From Plaid Magazine
Chris Buck has achieved global recognition through his editorial and commercial photography, but it’s his inventive celebrity portraits for which he’s most renowned. Beautifully composed, and often containing sly references to a star’s professional reputation (Simon Cowell petting a baby rabbit, anyone?), Buck’s work is terrific portraiture, in that he always puts his subject’s personality front and centre.
So naturally, when Buck’s latest project Presence: The Invisible Portrait involved removing his celebrity subjects from the frame entirely, I had a few questions for the Toronto-born photographer. Chris spoke to me on the phone from his home in New York, and explained how easy is it to direct actors, how hard it can be to find a decent hiding spot, and why Uwe Boll makes for a surprisingly great portrait.
Your series the Invisible Portrait has been getting a lot of buzz. What do you think it is about the project that people find so compelling?
Compelling as in stupid?
I actually meant it as a positive!
One of the first press things we did was CNN, and the predominant word was “stupid.” The Huffington Post had at least a 50% balance of people saying they liked it. No one wants to hear negative things about themselves or their work.
I think it’s just the veil of the internet, the anonymity. People are free to say all kinds of stuff they normally wouldn’t.
People like to criticize everything, it’s not even about art. You’ll read a serious article online, and the comments are hateful and petty. I find it kind of shocking. It really shows how much the social code makes you behave well.
Right, we’d all pretty much degrade into a Lord of the Flies scenario without it.
…and then some people will try to be nice and say the pictures are really good in and of themselves, and I’ll say “Yes, some of them are and some of them are just kind of curious, but it would not be the same book if the celebrity wasn’t in there.”
Of course. You really confront your preconceptions about a celebrity’s personality when you don’t see them, and [the pictures] force you to think about how you think about people you don’t even know. Now that you can’t even see them, it’s like you really have no attachment to them at all.
Now that I’ve done it, I’m curious to see other projects that are similar; I don’t think anything like this has existed before.
How did your subjects respond to the idea? Were most of them pretty receptive to the concept?
One of the great things about the project, from a photographer’s point of view, is that it’s hard to say no to. You kind of feel stupid being like “Well I think this idea is preposterous!”, rather than to be like “yeah whatever, where do you want me to hide?” It’s a lot easier to just say “yeah, yeah, sure” and just do it than to argue. But the people who went for it were really playful and delightful, and really, kind of the obvious people: Rainn Wilson really loved it, Ringo Starr, David Lynch was great. And some people were just polite, and that’s fine.
Did you give your subjects instructions for the photos? Or did they pretty much have carte blanche to decide where they wanted to be?
I’ve hung around celebrities for a long time, so I know what they expect. They like to be told what to do. They like to have the power to veto if they don’t want to do something, but ultimately they want to walk in, be told to go here, wear this, stand there, do this…
In most situations, I would choose a scene with two or three places where a full grown adult could hide, and just say climb in. They generally hide in the most obvious place they could get.
I’m thinking of the David Byrne piece, where he hides behind a giant box labeled “The Big Suit.”
That was just in there! And I said, “we gotta put this in the picture.” That’s one where it has an overt connection to the person, where anyone could recognize it if they knew their history…I think people don’t realize that I’m restricted in the places where I can actually have the celebrity. When people say “the pictures aren’t that interesting,” I have to say, well, “How far is Robert Niro really going to go? Down the hallway? Downstairs? Outside?”
Robert De Niro
I was wondering, do you think the photos that have those kind of explicit references to their subjects are more compelling? Or ones like Robert de Niro’s, where’s he’s hiding in a pretty generic hotel room?
I think they both have appeal. There’s Jay Leno and the car, Byrne and the suit, and then there’s other ones where the connection is more poetic. I love the Kathy Griffin one, which is just a soft and pretty photo. It has no connection to her personality or her career. My favourites are the ones that are more subtle, but I think the mix of all of them is really good. You need the overt hits, and then the other ones are more of a breath of fresh air.
I’m going to get a little conceptual now, but there’s a great quote from Cindy Sherman, one of your subjects. She says “The whole point of having your portrait taken is to promote your commodity.” Do you see portraiture as a commodity?
Hmm…It’s an interesting quote. Just as a fun aside, I actually did a project with Cindy once, and when I needed a quote for the promotional video, one of the ones she gave me was “I don’t like having my picture taken.”
When her entire career is based around that…
Right. Well, I don’t think it about [portraiture as a commodity], but I think for the subject, that’s exactly the way they think about it. I think that maybe she is making a grander statement on the culture. There’s a reason why people preserve their faces, whether it’s a rock star or a politician. But I don’t know if it’s more of a commodity than it was 50 years ago. And I think in another way, the other part of the commodity is their name, and in a way, I’m trading on the name with the series.
I brought up the commodity quote, as you also have a background in advertising. Are portraiture and advertising just two sides of the same coin for you?
I definitely approach them differently. 95% of the time in advertising, you’re trying to get across clarity about what the message is. But in making a great portrait for a magazine, at least the way I’m doing it, I’m definitely not trying to get across clarity. More ambiguity, and mystery.
So to completely change the subject, do you have a personal favourite from the series?
More like, what’s my favourite today? I guess the 16 images I put on my website are my favourites. It’s having the right balance of the celebrity and the scene, it’s part of what makes things appealing.
I do like the Nas picture a lot, with the Christmas tree. It was the original cover of the book. But too many people don’t know who he is, so I didn’t think it would be a good cover, even though you can’t see the person. Nick Cave is another favourite, since I’m a huge Nick Cave fan.
Some of the pictures are really great, like a picture of Uwe Boll is in there, in a set that looks like an airplane. It’s so unusual I had to include it, but no one knows who he is either.
He’s like the worst director of all time! He offered to box any reporter who gave him a bad review.
You’re good, you’re the first person I’ve met who knows who he is!
I spend way too much time on the internet.
That was fun shoot. I asked him, “how’d you like it?” He said, “The pictures are great, so-so on the article.” The article was called “The Worst Director in the World.”
Yeah, I think he has some issues with his reputation. So was this your first book? How’s the process been putting it together?
It is. It’s been good, I mean, some people in my circle were like “Oh, your first book is going to have people not visible? Like, is this really a good career move for you?” But it’s the first body of work I’ve done that’s large, like a large number of pieces, but there’s also a subtlety to it, a conceptual connection to it that I think makes it really work for a book
So now that Presence: The Invisible Portrait has been released, are there any other projects you’d like our readers to know about?
October 12th, there’s a book signing at Type Books. And there’s a workshop at Pikto Studios, down by the distillery district. It’s a two-day workshop where I kick your ass and make you a great photographer.
For more information on Chris Buck’s photo workshop, visit here. His signing at Type Books is October 12th, 6-9pm.