it’s also…it’s not all mapped out, but there is a little more focus, where he’s more kind of roaming. At least some of his stuff. He does do enough portrait work to where I’ll see something on Facebook and I’ll think, “I really wish I had seen that.” He got a job that I wish I’d gotten. I don’t like to see that, that’s not helpful. But also to be fair, there’s not very much work I see where I think, “I wish I had made that picture,” or, “I want to make a picture like that,” or, “I wish I had thought of that first.” It’s pretty rare.

Do you feel you just don’t have that sense of competition in you?

No I’m totally competitive. I also wish people well, it’s sort of complex. If young photographers meet me, I’m actually meeting with someone later today, if they contact me and want to meet me, then I say yes. If they think I can be helpful to them, give them feedback or career suggestions, I’m happy to do it. And I have interns, I mentor them too. Or people come to me wanting to get mentored, I will do it. I actually have one person I mentored who became more successful than me. Given being competitive, I have to think hard, “how am I going to deal with this.” It was Alex Prager. If I’m going to help people and support them, then I can’t be disappointed when it works. She’s very sweet, I saw her last month when I was in LA, she’s become super successful, she’ll still return my phone calls. It wasn’t like she was different, she was the exact same as she was when she came on a couple shoots with me.

You have to decide who you want to be, and then be it.

Also, most of the people we’ve talked to haven’t been around as long as you have. Do you feel comfortable, do you feel like you can, not “rest on your laurels”, but less of the hustle than you felt when you were younger?

No…no, no, no, no, no. I think what’s going on in photography now, and I don’t know what the other people you’ve been talking to say, but I do feel like there’s less work. I think those who aren’t flexible, and those who don’t hustle, may lose out. There’s a small group of people who will work no matter what, but I’m not in that group. I have to hustle, have to be visible, have to be interested and flexible. I felt like this even 10 years ago. There will always be someone who’s younger than me who has more energy and will work for free, who’ll do the jobs. If I’m not willing to at least compromise on budgets or whatever, I’m not going to work. I’m probably more expensive than someone who’s 15 years my junior, but I don’t want to be twice as much, you know what I’m saying? And so I want them to feel like they’re getting Chris Buck for a bargain, but especially in editorial, I’m not really doing it to make a living. And frankly with editorial, it’s only getting smaller and smaller as we go forward. People don’t like to talk about it, but…I could be wrong, but I can’t see a situation where editorial isn’t going to become essentially a niche market. To me, editorials are going to become like periodicals were when we were kids. Where they’re a specialty item for a specialty group; I kind of realize, what’s going to happen is that some of the big ones that are general interest, like People or Time, those will stay around…

Interview 021: Chris Buck for The Photographic Journal

Stephen King

Like Newsweek…except Newsweek failed!

Newsweek did fold, but I think it was badly managed and they made some bad decisions. I think that some of those ones will fold, but I think that some of the big general interest ones will stay, and some of the really niche ones will stay. I’ve worked with some music magazines that I think will not go away because they’re managed well and they know who they are and who their audience is, I have friends who subscribe to these magazines, and I was surprised. I worked for The Wire, I guess that I call a difficult music magazine. I work for them semi-regularly, and I have a number of friends who subscribe. Some magazines like that will survive because there’s nowhere else to go to get that. They’re dedicated to print, so they will continue. And the magazine is beautiful, it’s kind of like home decorating. I think that with books, I’m a big believer that the books that are made are special in terms of the actual object are going to be worthwhile and will stick around, almost part of the interior design of your house. Or they’ll be an object worth having.

Did you see that JJ Abrams wrote a book, co-wrote it with another author, it’s some kind of weird horror fiction, but it’s got maps and stuff in it. I don’t even think they sell an e-book of it because you need the actual book, there’s stuff written in the margins. And it costs a little more, but it’s an artifact.

That’s cool. It’s books like that, there’s a big cookbook that Nathan Myhrvold, he did this big five volume cookbook of experimental cooking. And it’s giant, it’s printed super well, but it sold out because it was such a unique thing that people wanted to have it. I’m working on doing a book, a retrospective of my portraits, and I want a design that will be more expensive, but will make it a unique object, and make it something worth having.

Where you wouldn’t want the digital copy?

Yeah exactly. I’m kind of reluctant to even do an e-book. I think e-books are silly.

In terms of…?

For photo books, it just seems silly. People who want to read an e-book, like a Kindle, yeah it’s fine. Although…I wouldn’t do it. I spend all day in front of a computer, how is that relaxing to look at a screen?

You want a physical artifact.

Yeah, well also too, you do a book for your legacy. An e-book format won’t be readable in 10 years. Seriously, the technology will change two or three times over the next 10 years, it will be like getting something on a floppy disc. What sort of legacy building is that?

There’s something to having that physical…I still see the LaChapelle books on bookshelves, coffee tables, they’re a kind of time capsule.

Totally.

If a friend had a digital version of that, I couldn’t walk into their house and have that same reaction.

Also, they could have a digital version, but if they download at that time, it would be pretty pathetic looking. The resolution would be tiny, it really would be…I think the content would be worthwhile, cause there could be unseen stories and snapshots. In a way, the funny thing is that it’s a bit like the digital thing, we just had our wedding anniversary. I finally made a wedding album. And one of the the things that came up was, our friends gave us pictures, which was really kind of them, snapshots or even negatives, and I was able to make some blow ups from original negatives from some of our friends, as well as the official pictures. But I made sure that the wedding photographer shot film, because I was very strident that film looked better than digital, and this is 10 years ago, 2004. To me, there’s no debate.

My god, that was ten years ago????

Sorry! Some friends shot digital, so they gave me their digital files, and I couldn’t really do anything with them. I couldn’t make a print bigger than 5×7 before it looked like shit. Even the quality of the colors and tonalities were atrocious. And I was working with original digital files. Maybe they weren’t RAW files, they were JPEGS, but still. They gave me a disc of their high res, whatever that was. And the sad thing was that some of the best pictures were taken by these people. I could only make little prints of them because I couldn’t do much. Even the tonal quality, for me to make an 8×10 of it would look really weird. It just looked pathetic.

My point is, obviously digital is such that, I would say that digital is on par with film now, I wouldn’t say it’s better, but it will surpass it shortly. When I decided to shoot digital, I did not want to be left behind. It’s funny, I was talking with a friend who, one of my young assistants, and we were talking about film versus digital and I said, “you can shoot film because you’re 24. I’m 49. For me to shoot film it looks like the old man can’t move along, whereas for you shooting film…”

It seems hip! Retro!

Yeah, it seems like an interesting exploration. She was amused by that. I said, “look, good luck to you and your friends who shoot film, because I don’t know who you’re going to work for who’s going to accept it.” Unless you’re doing something totally unique and special, your clients are going to balk. Shooting film today is like shooting an 8×10 camera 10 years ago or 15 years ago. Which you can do, and I still have friends do it, but it’s very specialty, and one friend has lost a lot of work because of it or didn’t get work because of it, because people were spooked by it.Or just he can’t produce in the time they need.

Interview 021: Chris Buck for The Photographic Journal

Dennis Hopper

He can, but he’s going to give them much less. This is Greg Miller, he’s amazing. He developed an approach where he could actually walk into a situation, look, think, look look look, think, then set the camera and do whatever. Eight executions. And then change the camera, do another setup for the same thing, maybe it would be going from vertical to horizontal, make a different shot, and then he’d go on and do something else. He would take the time in the front end. It’s a fascinating way to work. I can’t do that. I own a 4×5, but I found, with my kind of approach to making portraits, people were too aware of me and conscious of it. You shoot one frame at a time, you load it then you wait. They’re seeing you load it and they’re waiting too.

Everything kind of stopped while you set up.

Yeah, exactly. There’s no flow…but that can work. If you figure out a way. I think with Greg, he figures out a rhythm that he communicates to his subjects. Doing group shots is a bit like that, it’s another thing I’ve gotten into more lately. I love doing it. A good group shot comes through patience and planning. I say to them that it’s gonna take a few minutes, don’t give it all right away, hang out with me, be here, and we’ll make it work. If I say that, it works, because, generally, then people know what to expect. I do that all the time, I’ll just say I’m double-checking focus…

You verbalize.

Yeah, I verbalize the process a little bit. Not in a way to where it reveals anything valuable, but it just makes them know what the hell I’m doing and why I’m not shooting.

Do you find that your process is collaborative with your subjects?

I don’t think of it as collaborative, but I’m sure it is. I really do think in this way of, “I’m in there to get the shot.” I think I’ve worked this way right from the beginning; I want to walk out with a great picture, even just one great picture, and I will do everything I have to to get to that place. It was unconscious initially, but whatever I said to them, whatever I did with my body language, everything I did, whether it was an environmental shoot or in the studio, everything I do is to that end. So sometimes it gets sort of friendly, sometimes it’s a little more distant, sometimes it’s what music is played. I think a lot of it is about saying…with this same assistant I was talking about, she said to me that it’s interesting working with me on set, whether it’s in someone’s home, and especially in the studio, she said that I create an environment overtly. I was surprised, because I feel like it’s pretty subtle, and I don’t really think, “what should I do for today’s shoot?”

She said that there’s a sense of me setting the tone for the room that most photographers aren’t very good at or don’t do. I’m glad that she said that and I’m glad that is how she sees it, cause I really do try to do that. I do want that. I think that in a way I’m trying to corral the talent into sensing that vibe and falling in line and doing what I want. Because I’m not there for them to have a nice time, I’m there to get the picture I want.

Interview 021: Chris Buck for The Photographic Journal

50 Cent

So it’s more about the result less than the process?

Yes. Now the process, of course, is part of the result, but I remember meeting a young photographer in LA who was just interning on a shoot, and she’s talking about how important it was for her to make the connection with people, and it’s really all about the experience, and I was just like…My assistant was with us and he said, “I couldn’t wait to hear what you would say in response to that.” I was just thinking, “this is NOT about photography, this is about you having a nice time.” Let’s face it: your audience doesn’t care if you had a nice time. Who cares. When people say, “what was the vibe up on set?” I’m thinking, “who cares, what did the pictures turn out like?” Really. It’s fun to communicate that we had fun, like with the 50 Cent shoot I think the way the post (on Buck’s blog) is written and the way the pictures look, I’m kind of a little bit funny about it. Ultimately you can see we had a nice time and everyone got on well. Blogs are ridiculous because, one of the reasons why I fought doing a blog for so many years was that you can’t really say what happens on set or what you’re really thinking. What I’m thinking when I’m with 50 Cent, and I don’t know how much you know about him, I read enough about him. I knew about his music, but there’s also his obsession with the 48 Laws of Power, he’s obsessed, he actually wrote a book with Robert Greene called “The 50th Law”, which of course led me to the question, “what happened to the 49th one?” It’s a mystery law, that we’re not to know.

Only once you attain the other 48.

It’s like Scientology.

It’s like the Scientology Laws of Power.

Yes! The whole time I’m just thinking, “is he fucking with me?” Everything we’re conversing about, is he like…I’ve actually shot him before and it wasn’t really a good experience for either of us.

That was the lollipop one?

Yeah. So this time I really prepared well, not that I wasn’t prepared before, but I had low expectations for what it would go like and I told the magazine, “make sure you clear all the ideas with him.” Because I felt he wasn’t really open, so I said, “make sure he’s on board and is explicit because I don’t want to have this experience.” I didn’t go into detail, but I wanted to make sure…I said, “he’s particular about how he’s portrayed, which is reasonable, but I want to make sure he’s on board when we go in.”

And he was and he was great. It’s funny, as I was writing the blog post about the whole thing, where he’d kind of kid me about something, and I’d kid him and he’d kid me back, and I’m like “is he fucking with me, is he doing a kind of…is this the 16th Law here…what’s going on here?” I realized that, maybe him and I actually had the same goal, at least there’s a lot of overlap, and that’s why it went well. Or maybe he was just not really worried about it in that situation. It’s sort of funny how you kind of…shoots are so stressful already. From the way I shoot at least, it sort of builds up to this thing and then you execute it.

So this very much is work for you as opposed to…would you consider this a passion? Or this is your profession?

Sure. It’s a passion for sure. I mentioned about those personal projects not really having much of a payback in terms of jobs, but I kind of realized that they had other value. And I am hoping to start some new personal projects any day now if I can get out of the house and start them. But I realize that some of them are so odd or sexual in content that I probably couldn’t even put them on my website. So maybe I’ll do them as a show, or a book.

That’s what Tumblr is for now.

Well I wouldn’t put it on Tumblr either.

Because that’s for your clients. Tumblr is for porn. Sex is very welcome on Tumblr. You can find anything on Tumblr.

Yeah, I was actually kind of shocked by that. I was amazed.

I’ve been on Tumblr for six years and I’m still amazed.

I had someone start to follow me, and their name was something like…bigblackbooty or something like that? And basically that was all it was. Well, there was some vaginas and stuff, for variety’s sake. I went and looked at it and was like “how did they even find me?” I looked at it and I’m like, I didn’t realize that pornography was on there, because Instagram doesn’t allow it. I put one boob picture up and they threatened to take me off Instagram. It was a very nice boob picture too.

There’s a big thing about it right now.

They’re nice boobs, too. It was kind of, whatever, an artful picture. Whatever, I don’t know. That gets into a whole other thing. I’m not into censorship, but I do think there is a place for things to be appropriate for children. I’m into all levels of vulgarity. The thing is, a friend of mine had done, Timothy Archibald, he’s based in San Francisco, commercial photographer, very interesting. He did a great book called Echolilia with his son. You might of heard of it. One of his sons is autistic and he did a collaborative book with him. It was a way in which they created a bond by creating photographs together. It’s a great book, he gave me one when I met him in person, it’s autographed by him and his son. When they do signings, they both go, it’s kind of cool. It’s one of the things that makes a book special, it doesn’t feel exploitative.

Timothy did an earlier book called Sex Machines, which is people making sex apparatuses from dildos that are like realistic penises. I guess the idea is the penis is supposed to go into…

Interview 021: Chris Buck for The Photographic Journal

Javier Bardem

I’ve heard about that, but of course, I’ve never watched such a thing.

I’m accepting. I had never seen these things before his book, and he gave me a copy when I met him. So we ended up talking about it a lot. He said, because he’s an artist, and is like me, nothing is too surprising. I may not want to see pictures of everything, but I don’t mind that they exist. Little would surprise me. He’s the same. He thought it was really cool, made a book of it, and he sent it to a lot of clients, put it on his website, and he was doing a commercial shoot with children, and one of the parents looked at his website before coming to the shoot and wouldn’t bring their kid. After seeing that, after hearing that story, I thought, “how far can I go, do I need to have a pseudonym?” But I thought, “fuck that.” I can do the work, put it out there in some form, but not put it on my website. If someone looks me up and says, “hey you did this really porny set of pictures. “ I’ll just tell them it’s not part of my commercial career. If you Google it and you see it’s the same person, fair enough, but if you look at my website, that’s not represented, if you look at my agent’s website, that’s not represented. It’s genuinely a separate personal project.

Is it something you’ve thought about for a while and wanted to do? Cause it’s definitely not part of your oeuvre. Any kind of sexuality.

There’s some element of it. There’s a picture of Billy Bob Thornton peeing on the backdrop.

I don’t find that sexual though.

It’s not sexual but it’s vulgar.

There’s a transgressive element to it.

Yeah. But I think for some people, it’s one in the same. I was at a lab and I was showing these prints I was making for this gallery person, I was showing them to the owner of the lab, and he found that picture off-putting because he found it disgusting to look at, and I was thinking, “wow, really?” As a print you see so much more detail, the color of the urine against the backdrop…

Did he eat some carrots today?…

Exactly. You end up having more of a sense that…I like that kind of stuff, so it doesn’t bother me. I like things like blood and semen and urine and things like that in pictures, I think it’s great. It’s a bit like my Mac Demarco thing, it’s vulgar and beautiful together, which to me is fascinating. I wish I had more of that in my work. When you’re shooting a celebrity, they’re not likely to ejaculate for you, you know.

And it’s a poorer world for it.

Heh, yeah. People are such puritans. I did this gallery show with Presence, and it got me thinking if I had any other projects I wanted to do that don’t fit into the oeuvre of what I do commercially. And even though I’ve always tried to bring my personal take in, I am still a commercial photographer who works doing magazine portraits and all that. The things I want to do that don’t really fit into that, that are either still lifes or whatever, I need to find an outlet for it. So doing it for a gallery, or for books is where I’ll do it.

Thinking about my legacy, I thought of doing this one nude series I wanted to do, and I talked to Timothy about it about what I should do. I didn’t even tell him the idea, but I was talking about it. But even if I did it under a pseudonym, and then it came out after I died…I mean, I’m going to die at some point. I’m 49, and that’s not old, but it’s not really young, you become a little more aware of the end point. If that comes out after I die, and let’s face it, I’m only doing this work for a legacy so I can live on after I die.

Of course! That’s the only reason I take pictures.

Exactly. If that work comes out after I die, it will then become part of my legacy.

Right. You have to think about it regardless of whether you hide it now.

That’s it. If it only brings me kudos then, then that’s fine. That’s fine with me. Maybe it would be more fun that way, because it might make my legacy more interesting.

Interview 021: Chris Buck for The Photographic Journal

Billy Joel