Photographer Chris Buck Talks the Art of Invisible Celebrity Portraits

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Photo Credit Lisa Kannakko

In a world where celebrities are reported on more reliably and steadily than news regarding world events or politics, we’ve gotten used to our day-to-day life being saturated with images of famous faces. You can try to stay away from what happened between Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, but without a doubt your plan will be ruined when your coworkers start discussing whose side they’re on. As a society, we’ve gotten so obsessed with the lives of our favorite stars that even giving something the title of Russell Brand will pique interest, which is something photographer Chris Buck plays with in his new photo book “PRESENCE: The Invisible Portrait”.

The book is made up of 50 portraits of all our favorite people, including Jon Hamm, Robert De Niro, and Amy Poehler, but the interesting thing is that you can’t actually see the subject in the photo. These are portraits that remove the focal point, the face, yet somehow are still imbued with the essence of the subject and the way the photographer sees them.

Steve Martin | Credit: Chris Buck

Originally from Toronto, Ontario, Chris Buck has been shooting professionally for over twenty years and has made a name for himself due to his interestingly unique portrait style. If you’re not aware of who he is by name, you’ve probably seen many of his images already without realizing it. His past clients have included GQ, Newsweek, Esquire, and Microsoft, and some of his photos have become incredibly recognizable, like his Picasso/Doisneau homage photograph with Steve Martin in 2006.

For his most recent project, “PRESENCE”, Buck plays with what makes a portrait and whether the subject really needs to be seen. He doesn’t cheat and use Photoshop to edit out a sleeve or a foot, but expertly hides the subject somewhere in the frame, assuring with each that they are indeed there somewhere. Whether or not you see value in these photos, you have to applaud his vision and nerve to take on such a project that, interestingly enough, brings even more power to these famous names because they’re not seen.

I was fortunate enough to chat with Buck about his project and how it came to fruition, pleasantly surprised to find how easy and fun talking with him was. Check out the interview and find out which celebrity refused to do the book, how he approached the locations, and his experiences as a young photographer with just the right amount of arrogance to make himself known.

Nick Cave | Credit: Chris Buck

Mila Pantovich: How did the idea come up to shoot portraits with a hidden subject?

Chris Buck: I guess I’ve been kind of pushing the boundary in small ways here and there on what I do with celebrities already. I’ve done plenty of pictures where people [have] their back turned or you don’t see a lot of them, and then I just title it with the person’s name and that’s the picture; where people are kind of half hiding. To me, that’s still the celebrity portrait. In a way I’ve always wanted to make pictures of celebrities that were different than [how] you typically saw them. Some photographers, their aim is to make the iconic picture of that person. But, that’s not really my aim. I’m hoping to do something that is different than you’ve ever seen of that person. And you know, the Nick Cave one* is a good example. I mean, in a way I’m […] giving a nod to the Vegas aspect of him, you know? And he totally got it, we didn’t even talk about it. I just said, “I wanna shoot you with this sign,” and he said, “Fine.” And in a way he gets to look like Nick Cave but I have this idea in there too.

[Presence] is kind of taking it further. I wanted to do something I almost kind of overtly knew would only connect to a certain portion of my audience, that a lot of people would just be like, “If I don’t see them, I don’t see the worth.” And I totally get that but I wanted to do something that took it further…It’s kind of like the ultimate celebrity portrait. It’s totally 100 percent informed by just their name being on it.
*Prior to the interview we discussed my favorite photo of his, which is a portrait he shot of musician/writer Nick Cave.

MP: How long did the entire series take to execute? 

CB: It took five years to shoot it, so I guess I started maybe 2007…2006, something like that. I shot it for five years and…no one’s visible. [laughs]

Kathy Griffin | Credit: Chris Buck

MP: How many subjects did you shoot? 

CB: I shot, probably 85…90, and I’m only showing 50. Usually because the scene wasn’t that interesting or because the person just wasn’t that well-known. There’s a few people in the book who aren’t super well-known but they’re either someone I’m a personal fan of or the picture is really great, so it just sort of had to be in there.

MP: I love the wide range of subjects, from Nick Cave to Amy Poehler; what were the reactions like from the people you approached? 

CB: You know, Nick Cave’s reaction was typical. I showed him examples from the series and he just said, “Sure, I’ll do it.” And he didn’t really say it either like, “This is genius!” or like, “It’s stupid but I guess I’ll do it.” He just said, “Sure.” One of my favorites is the Kathy Griffin one, which is quite quiet and kind of unlike her but I think it’s one of the most interesting for that reason. And actually she didn’t really wanna do it. It was the rare time where the publicist was totally on my side and was like, “Just shut up and do it,” and so she did it. [laughs] Cause the publicist thought it was a cool series.

Nick Cave | Credit: Chris Buck

MP: It must have been easier getting them to participate once you told them they weren’t going to actually be seen. Was there anyone that said ‘no?’ 

CB: There were. I’ve tried to do other series with celebrities before but ask them to do anything outside of the curriculum of what was planned for the day is already difficult. I don’t mean to be knocking them, cause the fact is they’re busy people and everyone wants a piece of them [...] so I totally get it. But one of the reasons why this worked is, it’s so low impact. It doesn’t matter how you look, you could be tired, your hair may be not be specially done, and yet you’re not visible so it doesn’t matter. […] It’s easier to say yes to than to say no to cause it’s gonna take two minutes and you’re not gonna be visible, so just shut up and do it. [laughs]

A lot of these sessions for the book were done in tandem with professional assignments, about a quarter of them were done independently. But people I was actually shooting already, there’s a few that said no, like Whoopi Goldberg. [She] looked through my earlier mock-up, and she spent like 15 minutes going through it page by page, studying it, and then when I asked her to do it, she wouldn’t do it. I don’t know why, I didn’t really ask her. It was kind of like, “Well, I don’t really want to do it right now.” So I was in touch with her people, who were very nice and everything, but in the end they were like, “You know, she doesn’t have enough time.” Which just means, “I don’t want to do it.” But that’s fine, it’s her choice, […] and in a way it’s kind of fascinating. If I run into her again I want to ask her, “Why didn’t you want to do it?” Maybe she’s worked hard to be visible so being not visible is something she doesn’t want. I think you should call her and do a follow-up.*
*Unfortunately I failed to get into touch with Whoopi Goldberg.

Chuck Close | Credit: Chris Buck

MP: Was there anyone that you approached spur of the moment? 

CB: Yes, I ran into Fran Lebowitz at Whole Foods and […] when I made an earlier mock-up I used an essay by her as a stand-in for the forward and I told her that and I’m like, “I’d love to shoot you for the series…” and I gave her my card. Once I explained how the series worked she said, “Well, just take a picture and say I’m in it!” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s really clever. Ha ha.”

MP: You pose an interesting question with this series: How can a portrait be a portrait without a visible subject? Are there some that would argue that these are not portraits and what would you say to them? 

CB: Well, I think that within a certain definition it’s certainly an acceptable thing to say. Let’s say, for example, I was teaching a portrait class in a photography school, I would not think it was cool for someone to come back with this. At least not in an introductory class. The whole point is they should be out there trying to figure out how to make great pictures with people and work with them and getting great things from them. So, yes, in that sense it’s not a portrait within the more narrow definition. But I think what this is supposed to be doing is calling into question what makes a portrait, to some extent, and redefining it or I don’t know, trying to push the boundary of what can be a portrait. Because initially I conceived it that the person would actually not be in the shot, […] that it would be somewhere I just shot someone maybe, and then they leave the room and it’s almost like their aura is still there and I shoot it within five minutes of them leaving the room. Then I realized it was actually less interesting. There was something nice about it, and exciting, about them actually being in the shot. And also it kind of makes it more valid, […] obviously on some level the whole thing is a bit silly but if you can say, “Yeah, Jon Hamm is actually in the shot,” it does change the way you perceive the picture.

Jay Leno | Credit: Chris Buck

MP: In having the subject in the picture, they definitely have a reverse voyeur impact, where the viewer feels watched by the unseen presence. 

CB: It’s funny you say that cause someone else said that to me too; I never thought of that before. People are eventually going to pass away and that’s going to be really weird too. That there’s this picture of them, and in a way their aura will be in the picture but you can’t see them, much like they’ll be in the world.

MP: How did you select the environments for the shots? Do they hold specific meaning to the subjects? 

CB: On a practical level there’s an inverse relationship between how famous someone is and how many steps they’ll take to be in the picture. So, the more famous someone is, the less steps they took to actually do it. I’m not gonna get Robert De Niro to go across the street and around the corner, you know? He’s just not gonna do it. I mean, I didn’t ask him but it’s not a reasonable question to ask of someone of that stature. Jay Leno I photographed just before he went home so he was by his car anyways. So it’s not like he was even coming out of the building to do it, he was already out of the building.

Tracy Morgan | Credit: Chris Buck

CB: One thing that’s interesting is that there are ones that are obviously…in some way their space or in some way connected to them overtly, but there’s many of them the connection’s not so clear. What I find is when I chat with people, they make a connection themselves. Like the picture of Tracy Morgan, I’m like, “Okay, that couldn’t be less Tracy Morgan; it’s a frosty scene in a display window and he’s a super warm guy.” It’s a total opposite of his personality. But then someone said to me, “Oh, but that building looks like 30 Rock, the architecture of it.” I think there’s a way in which people can’t help but make their own connections in their minds. You bring the history and the story and the baggage of each celebrity to the new portrait.

MP: Would you ever reveal where someone is hiding? 

CB: I don’t say where anyone is. I will say this, in most cases people are hiding in the most obvious place. It’s not meant to be a kind of clever – well it’s clever – but not clever in the sense of being like, “We hid them in the most discreet place you’d never guess.”

David Lynch | Credit: Chris Buck

MP: The David Lynch portrait is great; where was that shot? 

CB: That is his office [that's] adjacent to his home in Los Angeles. It’s funny because people will say, “Oh it’s so David Lynch!” I’m like, “Well, it’s because it’s his space.”

MP: I’ve read that you wanted to play with the perception of a portrait to see if attaching a famous name to a photo changes its appreciation; what are you hoping your photos convey to the audience? What have you seen as a result? 

CB: Some people totally connect and they’re very excited about it, and they just get really into looking at each one and studying each one and just getting into the…intellectual aspect of connecting the name with the scene and letting the person and their story influence how they see the picture. Other people are just kind of amused, just think it’s funny. A lot of comedians I shot for it would look through the mockup and just laugh, they thought it was really funny, which I think is a really cool response too. And some people just don’t get it and they’re just like, “I don’t see the point.” Like my mother-in-law was like, “Why are you doing a book of this? What is the appeal? What’s the point?” They’re [family] the only ones that would give me the frank response. I’m sure plenty of other people think that but only my mother-in-law will actually tell me. [laughs]

Amy Poehler | Credit: Chris Buck

MP: Do you feel these shots gave you more freedom than traditional portraits? 

CB: In a way, yes, because there’s rarely any figures in them, they’re much more subtle and…I did feel more freedom. Also, I knew, because it was a personal project, I could do whatever I wanted and I got the picture being very quiet or really crazy or whatever. It was really exciting to do it that way. And sometimes the pictures I did for the series were more interesting than the ones I did as actual proper portraits…which I really shouldn’t say but…

MP: To hide these famous people in photos, with just their names giving it worth, seems like the ultimate middle finger to society’s obsession with voyeurism. It seems like a certain amount of arrogance would be necessary; do you feel that plays an important role in pulling this off? 

CB: There were times where people around me, confidants who I really trust, were kind of like, “Is this something you really want to do? You’re putting a lot of time and energy into something that may not really have much of a payoff.” But I think it was important for me to do this, in a way, even though obviously I’m very proud of the other work I do, it’s kind of the ultimate statement of…a celebrity photographer…“I’ve got this access and I’m gonna photograph Robert De Niro, but I’m not gonna show him.” With Russell Brand, who’s the cover, I did him just for the book, so I had never done a proper portrait of him, and I think that’s kind of awesome. It’s an awesome statement of both my arrogance and maybe the arrogance of the subject too, like “I’m such a great photographer that I don’t even have to show the person.”

Anthony Bourdain | Credit: Chris Buck

MP: You’ve been a well-respected photographer for awhile now, making these more unique projects much easier, what was it like when you were just starting? Do you think that you could have pulled this off, say 10 or 20 years ago? How has your experience prepared you for this project? 

CB: I don’t know… it does not feel easy, even now. But I do feel like doing a project like this, or any other larger scale project, I do try to use whatever success and history I have as leverage to do something bigger and more grand. Early on, in a way there’s a kind of arrogance of youth that can be quite powerful and the fact that you have nothing to lose is actually great too. I put a series on my website called “Things People Carry” and it’s something I did when I was in college where I went to see bands and musicians and asked them to talk about an object they carried with them for sentimental or personal reasons that is not practical. I guess I was willing to make more sacrifices than I would now. I’m not gonna go hang around backstage…all night and all day to maybe get a few minutes with someone the way I would have when I was in college.

People certainly treated me very badly at that time – or sometimes would – but I was there to get the picture, I didn’t really care. Like, I photographed Nick Cave one time as well when I was in college and he was probably the worst person ever. I’ve photographed him twice since and he was great both times, so I think he’s…worked out his stuff, gotten a good psychologist. [laughs] People can be very nasty when you’re very young but you use what you have. Right now I have history and notoriety and I use that as leverage. When I was young, I looked younger than I was so people just thought I was a stupid kid so they didn’t really take me seriously, so I was able to get pictures that I wouldn’t be able to get now because people take me seriously. In a way, they’re going to be more on-guard. Then, they probably thought the picture would never see the light of day; they were just bored and said yes. Here it is, 25 years later, and it’s on my website.

Seth Rogen | Credit: Chris Buck

MP: If you could give your younger self advice about the business, what would you say?

CB: A practical, financial thing is to get into advertising earlier cause it just pays so much better. I worked for a long time making so little money that it would have been nice to have been saving a little earlier. Other than that, it’s funny cause I did series work when I was in college and when I got out of college and got shooting professionally I really did very little overt series work. I’ve gotten back into it now with this book and other projects too, and I wish I had kinda continued all the way through, cause I think that when you make those bodies of work that are ten to twenty images large, there’s something about it being in a certain time and place and having an idea connecting to it; it ends up being quite interesting. Whereas I spent literally 20 years just focusing on making an assignment work – which obviously built a career – but I think it would have been interesting if I’d done a series over a few years and had that as a part of my history too.

One of the things that’s really inspired me by doing the Presence project and having a good response to it is I realize that I want to continue doing series work that is…driven by an idea or concept and not be based on documentary. A lot of people make bodies of work based around, “I’m gonna go to this place and shoot this group of people or shoot pictures around that thing that exists in the world.” It’s really driven by what exists but I want things that are driven more by conceptual things that are more from my imagination rather than being drawn from life.

Robert De Niro | Credit: Chris Buck

MP: Where do you find your best ideas coming from? 

CB: Ideas for series work usually comes out of not getting work and being desperate for an idea so I can drum up interest. When I’m doing badly, that’s when the best ideas come. Cause I really need it. It’s not like a casual, relaxed, repose of, “What would be a charming idea to do?” It’s more like, “Oh my god I need work! I need people to be interested!” That’s when the good ideas come. [laughs]

MP: Is there anyone you’re dying to shoot? 

CB: Madonna, I was thinking of recently. I did shoot her kinda casually at an event once…but I’d love to do a real session with her. I think she’s really one of the most interesting people of our time, really super creative and just sort of an odd bird, in the best way. I think she has amazing imagination and staying power and also I love her hunger. I love that she still cares and still wants to do work that engages the public. I think that’s really, really rare. She came out the same time as Prince or Cyndi Lauper, people who are still around but aren’t really the center of the culture. Maybe she’ll see this article and she’ll see my book and she’ll say, “I’d love to do some crazy cool project with him. We’ll shoot a book together.”

MP: What type of camera do you prefer? 

CB: Can I say none? Basically the way the digital world is now, I don’t think there is a camera that I’m satisfied with. I want to shoot medium format so I have large files but the large format cameras are too clunky right now and they also cannot shoot at high ASA’s so shooting in available light becomes very challenging. I’ve actually not bought a digital camera yet.

Snoop Dog | Credit: Chris Buck

MP: Who have been your biggest influences? 

CB: In terms of photography, Irving Penn, Anton Corbijn. In terms of music – music’s a big influence on me – Leonard Cohen, Joy Division, The Fiery Furnaces. In a funny way I’m actually influenced by music, and what people do in the culture of music makes me think about how photographs might be.

MP: How important is editing to your process? 

CB: Editing is really central. I could do a shoot and 95 percent of the pictures could have been shot by a lot of photographers but my edit, if it’s a successful shoot, the edit will be a Chris Buck edit. That’s what will make the collection of my work overall, as a body of work, seem special to me.

MP: Do you use Photoshop or other software? 

CB: I use Capture One when I’m shooting and I use Photoshop when I’m doing retouching.

MP: Is there anything that you think young photographers should know about the business?

CB: Well, I’ll give you some advice on portraits. It’s actually easier to get good portraits from people you don’t know than people you do know. People are inclined to photograph their friends or family and I think if you know what you’re doing and are good at what you do and have a real interest in it, you’re gonna get better pictures from strangers or near strangers than you are from your friends and family. Because with friends and family, they know you and they’re like, “Oh god, Chris. I’m over this. Leave me alone, I’m not gonna do that, you think I’m crazy?” Whereas someone who, even a famous person, the mystery of not knowing you gives you an amazing amount of power. It’s partially an internal thing for the photographer too, like if I photograph my mother, I need her to talk to me next week. I can’t have her not speaking to me so I’m going to have that in the back of my mind when I’m shooting her. If I’m shooting someone who’s a stranger, I don’t care what they think of me. I’d like them to like me but if they don’t, who cares? [laughs]

For more information visit ChrisBuck.com

Reposted from JustLuxe.com

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