As the phone rings, I breathe easy to calm my nerves. I'm about to interview one of the most successful modern portrait photographers in the world. I'm halfway through leaving a stuttering mess of a message when he cuts in. "Hello? Hi, I had the music going and didn't hear the phone ring..." Buck has built a career over the past 30-plus years photographing some of the biggest names in Hollywood and politics. He has carved out a space for himself in the upper echelon of photographers working today. And he has a land line. Somehow, given his old school, dogged approach to portraiture and his recent switch to digital, I think that's just perfect.
Controversy and Clients
Although Chris Buck is no stranger to controversy, sometimes creating portraits that the subjects find less than flattering, one of his latest conceptual stories is starting a lot of conversation. Buck was hired to shoot a photo essay for a feature in O Magazine entitled, "Let's Talk About Race."
My portrait work is more personal whereas the conceptual work is more about an outside idea, an involves the input of outside parties more pointedly.
In it, three photos depict females in everyday situations with typical racial roles reversed. Asian women are happily receiving pedicures from their white counterparts. A little white girl peruses the doll section of a department store, finding only dolls that do not match her skin tone. You get the picture. Naturally, while some praise the work as thought provoking, others have found the piece offensive as well. Buck is quick to point out, though, that while he stands behind his work, it was conceptual in nature and the idea was mostly created by the client.
Buck was hired for his skills as a photographer. His job in such situations is to help the client execute their vision, not his own. As for those that may be offended by the work, either conceptual or his personal work, perhaps a shift in perspective is needed. "Some people have kind of taken the pictures apart in a more literal way, and I would invite them to see them as being an invitation to seeing the world differently," said Buck.
Political Portraiture and Holding Back
Buck's editorial work, though, is a different story. He's known for taking portraits that are striking, tossing aside the veneer of celebrity and portraying his subject in ways that seem to strip them down to reveal their humanity. The results are often hilarious and sometimes haunting. Of course, with political officials, some tempering of style is required to observe decorum. You can't ask the president of the United States to pee on a backdrop. If you ask a politician to do something that may put them in an awkward position, you risk losing the trust and confidence of your subject. "They're going to say well that's just not going to happen and I'm kind of amazed you asked," said Buck.
Even though the scenarios he presents are more conservative than most, politicians are surprisingly hands-off with the imagery. "Someone asked me, 'Oh, did the president approve your picture?' and I'm like, no, he could never even be appearing to be trying to choose the images we use. It would be considered totally inappropriate."
Being a photographer of some renown, Buck does have the luxury of being able to book more time with his celebrity subjects than you might expect. Buck may have up to two hours with celebrity clients, with more time tacked on for complex hair or makeup. Of course, some subjects are a little more preoccupied with their appearance than he'd like. "It's funny, you'll shoot with someone and they'll be in hair and makeup for an hour and a half and then you shoot them for 45 minutes. Which I think is sort of hilarious, but it shows where those subject's priorities are."
On Going Where the Work Is
Buck, originally from Toronto, Canada, moved to New York in 1990 to further his career. In this day and age, with the world being as electronically connected as it is, I was curious as to his thoughts on the necessity of moving to either coast to give high end editorial portrait photography a shot. "I do think early in one's career it's never going to be a negative to be in New York. You know, if you can stand out in New York, then there's obviously something positive about you, because it's obviously the most important market in the U.S. for editorial. I think for advertising you can pretty much be anywhere in the U.S. because the agencies are all around the country and they serve different kinds of clients, and depending on what you do the budgets are robust enough that you can just fly to L.A. or New York or wherever you're going to be shooting depending on the production.
So, yeah, you can be anywhere for advertising, I believe," said Buck. "I think, in a way the biggest challenge, and this is something I see because I do workshops with photographers who are more regionally based... and the biggest challenge I see for them is that if they want to be on the national or international stage as a shooter and be considered in that realm, then they need to be, in a sense, psychologically more in New York or London, or wherever. They need to be somewhere that is an international city and competing against those people."
"When you're catering to a local or regional market, it's gonna be less risky, and less bold, less avant garde, for lack of a better term, because you're going to have clients that are more conservative. And there's nothing wrong with that, but if you want to be considered for major campaigns and considered a contemporary, cutting edge photographer, then you need to be thinking of yourself competing with the top people in New York, L.A., London, and such. Psychologically, that's very difficult to do because that's the place where you are. If you're living in a smaller city, then that's who your contemporaries are and that's who you see in the photography community. It's hard to think of someone living in New York as your competition when you're living in a small town and will never cross paths with that person."
On Having a Printed Portfolio
With iPads and other tablets becoming a more and more common way for photographers to show their work to clients, as well as the work being seen more and more on Instagram, the viability of the printed portfolio has come into question. Well, Not for Buck. "I think, certainly, the more traditional art buyers, art producers, and photo editors, will still want to see a printed portfolio. It kind of separates the girls from the women and the men from the boys.
If you grew up with that, you know how hard it is to make a beautiful print and have it read in different situations and still look great under questionable lighting or whatever. Having things look good on an iPad is fairly easy. I know, because I use both, right? I just load the iPad, looks great. Portfolio, I go through multiple rounds of prints to make it look good. I don't know, a lot of my jobs happen without people looking at my portfolio, but... well let's put it this way: if someone tells you to swing by with your portfolio, you can't have your answer be 'Oh, I don't have one' or 'Hey can we just open up my website on your computer.' I think they'd look at you like you were nuts."
Transitioning From Film to Digital
As an artist who's been on the scene for a few decades, much of his iconic work was produced on film. Although still in high demand, Buck's switch to digital came a bit later than you might think. Although Buck transitioned from film only three or four years ago, his reasons for holding on had little to do with sentimental reasons. "It was never really about a nostalgia or anything. It's just more about what I thought film did for me and did for the images. You know, in terms of archiving, in terms of the quality, the tonal quality, things like that. The big shift came for me when I stopped shooting DSLRs and moved to medium format digital. I shot with the H series from Hasseblad for a year. I just rented them: H2s, H3s, H4s, whatever. I did that for about a year and then I finally bought one at the end of that year. I shoot a Hasseblad H4X body with a P65 back, and just a couple of lenses for it, and that's what I shoot everything with now," said Buck. "More than anything it was client driven. My clients, they liked film and really loved talking about film, but in the end they wanted digital."
"I worked on a job and they were pointing out particular works of mine, saying how beautiful and the tones and the lighting and everything, and they said 'We want that look!' and I said that's shot on film, and yeah it looks great and if you want that look that's great but it means you won't have any monitors on set. And there was a pregnant pause and then, 'We'll do digital.'"
Retouching: Keeping It In-House or Outsourcing?
With many portrait photographers, the question of whether to outsource your retouching work is a difficult one to answer. With Buck, it's simpler. Editorial work stays in-house unless the retouching is particularly complex, and post-production for advertising work is generally taken care of by retouchers sourced by the agency. Occasionally, some ad houses will retouch in-house as well. Even though Buck's portraits appear simple, there's often a bit more going on behind the scenes. "I definitely do at least some kind post work, some kind of clean up and correction. You can see in my work, it looks pretty realistic, but some pictures are quite... some have a little work done and some have a lot and it's not always easy to see which ones are which."
Parting Advice For Aspiring Portrait Photographers
"I think the key to making great portraits is to not care what the subject thinks. The psychological aspect of wanting to make an image that the subject will like and appreciate is huge, and if you can get past that you'll make much better portraits," said Buck. "People don't want interesting pictures of themselves. They want to look young, beautiful, and thin. And that's not a very interesting picture. I mean, I think it's perfectly healthy that that's what they want. Wanting to look good in a picture shows healthy self-esteem. But it doesn't serve the photo audience. The audience should be served with interesting, complex, psychological portraits. At least that's my approach."
Indeed, it is.
Chris Buck currently has a new book out, "Uneasy", a retrospective of much of his celebrity and political portraiture over his 30-plus year career. His last book of personal work, "Presence: The Invisible Portrait," is available now. His next book will be a collection of photos about the husbands and boyfriends of exotic dancers called "Gentlemen's Club."